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A Son of Safi
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King and Commoners

The secretary to the king telephoned and asked me to come and see the king. The secretary asked me what time would be convenient for me to come, and I told him that I am always ready to speak with the king of Afghanistan. The secretary then told me to come at nine, but I was about five minutes late. When I arrived at the palace, members of the cabinet, along with some generals, were sitting there in the antechamber. I was led past them directly to the kings salon. As I was shaking hands, I noticed that His Majesty had written my name at the top of a piece of paper.

I sat down, and right off he asked me a question. “Honorable representative [wakil sahib] of Pech Valley, what do you make of the government, which receives the vote of confidence and broadcasts its voice over Radio Afghanistan? What opinion do you have? A person might think that this government didn’t have the confidence of the parliament since all of the representatives rise to speak against it, but when the vote is taken, then the hands go up, and the vast majority, with the exception of one or two or three people, all give their votes to it. What’s the reason for this?

“That’s one question. My second question has to do with these demonstrations that occur in Kabul. Behind the scenes, there are people who have their hands in orchestrating them, but my question isn’t about them. It is about the children who run to participate in these demonstrations, the shopkeepers, and everyone else who innocently runs along and participates in the demonstrations. What’s the reason for this, that little elementary school kids join in and shout “Long Live” and “Death to” without knowing what they are saying or what the demonstration is about? What’s the reason for this?”

My response to the first question was this. “The parliament is composed of 216 representatives and 216 parties. Those who speak out against the government are under the pressure of public opinion from the whole country of Afghanistan since everyone believes that this government doesn’t represent the people. They have to speak against it so that they can get reelected in the future and not become the object of hatred in their own communities. But then when they vote for the government, it is for their personal reasons. They have their own affairs. They have their own businesses. They vote for the government, [and] then in front of the ministers they can say to them, ‘See, I gave you my vote.’ That way they can do their personal business without losing the support of the people.”

The King then asked, “What’s the solution to this?”

I said, “The solution is that this parliament must be a party parliament. The [Political] Parties Law should be passed, and then one representative from each party can speak instead of all 216 deputies. Then the government can represent the people outside the parliament. Until the government is connected to the real representatives of the people, it won’t feel its responsibility toward them. The kinds of government that nowadays are coming are only thinking about protecting their own positions. They think, ‘For the year or two years or three years that I am here, I have to fool these deputies and the people.’ They only pass their time. This situation will be corrected in this way.”

On the other matter that he asked me about, I gave an example that I had seen with my own eyes one time when I was traveling in Pech Valley:

“Several elders and other people were with me. It was in the dark of night. A woman was sitting by the bank of the river. Something black could be seen, and we could hear the sound of water. Something was being washed.

“I said, ‘Who’s that?’

“Someone replied, ‘It’s a woman.’

“I asked, ‘What’s she doing?’

“He replied, ‘She’s washing clothes.’

“I asked, ‘Why doesn’t she wash during the day?’ (This is what actually happened.)

“He replied, ‘She has nothing else to change into. These are her only clothes, and she washes them at night. She’s sitting there naked under that veil. She washes them, dries them, and puts them on in the morning. She doesn’t have a change of clothes.’”

I told this story to His Majesty. I told him, “This is something that I myself saw.”

Then I told him the story of another incident I had seen in the Badel Valley. I was the guest some place and was on my way there when I came upon a man with a load of barley. He was carrying a huge load of barley on his back. His clothes were torn, and his body was half-naked.

I asked him, “What’s this?”

He replied, “Barley.”

“Where did you buy it?” I asked.

He replied, “I bought it at such-and-such a place and I carried it over the mountains.”

I asked him, “Isn’t any barley grown [where you live]?”

He said, “No, I don’t have anything.” At that time, things weren’t so good, and barley wasn’t available that year.

Then he said, “A man gives me a note that [says], ‘I will give so-and-so the money for the barley.’ As the middle man, I carry the barley back to him. One day and night have passed since my children last ate. I carry this and have the barley made into flour at the mill. Then I leave it for them. Then I go after another job in some other place. Then I buy some more barley and come back.”

I told these two stories to His Majesty. I told him that this was the condition and the economic life of the people. “There are also other people who have nothing to do. They don’t work. They have nothing to worry about: everything is prepared for them, and they don’t have any miseries.”

The king of Afghanistan picked up his cigar and lit it. He placed his glasses on the table. He was sitting opposite me, looking very serious, and he said, Wakil Sahib of Pech Valley”—this is a quote of King Zahir Shah—he said, I am not a capitalist. These are the words of the king of Afghanistan. But I also dont want socialism. I dont want socialism that would bring about the kind of situation [that exists] in Czechoslovakia. I dont want us to become the servants of Russia or China or the servant of any other place. Here is the government. Here is the people. My effort is to work together with this government and the people. These have been my sincere efforts as king of Afghanistan, and I dont lie to you. These were the words of Zahir Shah. [21]

In this account of a meeting with Zahir Shah, Samiullah Safi provides a partial explanation for why democracy failed in Afghanistan. There are two features of this analysis, the first having to do with the government in Kabul and the second with the situation in the country as a whole. The approximate date of this meeting is not indicated, but we can assume that it was sometime after December 2, 1969, when the parliament of which Wakil was a new member had ended an extended period of debate over the status of the government of Prime Minister Nur Ahmad Etemadi. Etemadi had come to power in November 1967 during the session of the twelfth parliament, and he had been reappointed by the king after the election of the thirteenth parliament in September 1969. The newly elected parliament, however, had chosen to exercise its legislative might by subjecting the king’s choice to a prolonged and rancorous debate. From November 13 to December 2, the parliament considered whether to grant the prime minister and his cabinet a vote of confidence. In the course of the debate, the proceedings of which were carried live over Radio Afghanistan, 204 of the 216 parliamentary deputies rose to speak, and the great majority used their moment before the microphone to lash out at government corruption, ineptitude, and inaction. In the end, however, only 16 deputies chose to follow through on their criticism by casting votes of no confidence against the king’s choice of prime minister. [22]

Zahir Shah’s first question to Wakil concerned the apparent incongruity between the vociferous rebuke offered by the parliamentary deputies in their speeches and the tail-wagging compliance seen in the final tally itself. The king’s second question concerned another persistent feature of democratic politics during that era: the participation in antigovernment demonstrations of ordinary people who were not otherwise involved in political affairs. Wakil’s answer to the first question focused on one of the most apparent failings of the democratic system instituted by the king—its prohibition of political parties from involvement in the electoral system.

Political parties were not altogether absent. In 1965, the king had allowed the free publication of newspapers, and the vast majority of papers that came into existence following this decision were party-based organs espousing particular, and for the most part extreme, points of view. Parties therefore existed, including the Soviet-allied Khalq and Parcham parties, and at least briefly they were publicly airing their views in print. However, these parties were not allowed to operate openly within the electoral system because of the government’s fear that they would become too popular if they were legitimated and allowed into the chambers of power.

The decision to keep the parties out of the open political arena was fateful for several reasons. First, it forced the parties to operate outside established channels, and energies that might have been devoted to openly contesting elections were instead turned to the recruitment and organization of covert cells, especially within the government, military units, and schools. Second, as Wakil claims to have told Zahir Shah, the absence of parties in the parliament meant that the proceedings of that body were even more chaotic than they might otherwise have been. Without parties, the parliament consisted of “216 parties,” one for each deputy. Agreements on legislative issues were virtually impossible to arrive at in this atmosphere. On such matters as the no-confidence votes against the prime minister, there were no parties to organize sides pro and con, and so every deputy availed himself of the opportunity to speak his mind. However, when it came time to work on more mundane legislative issues, the throng of deputies usually disappeared. Time and again, parliamentary officers were unable to convene a quorum, and enduring coalitions were all but impossible to arrange and keep together without the organizational apparatus and discipline that parties could provide. [23]

The second question posed by the king, regarding the demonstrations, produced a reply from Wakil that seems in many respects irrelevant. Wakil’s stories of the poor woman doing her wash at night because she had only one set of clothes and of the man carrying barley across the mountains to earn enough to feed his family accurately depicted the conditions of a significant percentage of Afghanistan’s rural population. And the insinuation at the heart of these stories—that the government in Kabul was out of touch with the rural population—was also correct. However, the king’s question had more to do with why people in the city were attracted to radical movements. Why did those who were relatively well off and who benefited directly from the king’s peace thoughtlessly lend their voices to the slogans of radical political parties?

The people that Wakil refers to—the rural poor—had rarely been the beneficiaries of government largesse, but, as noted in the discussion of the Khalqi government’s misconceived program of reform, few would have indulged this expectation. Nor would most of them have been attracted to demonstrations or other radical political options. Never having benefited much from government programs, they had little reason to expect help from this source. Because of his exposure at university to the theories behind various governmental systems and his experience in Pech of some of the extremes of rural poverty, Wakil concluded that it was the government’s job to take care of the poor, but the poor themselves did not necessarily share this conviction. Involvement with the government was as likely to create problems as to solve them, a fact that most rural people well knew and that the Marxists who took power nine years later proved beyond any doubt.

Many of those who joined in the urban demonstrations—the shopkeepers and children referred to by the king—had less to be dissatisfied with than the rural poor, who viewed the government as an entity that periodically showed up to extract resources and people for its own purposes. The residents of Kabul, however, even the urban poor, benefited from the king’s rule if only because he provided them with conditions of peace, within which they could conduct their business, and with a modicum of justice when disputes arose between them. According to traditional principles of governance (as articulated in the proclamation promulgated by Amir Abdur Rahman and analyzed in Heroes of the Age), Zahir Shah had reason to expect gratitude from those whose security his government protected, and he was thus surprised and upset at the sight of Kabul citizens mindlessly shouting “Death to the monarchy” when it was the monarchy that ensured them their livelihoods.

Wakil’s stories did not begin to answer the king’s question, but then again the king wasn’t looking in the right direction either, for the threat he needed to worry about was not shopkeepers and schoolchildren. Rather, his attention would have been better directed at his own family, especially his paternal cousin, Daud, who was also responsible for the arrest of Wakil’s father. Daud had been forced to resign from his position as prime minister with the onset of democratic reforms, but he would stage a successful coup d’état against the king in July 1973. The other great source of danger, greater than the demonstrators in the street, were those who were inciting these demonstrations—namely the leaders of the leftist political parties that the king had banned and that were even then beginning to provide crucial assistance to Daud by organizing cadres within the army and air force that would rally to his assistance when the order to rise up was announced. What Daud didn’t realize was that these leftist allies, who would come to his aid in 1973, would eventually seek power on their own and bring about his violent demise in 1978.

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