The September 11th Sourcebooks

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 59
Edited by William Burr
October 26, 2001
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Now living in exile outside of Rome, 87-year old  Zahir Shah reigned as king of Afghanistan from 1933 until July 1973, when his cousin, prince Mohammed Daoud Khan, seized power and proclaimed a republic.  Daoud was subsquently overthrown and killed in a 1978 military coup that produced a Soviet client state.  A year and a half later, in December 1979, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan setting off a ten-year war.(1)  Throughout the Afghan conflict of the 1980s, proposals to revive the Zahir Shah regime figured in to discussions of a post-war political system.  Those discussions of the "Zahir Shah option" never went far, in part because of the opposition of religious fundamentalists and Islamists who had chafed under modernization reforms that took place during the king's reign.  Zahir Shah's contacts with the Indian government in 1988 also hurt his cause.(2)

    Now, with a new war in Afghanistan in full swing, serious discussion of the Zahir option in a post-Taliban regime has been revived.  On 25 October, representatives of Pashtun ethnic/tribal groups from southern Afghanistan meeting in Pakistan called on King Zahir to work with them, "according to his moderate and balanced policy, to put an end to this crisis."   Born on 14 October 1914, the king has just turned 87, so his role will probably be a titular one, serving as a symbol of tradition and national unity.  Zahir has already forged an arrangement with the Northern Alliance, so he and his representatives may in fact be able to assemble a broad coalition.  Nevertheless, the current "Zahir Shah option" remains a difficult one, not least because of the factious nature of Afghanistan politics and society.(3)

    One factor that has kept the "Zahir Shah option" alive over the years is the king's popularity among refugees, especially political moderates and the exiled elite.  A survey conducted in 1987 by Afghan scholar Sayed Bahuddin Majrooh's Afghan Information Center, based in Peshawar, Pakistan, found that 70 percent of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan favored the king's return.  Majrooh was assassinated in 1988, allegedly by an Islamist faction led by Gulbudin Hekmatyar, who strongly opposed a role for Zahir Shah.(4)

    Whatever the political outlook for Zahir Shah may be, the fact that he was in power for so many years so long ago makes it possible to look at the closing years of his monarchy from the perspective of U.S. diplomats and White House officials through documents released at the National Archives under the U.S. government's historical declassification program.  The record is incomplete--some material remains classified and the records of the State Department's Afghanistan desk for this period are unavailable--but the extant documentation provides insights into the character of King Zahir's regime, including political reform efforts, internal opposition, and the problems that undermined the monarchy.  The documents also elucidate U.S. policy toward Afghanistan at the time.  Like now, nation building was on the agenda, and the U.S. Agency for International Development underwrote foreign aid projects designed to support economic modernization as well as balance off Soviet economic aid.  Archival material also suggests U.S. government ambivalence toward King Zahir's monarchy in the early 1970s.  Resigned to Afghanistan's tilt to the Soviet Union, a necessity imposed by political geography, the Nixon administration did not brood over who ruled that country as long as its rulers maintained basic continuity of foreign policy and did not move against U.S. interests.

    Among the disclosures in the archival record:

  • The State Department and embassy had a very mixed assessment of King Zahir, giving him credit for political reforms but questioning his commitment to follow through on them.  One document describes a "partyless parliament, the powerless prime minister, and a king reluctant either to use or delegate his authority."  Another document describes the king as "cautious, clever, furtive."

  • U.S. diplomats had frank exchanges with the king on political and economic developments.  In one, U.S. Ambassador Robert Neumann "hit the King hard re lack of progress in country, particularly [the] deteriorating economic conditions."

  • The U.S. government tracked a "creeping crisis" in the early 70s: lack of quorum in Parliament, university unrest, falling investment, a serious food crisis, and instability among the Pashtuns, that was "nearly enough to paralyze the government and probably to frighten the King."

  • The embassy monitored  possible threats to the regime, including the Afghan left and Islamist/fundamentalist movements and remained excessively optimistic.  Embassy political officers were confident that ongoing modernization would contain Islamist opposition.  They saw communist left groups as only a "minimal" threat to the regime because the king could suppress them if necessary.

  • After receiving feelers from Prince Daoud's camp that the Prince wanted to play a major role in government, the embassy discreetly assured his representative that the U.S. government could not "properly comment" on the "internal nature" of the Afghan regime and that its approach would be shaped by the government's attitude toward "U.S. interests."

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    Document 1
    Henry Kissinger, Memorandum for the President, "Private Conversations with the King and Prime Minister of Afghanistan," 26 January 1970, with report by Vice President Spiro Agnew Attached, Secret/Nodis/Eyes Only, 3 pp.
    Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials Project, National Security Council Files (hereinafter NSCF), box 591, Afghanistan Vol I.
    During a trip to the region in January 1970, Vice President Spiro Agnew met with King Zahir and prepared a brief summary of the discussion that Henry Kissinger relayed to President Nixon.  Although Agnew was useful to the White House as a heavy (e.g., his attacks on anti-Vietnam war protesters), Nixon generally kept him out of sensitive foreign policy matters, and his advice was seldom solicited.  Agnew, however, made some official visits overseas, such as in early 1970 when he traveled to Taiwan and Afghanistan, among other destinations.  Agnew met with King Zahir, who discussed his policy priorities, especially the importance of "diplomatic rapport" with the Soviet Union, his powerful northern neighbor, as well as his interest in a U.S. presence (economic aid, etc.) as a balance against Moscow.  But Zahir's chief anxiety was Pakistan, especially the dispute over Pashtun territories (misspelled "Pushtoonistan" by Agnew) that straddled the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
    Document 2
    U.S. Embassy Kabul to Department of State, Airgram A-77, "Afghanistan's Clerical Unrest; A Tentative Assessment," 24 June 1970, Confidential, 7 pp.
    Source: National Archives, Record Group 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1970 (hereinafter SN 70-73), Pol 23-8 AFG.
    King Zahir presided over a cautious political and social modernization effort that inspired the wrath of Afghanistan's budding Islamist movement.  In 1959, Prime Minister Daoud allowed women to remove their veils on a voluntary basis.  Islamic fundamentalists protested this development and they revived their cause in early 1970.  Embassy political officer Charles F. Dunbar reviewed the protests against various expressions of modern, non-Islamic influence: Communism, "risque movies," Western-garb and higher education for women, and wine production.  A central figure in the protests in Kabul was Sibghatullah Mojadedi, a member of one the "best known religious families" and who, as a professor of theology at Kabul University, played a key role in developing an Islamist movement in Afghanistan.(5)  Dunbar reported that one CIA source (CAS or Controlled American Source) strongly suggested that King Zahir had initially consented to "limited clerical agitation," but the surprising size of the demonstrations led him to order a crackdown.  Dunbar rightly noted that "it is too early to close the book on Afghanistan's latest encounter with Islamic outrage," but he was optimistic enough to conclude that the failure of the demonstrations to spark "a major fire" suggested the resilience of Afghanistan's "new order."  Dunbar did not mention that women in Kabul had organized their own counter-protests against the violence of some of the clerical-organized demonstrations.(6)
    Document 3
    U.S. Embassy Kabul to Department of State, Airgram A-90, "King Zahir's Experiment: Some End-of-Tour Observations," 1 August 1970, Confidential, 5 pp.
    Source: SN 70-73, POL 15-1 AFG.
    A few weeks after preparing his report on the Islamist protests, Dunbar left Kabul for another assignment, but not before preparing an assessment of King Zahir's reform efforts.(7)  Optimistic that Afghanistan would continue its "unsteady drive toward modernization", Dunbar believed that the king's deep knowledge of his country enabled him to skillfully manage "clerical unrest, inter-tribal frictions and rumblings from the North."  The "cautious, clever, furtive" king had initiated reforms designed to move the country toward a parliamentary system under a constitutional monarch, but he continued to hold the reigns of power.  The new political system was "responsible and responsive to him, a situation which probably works to the national advantage in terms of stability" (for further details on political reforms, see document 12).  Dunbar further observed that "the system has developed very slowly and at an undoubted cost to the economic development programs." 
    Document 4
    U.S. AID Mission Kabul to U.S. AID, Washington, TOAID Airgram A-102, "Visit of His Majesty Mohammed Zahir Shah to the Helmand Valley," 17 April 1971, Confidential, 6 pp.
    Source: SN 70-73, POL 15-1 AFG.
    Visiting U.S.-funded development projects in the Helmand Valley, King Zahir discussed economic development, Pakistan, student unrest, and Afghan political development with U.S. Agency for International Development official Albert Baron.  Both were fluent in French which facilitated their conversation.  Discussing political reforms, Zahir acknowledged that he pulled the strings: "his role was that of an objective `arbitre' between Parliament and the Government."  Admitting the absence of a Parliamentary majority, the King "seemed to exclude for the time being the idea of established political parties."  From the King's comments about revenue shortfalls and Afghanistan's poverty, Baron concluded that Zahir was elliptically asking for higher levels of U.S. financial support.
    Document 5
    U.S. Embassy Kabul to Department of State, Cable 4745, 2 August 1971, "Audience with King Zahir," Confidential, 8 pp.
    Source: SN 70-73, POL 15-1 AFG.
    Robert Neumann, a University of California political scientist, continued to serve as ambassador to Afghanistan from February 1967 to September 1973, impressing Nixon and Kissinger enough to reward him with a much more comfortable assignment in Morocco.  Also fluent in French, Neumann developed some rapport with King Zahir and used a 90-minute meeting to "hit him hard re lack of progress in country, particularly deteriorating economic conditions." What worried Neumann was that economic deterioration would threaten political stability, with "potential effects on monarchy."  Noting the impact of the two-year drought, the ambassador stressed the importance of fertilizer imports to increase grain output; government action to provide pumps, food, farm credit, and fertilizer; and greater effort to present credit-worthy development projects to the World Bank.
    Document 6
    U.S. Embassy Kabul to Department of State, Cable 1806, 21 March 1972, "Afghanistan - Political Uncertainties," Secret, 4 pp.
    Source: SN 70-73, POL AFG.
    Some months later, Ambassador Neumann remained concerned about the direction of royal policy and observed that there was a "vague atmosphere of political crisis."  He further reported that Wahid Abdullah, a foreign ministry official close to Prince Daoud, was asking embassy officials about the U.S. attitude toward the prince's possible return to power.  Daoud was a modernizer who had served as prime minister from 1953 until 1963 when he resigned because of his role in a border crisis with Pakistan over "Pashtunistan."(8)  The embassy saw no signs that a coup was in the works; indeed, Neumann thought a coup unlikely because of "family and dynastic loyalty" (Daoud was the king's first cousin). Nevertheless, Neumann was struck by the "precision" of the queries and wanted to respond to them.  Taking a Kissingerian realpolitik approach, the ambassador proposed to let Daoud's representative know that the U.S. government "cannot properly comment" on the "internal nature of the Afghan government," and that the U.S. attitude toward "any government is based on that government's policies and actions, in particular toward U.S. interests and towards peace and stability."  That is, if there was a change in regime, the United States would not object if the new government did not challenge U.S. interests.  The reference to "NHK 3262" on page 2 of this document is to a CIA cable reporting on clandestine contacts with Daoud or someone close to him. 
    Document 7
    Department of State to U.S. Embassy Kabul, Cable 26321, 1 April 1973, "Afghanistan - Political Uncertainties," Secret, 1 p.
    Source: SN 70-73, POL AFG.
    Agreeing with Neumann that the questions from Daoud's representative were most "precise," the State Department authorized him to reply to Wahid.  It questioned (without explicitly countermanding) the proposed statement about government attitudes toward U.S. "interests" and suggested instead an emphasis on the "continuity in our relations with Afghanistan over the years."
    Document 8
    U.S. Embassy Kabul to Department of State, Cable 2042, 13 April 1972, "Afghanistan - Response to Prince Daud," Secret, 2 pp.
    Source: SN 70-73, POL AFG.
    In a talk with Wahid Abdullah, an embassy political officer made the key points that Neumann had proposed in his cable along with the point about "continuity" suggested by the Department.  When asked how Daoud intended to return to power, Wahid suggested that the preferred strategy was through reconciliation with the king.
    Document 9
    Department of State to U.S. Embassy Kabul, Cable 74767, 29 April 1972, "Political Situation," Confidential, 2 pp.
    Source: SN 70-73, POL AFG.
    Commending the embassy for its "discreet handling" of the talks with Wahid, the Department confided that it had also picked up "rumors" of political problems, citing World Bank reports that King Zahir's downfall was "expected in couple of weeks with replacement either by Daud [sic] or Deputy PM Hamed."  Daoud would not move against the King for more than a year, but the embassy's implicit message was that the U.S. would not oppose him, as long as he maintained "continuity" of relations, a position that may have emboldened him.
    Document 10
    U.S. Embassy Kabul to Department of State, Airgram A-60, 29 May 1972, "Merajuddin: Portrait of a Moslem Youth Extremist," Confidential, 4 pp.
    Source: SN 70-73, POL 13-2 AFG.
    Conservative theologians at Kabul University helped found one of the influential early Islamist groups, the Sasman-i-Jawanan-i Musulman (Organization of Muslim Youth). One of its members, Merajuddin Zaheb, contacted embassy political officer Arnold Paul Schifferdecker, in order to get financial aid for his group's anti-communist publications.  Zaheb showed Schifferdecker his pistol and later claimed that his group had killed leftwingers.  Embassy files confirmed that Zaheb was indeed "a genuine young fanatic."  Wanting to fight Russians, Zaheb argued that "communism could never be accommodated in Afghanistan without a decisive struggle in which Islam or communism would triumph." Whether he survived the decade and went on to fight the Russians remains to be seen. 
    Document 11
    Memorandum from Robert A. Flaten, NEA/PAB (Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, Office for Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh), to Bruce Laingen, Office Director, NEA/PAB, "Afghan Politics - the Creeping Crisis," 21 May 1972, Confidential, 4 pp.
    Source: SN 70-73, POL 15 AFG.
    Country desk officer Robert Flaten had recently visited Afghanistan where "almost everyone agrees there is some kind of political crisis."  A variety of serious problems--lack of quorum in Parliament, university unrest, falling investment, a serious food crisis, and instability among the Pashtuns--have been "nearly enough to paralyze the government and probably to frighten the King."  The Afghans that Flaten met saw the crisis in terms of "lack of leadership," the need for political parties, "corruption and the disruptiveness of Parliament."  Flaten estimated that the crisis could continue another year or more; the King was unlikely to "permit a real change from his cautious style of government."  "If and when [the crisis] comes to a head," Flaten saw the "likely outcome [as] a return to direct royal family rule under a strong man, probably either prince Daud or Sardar Abdul Wali."
    Document 12
    U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Research Study, "Afghanistan: Both Government and Political System Face Trial," 30 March 1973, Confidential, 8 pp.
    Source: SN 70-73, POL 15 AFG.
    This INR report includes a useful description of Zahir's political experiment as well as a critical appraisal of its "flaws": a "partyless parliament, the powerless prime minister, and a king reluctant either to use or delegate his authority."  Indeed, INR analysts argued that the government "revealed many of the characteristics of an absolute monarchy run along Afghanistan's tribal jirgah [village council] lines."  They saw some reason to anticipate that the latest prime minister, Mohammed Shafiq, could manage Parliament and prepare the way for political reforms, e.g., establishment of parties.  Nevertheless, they were prepared to accept the possibility that "Shafiq's government could be well on its way toward the ultimate failure experienced by his predecessors."
    Document 13
    U.S. Embassy Kabul to Department of State, Airgram A-33, "The Afghan Left," 22 May 1973, Confidential, 8 pp.
    Source: SN 70-73, POL 15 AFG.
    Weeks before the fall of King Zahir, embassy political officer Albert Fairchild prepared a detailed report on Afghani left-wing political movements, with considerable detail on the two communist factions that were named after their publications: Parcham (the Banner) and Khalq (the Masses).  Fairchild provided additional detail on smaller organizations, including the Maoist Sh'la-yi-Jawed (Eternal Flame).  Fairchild did not see the left as a "real threat" to the present regime; if political parties were allowed to form, however, they could pose more of a danger to the Afghan establishment.  Reportedly, that possibility was one of the reasons that King Zahir had moved slowly on reforms to allow the organization of political parties.(9)  What Fairchild did not know was that some of Prince Daoud's military supporters were close to Parcham, the Communist faction that was closest to Moscow.(10)
    Document 14
    U.S. Embassy Kabul to Department of State, Cable 4728, "King Zahir Travel to London for Medical Therapy," 26 June 1973, Confidential, 1 p.
    Source: SN 70-73, POL 15-1 AFG.
    An eye injury, reportedly caused by a volleyball, led the King to travel to London to see an opthamologist.  A few weeks in London would be followed by a one or two week vacation in Italy.
    Document 15
    Memorandum, Harold H. Saunders and Henry A. Appelbaum, National Security Council Staff, to Dr. Kissinger, "Coup in Afghanistan," 17 July 1973, Secret, 2 pp.
    Source: NSCF, box 591, Afghanistan Vol I.
    The king's absence gave Daoud an opportunity to seize power without physically harming his cousin; on 16 July he made his move.  Several hundred of Daoud's Afghan Army supporters carried out what NSC staffers Saunders and Appelbaum characterized as a "well planned and swiftly executed coup."  Daoud did not restore "direct royal family rule" as Robert Flaten had predicted; instead, he proclaimed a republic.  Saunders and Appelbaum estimated that Daoud could be a "little harder to deal with than" Shafiq or the King had been: "He is likely to be more suspicious of US motives, somewhat less cooperative, and a bit more pro-Soviet."  Nevertheless, they expected continuity of policy; Daoud "probably will continue Afghanistan's traditional foreign policy of trying to play the great powers against each other."(11)


    1.  For useful background, see Raymond Garthoff, Detente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan, 2nd ed., (Washington, D.C., Brookings Institution, 1994), 977-1022.

    2.  For detailed discussion of the "King Zahir option," see Riaz M. Khan, Untying the Afghan Knot: Negotiating Soviet Withdrawal (Duke University Press, 1991). 

    3.  See "Afghan Factions Far Apart on Government," Washington Post, 25 October 2001, datelined 24 October, which describes the tribal council in disagreement about the tack to take. By two o'clock the following day, the Associated Press reported that the Peshawar meeting "called on Afghanistan's former king to help form a multiethnic government." Associated Press, "Afghan Tribal Leaders Meet on Conflict," 25 October 2001.

    4.  Khan, Untying the Afghan Knot, 77, 217, 259.

    5.  Henry Bradsher, Afghan Communism and Soviet Intervention (Oxford University Press, 1999), 6.  Unlike other Islamists, Sibghatullah Mojdadedi was a supporter of a constitutional monarchy.  See Khan, Untying the Afghan Knot, 69-70. For several months during 1992, Mojdadedi served as president of the Afghan Interim Government.

    6.  See Dupree, Afghanistan, 665. 

    7.  He later served as charge d'affaires ad interim during 1982-83.

    8.  For Daoud as prime minister, see Louis Dupree, Afghanistan (Princeton University Press, 1973), 499-598.

    9.  For the Afghan left, see also Bradsher, Afghan Communism, 6-14.  For the king and political parties, see Dupree, Afghanistan, 754.

    10.  Garthoff, Detente, 982-983; Bradsher, Afghan Communism, 16.

    11.  For an early analysis of the coup and its background, see Dupree, Afghanistan, 753-760.