Afghanistan’s Era of Peace and Stability

In his latest policy paper for CNAS, Andrew Exum makes a claim I’ve heard increasingly frequently from COIN fans, namely:

An Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbors is not the ahistorical fantasy some critics would like the public to believe. Until the Marxist coup of 1978, Afghanistan was at peace for half a century – an anomaly among Asian states in the 20th century. Returning Afghanistan to a similar state of peace should remain a goal of the United States and the rest of the international community.

This is to some extent a matter of interpretation, but here’s a bit of an Afghan history timeline:

1929 – Amanullah flees after civil unrest over his reforms.

1933 – Zahir Shah becomes king and Afghanistan remains a monarchy for next four decades.

1953 – General Mohammed Daud becomes prime minister. Turns to Soviet Union for economic and military assistance. Introduces a number of social reforms, such as abolition of purdah (practice of secluding women from public view).

1963 – Mohammed Daud forced to resign as prime minister.

1964 – Constitutional monarchy introduced – but leads to political polarisation and power struggles.

1973 – Mohammed Daud seizes power in a coup and declares a republic. Tries to play off USSR against Western powers. His style alienates left-wing factions who join forces against him.

During the period of peace, in other words, one kind was driven from power by civil unrest, Mohammed Daud served as de facto dictator two separate times, the country shifted from Non-Aligned to Soviet-Aligned and then back again. What’s more, the ’73 Daud coup didn’t come out of nowhere:

Between 1969 and 1973, instability ruled Afghan politics. The parliament was lethargic and deadlocked. Public dissatisfaction over the unstable government prompted growing political polarization as both the left and the right began to attract more members. Still personally popular, the king nevertheless came under increasing criticism for not supporting his own prime ministers.

Obviously, pre-1978 Afghanistan was considerably more stable than Afghanistan has been for the past 30 years. But that’s a low bar, and it seems to me that there was considerable turmoil throughout the entire post-WWII era.