From the foundation of the Durrani Empire in 1747, out of which the modern state of Afghanistan emerged, the rulers of the state were all members of a royal dynastic line. While rival lineages often fought with one another in civil wars over succession, only those whose claims to power were monarchal were considered the legitimate rulers of the state. Even after non-royal insurgent leaders drove the British out of Afghanistan during the two Anglo-Afghan Wars (1838–42 and 1878–80), they ceded power back to the Durrani dynastic line when those wars ended. However, until the late 19th century such rulers in Kabul were forced to grant considerable autonomy to Afghanistan’s regions, which had their own indigenous elites. Nor did any government at that time have direct control over the many subsistence farmers who lived in the mountains or the migratory pastoralists who moved seasonally both across Afghanistan and beyond its borders. While such rural people accepted the suzerainty of a state based in Kabul, they had little interaction with its officials and paid taxes only under duress.
The monarchal form of government reached its high point during the late 19th century under Abdur Rahman Khan (r. 1880–1901). In a series of bloody wars, he created a highly centralised national state that did away with local autonomy. Decisions were made exclusively by a small elite centred around the Amir’s court. Although Abdur Rahman’s successors took his highly centralised government as their model, they proved less successful in maintaining its level of control. In 1929 King Amanullah was overthrown after attempting to collect higher taxes and impose progressive social reforms. He was replaced by a more conservative rival, Nadir Shah, who himself was assassinated in 1933. For the next forty years, Afghanistan was under the rule of his son, Zahir Shah, but for three decades his uncles and cousin Daud Khan held the real levers of power.
In 1964 Zahir Shah attempted break their grip by approving a more democratic constitution that explicitly excluded members of the royal family (except himself) from participating in government. Daud Khan eventually responded by overthrowing the monarchy in 1973 and declaring himself president of a republic. What all these regimes had in common was their continuing dependence on the descendants of the elite created during Abdur Rahman’s reign to staff the highest positions. While 20th century rulers periodically sought to widen participation in government, both the 1923 and 1964 constitutions preserved the paramount position of the monarch, and neither ceded real power to those who might challenge them.
Throughout this period, particularly in rural areas, ordinary people treated the absence of popular participation in government as normative. Rulers had subjects and they were them. Rural residents never questioned the legitimacy of the centuries-old monarchy even when they revolted against a particular ruler and might even succeed in ousting him. Someone had to be in charge and a monarchy had filled this structural role for 230 years by the time Daud Khan abolished it.
However, the legitimacy of the monarchy and its competence to lead a modern Afghanistan was challenged by the emergence of a new educated class in Kabul. Growing rapidly during the 1960s, but still only a tiny part of the total population, this group was highly critical of the country’s slow economic and political development. They also chafed at the limited prospects for their own advancement in a system that valued connections over competence. While many younger Afghans who have experienced decades of war now romanticise Zahir Shah’s reign as a ‘Golden Age’, it was not seen as such at the time. After Daud’s coup, no royalist demonstrators appeared in the streets of Kabul or Kandahar to demand the return of their king. Indeed, from the perspective of people in the countryside, there was little difference between being ruled by a king or a president since both were members of the same extended family.
Beneath the surface, however, the abolition of the monarchy did have broader repercussions. Observing how easily Daud Khan had disposed of the king, Afghanistan’s communists, some of whom had assisted him, plotted their own successful coup in 1978 in which they murdered Daud and declared a socialist republic. Although the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was quite small and internally divided, it announced sweeping plans for radical social and economic reforms throughout the country. Seeing itself as a vanguard socialist movement, the PDPA assumed it could forcibly impose its will and policies on the countryside just as the Soviet Union had done in Central Asia during the 1920s. That threat and the secular government’s seeming rejection of Islam induced many communities to take up arms against the regime in Kabul. Unlike previous rebellions that rejected only the authority of particular rulers, this insurgency viewed both the PDPA leadership and its governing ideology as illegitimate.
In less than a year, a relatively disorganised opposition put the PDPA in such peril that the Soviet Union invaded in December 1978 to oust its leaders, roll back its most radical policies, and put its own appointees in charge. This stabilised the government in Kabul but at the cost of Soviet occupation. Its counterinsurgency strategy was grounded in the belief that an ever-higher level of state violence would bring non-state actors to heel. Before the Soviet Union abandoned this policy by withdrawing the last of its troops in 1989, the war would kill a million Afghans and induce four million people to flee as refugees to neighbouring Iran and Pakistan.