The Ghost of King Zahir

Zahir stands to the left of king Farouk I of Egypt

Jan Kubiš’ visit to Afghanistan was a fairly solemn affair. The new United Nations special envoy arrived in Kabul on January 17th, and was greeted by President Hamid Karzai the following day. Kubiš shook the President’s hand, ensured him that his focus would be the “partnership” between Afghanistan and the UN, and promised “all his co-operation”. What more could he do?

The words of UNAMA’s special envoy to Afghanistan are, as he surely knows, rather remote from the quotidian concerns of the country’s people. Afghanistan continues to suffer in practically every way that it is possible for a nation to suffer. Over 30 years of continuous military conflict, beginning with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the US-backed Mujahideen insurgency, then a decade of civil war and domination by brutal competing warlords and the Taleban, and culminating in the NATO invasion of 2001 (and one of the most indiscriminate bombing campaigns in human history), have left wounds that will not heal by gauze alone.

The total civilian death count since the invasion is not clear, but my own aggregate estimate based on the methodology of Iraq Body Count and UNAMA’s research, and therefore naturally conservative, puts the figure at around 40,000. The twelve months to this date are the bloodiest for Afghan civilians since 2002.

The World Food Program (WFP) must provide aid for around 114,000 Afghans, most of whom are either poor women or disabled people living in rural areas. Over 200,000 of Afghanistan’s 400,000 internally displaced people required UNHCR aid to keep them from freezing this winter. One in five Afghan children still die before they reach five years old. Life expectancy, though it has risen slightly since 2009, is 48 years – a little lower than Somalia and Chad. Kubiš, like his predecessors, can say little of import about this misery, just as he can say little that will ease the pain of those in CIA torture prisons at Bagram and Kabul, or in those of the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS).

The central reasons for the continuation of this living hell are well known. The continuing military occupation will go hand-in-hand with violent insurgency for as long as it continues. Afghanistan’s borders, particularly the ‘Durand Line’ with Pakistan, are artificial. Ethnic and regional division, entrenched by the rule of warlords, whose NATO backing in 2001 Human Rights Watch called, rightly or wrongly, “probably the single most damaging mistake in Afghanistan”. The country is also riddled with corruption. US policy, implemented through Karzai, has been largely oriented around creating relative safety for foreign contractors, and not around building functioning political and economic institutions. Karzai has now ruled Afghanistan for 10 years.

It was not always thus. From 1963-73, Afghanistan experienced a measure of peace and an improvement in civil rights, including elements of democratic popular organization, that was not inconsiderable. Afghanistan was at that time a constitutional monarchy lead by the then King, Mohammed Zahir.

King Zahir was heir to a Pashtun dynasty that stretched back, with occasional breaks, for over 200 years. When his father, Nadir Khan, was assassinated in 1933, King Zahir nominally acceded to monarchical rule but policy was directed by his father’s two brothers until the early 1960s, and was mostly brutal and oppressive. When Zahir took genuine control he moved fairly quickly (under popular pressure) to begin reforming institutions and improving international relations, which entailed a state visit to meet John Kennedy in 1963. The living conditions of those in lower social and economic groups, including women, increased at an impressive rate accounting for historical context and national structural constraints such as elements of Pashtunwali and large areas of decentralized regional government.


King Zahir, the ‘last king of Afghanistan’, was ousted in 1973 by pro-Soviet former Prime Minister Daoud Khan, and subsequently went into exile rather than risk civil war. Strikingly, many women took to the streets of Kabul in protest. Zahir was prevented from returning following the Soviet occupation, though did attempt to form a government in exile from Italy in the early 1980s.

By the turn of the Twenty-First Century, current President Hamid Karzai was busy travelling the world. He flew to Rome to briefly meet the exiled King, before appearing in several United States Congressional committees, including the Senate Foreign Relations committee. Karzai described these visits as successful in cultivating “political support”, but found that he was unable to gain “real backing for a military occupation in Afghanistan”, as was his purpose. Following the attacks of September 11th and the rise of President Bush’s administration, that changed. Contacts with Karzai were quickly opened and he rose to lead an interim government.

By the 2002 Loya Jirga Karzai’s support with the Occupation, and US policy-makers, was unassailable. Karzai was seen as a malleable leader, and Zahir’s status as a former monarch meant working with him would draw attention to the hypocrisy of the US administration’s ‘democracy promotion’ rhetoric. However, Afghan support for King Zahir to lead the country, at least until the 2004 election, was strong. The House Congressional record notes in 2002 that “all of the Afghan people had a warm place in their heart for King Zahir”. It is easy to see why. The days of the King’s rule must have looked attractive after decades of blood and darkness.

The largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, strongly supported King Zahir, and though the collected US-backed Tajik warlords of the Northern Alliance opposed him, there’s little concrete evidence that the minority Tajik population itself did. King Zahir was in a strong position to run for leadership, but US diplomats visited Zahir hours before the Jirga and he immediately announced that he would not stand. Many of the delegates reported that they were intimidated into voting for Karzai. Zahir was reduced to a ceremonial role as ‘Father of the Nation’, and died in July 2007.

Karzai proceeded to win two presidential elections in Afghanistan, both of which are known to have been plagued by corruption. Karzai himself brushed off allegations of fraud in the 2009 Presidential election by explaining that “there was fraud in 2004 as well”. Aside from the direct corruption of the Presidential elections, and the 2002 Jirga, it is necessary to note the inherent illegitimacy of elections carried out under military occupation which has been understated, especially by the UN and the military occupants’ support for Karzai. The Department for International Development considers most polls, even on minor issues, that it conducts in Afghanistan to be extremely unreliable, citing fear and misunderstanding as key barriers. Afghanistan is currently accounted the 3rd most corrupt country on earth by Transparency International.

Karzai’s Presidency has been largely illegitimate and has, with marginal, mostly rhetorical, exceptions been characterized by a comfortable adherence to the consensus of US policy-makers, as would be expected. This has been partly responsible for the failure to improve the awful living standards of Afghans, and largely responsible for the country’s endemic corruption.

The coup against Zahir, and his marginalization at the 2002 Jirga, have had significant implications for Afghan governance. Though his experienced leadership and popularity would not have insured Afghanistan against the ravages of the occupation and insurgency, they may have mediated them, just as Zahir may have been able to mediate between the US occupation, of which he was not wholly critical, and the interests of the Afghan population. Zahir was by no means an ideal leader for Afghanistan, but the US imposition of Karzai over him should be seen as, at best, a mistake. His influence on Afghan politics since 1973 has been a little too spectral.

Image by Kodak Agfa

How Will The Coalition Government Be Remembered By History?

The view from the top floor of a building in Queen Mary University is a commanding one. Looking out over Whitechapel, the City, and even Tower Bridge, you could almost be forgiven for feeling like a regent surveying your kingdom. That is, until you gaze on the throne-room from the outside and all delusions of monarchical magnificence disappear (as the architect’s soul must have upon completion).

On the top floor of this ashen Babylon, we found Dr. Jon Davis, Modern British History lecturer and head of the influential Mile End Group, which boasts past guest speakers of the standing of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson. Jon had recently written an article for The Observer assessing the state of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, and kindly agreed to be interrogated on the matter by your humble authors.

Straight off the bat, he raises the problem of the government’s penchant for U-turns. The 1980s Thatcher budgets, he says, whether you agree that they were effective or not, had “a determination, and a clarity of approach, that you simply do not see at the moment.”

With the Office of National Statistics announcing that 111,000 public sector jobs had evaporated in the intense heat of the government’s “austerity” programme over the previous quarter, it was a fitting week to raise the ghost of Thatcher.

“There are just too many U-turns,” he stresses “too many trimmings… and it’s absolutely clear that we’ve got three years until the next elections, and we’re not going to balance the budget… it can’t be done”. “There’s an idea from the new right of the Conservative party that ‘if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working’”, he goes on, “but I don’t see them hurting”. For Jon, the government’s cuts programme is selective, elitist, and its proponents are flittish.

Fresh from speaking to the Independent on Sunday’s chief political editor, John Rentoul, we raise the question of David Cameron’s leadership. For Rentoul, Cameron’s real strength is precisely that “he doesn’t believe in anything”. “Cameron has invented a new kind of politics,” Rentoul says, “without even realising it… he U-turns at a moment’s notice and explains it away in a posh plummy accent”.

Jon Davis is unimpressed by this. “Isn’t that sad”, he responds. “How sad… politics should be about changing things – leaving a better world than the one you found” he says, pausing and looking intently at the floor. He’s clearly unsettled; “you’ve depressed me now”.

Jon evidently wants more from a Prime Minister than a nice smile. He suggests Clement Atlee as a comparison (a man whose statue stands on the campus). “He came to the East-end, discovered poverty,  became Mayor, then went to the Western Front”, Jon ebulliently explains, “he got badly injured at Gallipoli, was MP for the area, and deputy Prime Minister in the Second World War – all before he became Prime Minister.”

And what about Churchill, he asks. “He fought in every war since the North-western frontier… he was in the Sudan, South Africa, and that was before the First World War where he was in the cabinet, out of the cabinet, then went to the Western Front.” He pauses. “Compare that to David Cameron.”

But does this effect his ability to lead? Jon cites Cameron’s treatment of Nadine Dorries – openly joking that ‘she must be frustrated’ in a parliamentary debate on abortion. “And then he and Osborne sat down giggling like little schoolboys, which they are”, he scowls, “this is horrible, this is horrible.”

But while Jon is scathing towards David Cameron, he saves a special kind of sulphur for his colleague Master Clegg. The Coalition itself, he claims, is illegitimate: “too many people voted Lib-Dem to keep the Tories out… he campaigned on trust, and then destroyed that trust”. In even agreeing to get into bed with the Conservatives, Jon argues, Nick Clegg betrayed the electorate. “I’m sure I come from an older tradition, where you say what you mean”, he says, but Clegg’s behaviour is ridiculous.

“The key to my thinking is mandate… mandate, mandate, mandate”, he explains “and I firmly believe that the Coalition would not be in this situation – that there would be such a depth of anger – if they had achieved a mandate. But they didn’t achieve a mandate!” The Lib-Dems and Labour, he thinks, made it clear that they were campaigning against draconian spending cuts, and the Lib-Dems have betrayed that. On Nick Clegg, Jon has one question: “where is the honour of the man?”

Jon predicts that the Lib-Dems will be punished at the next election, and Nick Clegg? “I think he’ll go back to Europe… become a European commissioner perhaps.” As for David Cameron, Jon believes that he has “the beating of Ed Miliband”. He sees no credible challenger.

Jon’s criticisms of the Coalition stem from an unapologetic veneration of ‘The Blair Years’. He says it as clearly as is possible: “I’m a New Labour man to my fingertips”. The New Labour “experiment”, he says “was fascinating”. An Essex boy, from a working class background, he “believes in Thatcherism – in working hard, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”. And this, he feels, came to fruition in Blair, not Cameron.

What Dr. Davis really admires is leadership. Will there be a ‘Cameron Years’ course at Queen Mary? “Perhaps”, Jon Says, “but I’m not sure I’ll be the one running it”. How the Coalition will be remembered by History is still unclear, but it will be remembered by this Historian as a badly co-ordinated attack on Blair’s Britain, led by cardboard cut-out politicians.

Staring out of Dr. Davis’s window, the Shard immediately takes your eye. In its half-built ugly state, it rules over London – a fitting symbol for Jon’s view of the Cameron Coalition.

This interview was conducted on September 13th 2011 with Kaamil Ahmed.

Image by Angel Lambo.

The System is Rotten

On the very first day of the Occupy London protests, in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Peter Tatchell joined hundreds of others inside a police cordon, to protest for changes to the financial and banking system. Peter is a veteran LGBT rights and Human Rights campaigner, who attempted a citizens arrest on Robert Mugabe in 1994. He has written for a variety of media outlets, including the Guardian. He is also known as a passionate opponent of religious extremism. Peter spoke to me about the Occupy London movement, at the base of the Cathedral.

What do you think of today’s protest, and turnout?

It’s been fantastic. There’s brilliant, beautiful weather, a fantastic vibe, and spirit. It’s real grass roots democracy. It is a bit chaotic, but that’s what democracy is often about. I think the one thing that is really clear is that we’re all here because we believe that a different kind of world is necessary and possible.

Why do you think this protest is important?

Free market capitalism has failed Britain and the World. Today, close to a billion people are hungry, malnourished and have no safe, clean drinking water. That is a crime against humanity. In Britain, 1% of the population owns 70% of the land. The richest 10% have a combined personal wealth of around four million, million pounds. That’s a million pounds multiplied four million times. That’s obscene greed; it has got to change. It’s got to change especially at a time when heading for 3 million people are unemployed, public services are being cut, and many people can’t even afford to turn on the heating in the winter. The system is rotten, it’s corrupt, it’s immoral. It has to change, and that’s our message: a different world is possible.

How do you see that happening; what are the most pressing changes that should be made?

In terms of how we do that, it’s easy. That richest 10%, with four million, million pounds of personal wealth, they should face a one off 20% tax which would raise £800 billion. Or we could introduce the Robin Hood tax, the Tobin tax. If it was set at 0.05% – just one twentieth of one percent – on financial and commodity transactions, that would raise a staggering £100 billion plus every year. There is no need to cut public services; fair taxation on the rich, who can afford to pay, is the solution.

This interview was conducted on October 15th 2011

Image by Matthew TK Taylor


Brian Carney is a powerful public speaker. He has a kind of charmingly dishevelled look that seems somehow to be inextricable from his oratorical skills, much in the same manner as the late Christopher Hitchens. He is an editor at the Wall Street Journal, and is currently managing the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal European edition. He is known as a Right-Wing Libertarian public intellectual, and authored, with Isaac Getz, Freedom Inc. In this interview we briefly discuss Libertarianism.

Do you think that the concentration of power in large corporations, like investment banks, results in their having an ability to control people, for instance through media, that is unacceptable?

Brian: Corporations certainly do have a lot of influence, though marketing, and media, but not exactly power. What I would say is that I would rather corporations try to influence me, than governments exert their power over me.

When I, for example, listen to the the Occupy Wall-Street people or the Occupy London people, I see this confusion, which I think is basically an intellectual confusion, a lot. They feel like they’re being controlled, but ultimately we still retain the power of choice in a free society, even if there are big corporations, but we don’t have choice once a government steps in and tells us what to do with ourselves, and that is a distinction which I think people need to think about, as they think about whether governments should be enforcing their preferences on other people.

And should corporations have legal rights; do they deserve to have rights similar to those, or in excess of those, of individuals?

Certainly not in excess of individuals. I mean, corporations are ultimately made up of individuals, and so, if you punish a corporation, you’re also punishing the people who work for that corporation. Many of those individuals, even in cases where there has been some wrong-doing, may not have done any harm. We do have to remember that you can’t put Goldman Sachs in jail,  but you can put a lot of people out of work.

Lehman Brothers didn’t die, what happened was that thousands of people lost their livelihoods because a bank went out of business, and I think it should have gone out of business, I think it was the right thing to do to let Lehman fail, and I think other banks should have been allowed to fail, but if you prosecute a company, if you take away its earnings, you’re taking those away from the employees, and you’re taking them away from the owners of the business ultimately. Companies, in that sense, are people.

The Libertarian model of free market Capitalism, of corporations acting with little or no regulation, depends on the idea of ‘choice’, or the ‘democracy of the market-place’, but internally corporations aren’t democratic are they? They’re top down organizations with very tight hierarchical control, should that change?

Corporations are very autocratic. In my book, Freedom Inc, I write about the importance of – though I don’t call it this in the book – applying a kind of Libertarian approach to management. It argues that we should radically free employees at the bottoms of corporations to make decisions in the company’s best interest and in the business’s best interest. It would be like a democratization of corporations – though I stress, I don’t think we should vote on all these things. It should not be enforced from the top, but I think it would be best for everyone involved if we had a radical freeing of employees, to allow them to act on their own initiative.

This interview was conducted on January 12th 2012.


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