President Daoud’s Coup Anniversary - Lessons for Afghanistan’s Future

Daoud’s major foreign policy blunder was that he upset the delicate balance of interest between major stakeholders in Afghanistan, writes Arwin Rahi

President Daoud’s Coup Anniversary - Lessons for Afghanistan’s Future
July 17 is a fateful date in Afghanistan’s modern history. On July 17, 1973, former Prime Minister Mohammad Daoud staged a coup against Afghanistan’s last king Mohammad Zahir Shah, Daoud’s cousin and brother-in-law. Exactly what motivated Daoud to topple his cousin is a matter of contention. At the time neither Daoud nor his culprits had the slightest idea that they were setting in motion such major events whose control they would lose shortly, and as a result Afghanistan would be plunged into chaos and instability.

Daoud’s domestic blunders

Daoud’s first domestic blunder was abolishing the monarchy, which in one form or another had existed since 1747. The conservative Afghans had immense respect for both the institution of the monarchy and the monarch. Daoud’s republic was alien to most Afghans. By abolishing the monarchy, Daoud cleared the way for opportunists who couldn’t act against the monarchy to act against his republic, which had not yet taken root in Afghanistan.

Second, by involving (especially lower ranking) army officers in the coup and in politics, Daoud opened a Pandora’s Box which would come back in five years to haunt him. It encouraged Afghanistan’s left-leaning the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) to seek a similar path to coming to power. Having utilised their services to topple the king, Daoud bestowed “double promotion” upon lower ranking army officers, tempting them further to take part in coups.
The easiest way for Moscow to prevent Daoud from deserting was having him removed through a coup by the PDPA

Third, Daoud appointed left-leaning ministers in his cabinet, which alarmed the Islamists (later the Mujahedin). The Islamists’ anti-government activities—including uprisings—earned them Daoud’s ire. Islamist leaders such as Burhanuddin Rabbani and Gulbadin Hekmatyar fled to Pakistan, where Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto welcomed them. Having emerged victorious in the jihad against the Soviets, Rabbani and Hekmatyar, along with other fundamentalists, returned to Afghanistan in the early 1990s and fought one another along ethnic and linguistic lines.

Fourth, since Daoud wanted to dispose of the monarchy once and for all, he introduced a new national anthem, a new flag, and new banknotes. Daoud set a notorious precedent for future governments. The national anthem, the flag, and banknotes would be changed multiple times in the coming decades by the PDPA, the Mujahedin, the Taliban, and the post-9/11 Afghan government, wasting resources and making a mockery of Afghanistan.

Fifth, Daoud’s was a republic in name only. He cracked down on political dissent and limited civil liberties. Under his leadership, Daoud founded a one-party system and only members of his party could be appointed to positions of power. By suppressing political activities (though ironically not banning political activities in the army) and founding a one-party system, Daoud laid the foundation of his own demise.

The Daoud regime arrested the Moscow-back PDPA leaders after they had criticized the government at a PDPA member’s funeral in Kabul. In response, PDPA elements in the army toppled Daoud. Since then, Afghanistan has been embroiled in a series of conflicts, ranging from the Soviet invasion in the 1980s to the civil war in the 1990s and to the so-called War on Terror since 2001. Had Daoud allowed the monarchy to evolve peacefully, Afghanistan most likely would have progressed and prospered.

Nonetheless, the conflicts and chaos have led to a political awakening among Afghanistan’s various ethnic and linguistic groups, hence the 1990s’ civil war along ethnic and linguistic lines. It is very unlikely that the pre-1978 order, where power was concentrated in the hands of a few in Kabul, can ever be restored again. If Afghans want durable peace, they should devolve power to provinces to truly embrace Afghanistan’s ethnic and linguistic diversity.

Daoud’s costly foreign policy blunder

Daoud’s major foreign policy blunder was that he upset the delicate balance of interest (BOI) between major stakeholders (major powers and neighbours) in Afghanistan. From the outset of World War I until Daoud’s coup, the stakeholders had maintained a BOI in Afghanistan, where no one’s interests were threatened by its competitor. Daoud foolishly upset the BOI as follows.

First, no sooner did Daoud take office after the coup than he deteriorated relations with Pakistan by reinvigorating the so-called Pashtunistan and Durand Line issues, reminiscent of his time as prime minister (1953-1963). Daoud’s coup coincided with the outbreak of the Baloch insurgency in Pakistan in 1973. To put pressure on Pakistan, Daoud provided shelter, training, and weapons to Baloch insurgents and Pakistani Pashtun nationalists alike.

Second, because he had a hard time selling his Pashtunistan policy to Pakistan’s allies (Iran, the Arab world and the U.S.), Daoud leaned more than he should have (and more than his country could have afforded) towards Moscow. The Soviets exploited this opportunity to make Daoud more reliant on them, and in the process they trapped him like a spider traps a fly.

When sanity dawned on Daoud and he realized the futility of the Pashtunistan issue, Moscow had been alerted. In order to balance his foreign relations, Daoud needed to improve relations with Pakistan and start distancing himself from Moscow. Doing the latter wouldn’t be easy though. Anwar Sadat had shunned Moscow earlier for closer ties with the U.S. Therefore, Moscow had to stop Daoud before he, too, could slip out of the Soviet trap.

The easiest way for Moscow to prevent Daoud from deserting was having him removed through a coup by the PDPA (which obviously could not have toppled Daoud without Moscow’s consent). Thus, the concept of maintaining a BOI perished under the PDPA (1978-92), who relied on Moscow for survival. Since Moscow was involved more than its fair share in Afghanistan, other stakeholders joined the fray to protect their interests.

With the passage of time, “untying the Afghan knot” has become complicated. No stakeholder involved in Afghanistan wants to disengage before its competitor. For instance, Pakistan and India view each other’s involvement in Afghanistan with suspicion. The same is true about Iran and the U.S. Unless all stakeholders agree on a framework to not use Afghanistan’s territory against one another, it is unlikely that peace and stability would return to Afghanistan.

In short, the BOI that Daoud upset and the PDPA dumped needs to be restored and upheld, otherwise the conflict would likely continue under different names, with negative repercussions for the entire region and beyond. Remember Allama Mohammad Iqbal, who described Afghanistan as “the heart of Asia... whose prosperity is Asia’s prosperity, and whose corruption is Asia’s corruption.”

Arwin Rahi is a former adviser to the Parwan governor in Afghanistan. He can be reached at

Arwin Rahi is a former advisor to the Parwan governor in Afghanistan.