When I arrived in Afghanistan to cover the 1979 Soviet invasion, I mischievously purchased a huge tin of talcum powder, produced by a German factory in Kabul and called – for local consumption – ” Buzkashi”. The front of the tin was illustrated with a portrait of a massive Afghan warrior in long red robes, riding towards the purchaser upon a fiery steed and with an expression of utmost ferocity on his bearded face. What puzzled me was why a talcum manufacturer would name his product after one of the bloodiest of Asian sports: a mounted version of rugby football played with a decapitated goat – riders were supposed to tug the bloodied corpse of the wretched creature from each other, often ripping the beast apart in the process. Of course, someone German had concluded that this manly sport emphasised the romantic warrior of the desert, the spirit of Afghan individuality amid the rugged landscape – Afghan landscapes were always “rugged” or “forbidding” – although I noticed that the only buyers of Buzkashi were foreigners. Afghans had no interest in this exotic talcum powder.
Zahir Shah was much the same. We in the West loved him. He was a king. He was a unifying figure in a country that many people suspect does not really exist – it was the country’s first king, Ahmed Khan, who created Afghanistan in the 18th century – or so we thought. In reality, Zahir was never a really a king. Like the Buzkashi talcum powder, Afghans did not greet his accession in 1933 with roses and song – any more than they did when the Americans freighted the old man back from his Roman exile after the overthrow of the Taliban government. His supporters – those who could remember his calls for democracy, the “free” period as Afghans called it – approved of his written constitution, his enthusiasm for a free press and for the spread of legal political parties. But Zahir was essentially disinterested in this much-trumpeted democracy and the moment that his courtiers warned him that a party system would prove a threat to the monarchy, he refused to sign the new party legislation into law – even though it had been passed by the new parliament. Parties were closed down. So were the newspapers. He created democracy – and then he destroyed it.
Afghanistan has proved a mirage to every foreigner, a land whose images and history – however ferocious – draw back the doomed armies of countries that have already been humiliated over two centuries. The British suffered their greatest pre-Boer War loss of arms in the Victorian age when an entire army was massacred in the Kabul Gorge in 1842. We lost again in the Second Afghan War when the British were defeated at the Battle of Maiwand; young, black-turbaned Afghan students would choose a grenadier and hurl themselves towards this one man, drag him from the ranks of his comrades and cut his throat. They were called “Talibs” or “Taliban”. Many of the Afghan warriors were led by a girl called Malalei – she later fell victim to British bullets – who tore off her veil to use as a flag. The young Zahir Shah, when he ascended the throne at the age of 19, would have approved. He was, after all, a man who believed in modernisation and women’s rights and the unveiling of women. The Russians, after a century of diplomatic humiliation in Afghanistan, spent 10 years in occupation, only to leave in further humiliation – a frustration that they finally vented on the equally innocent Muslims of Chechnya.
But there was another Zahir Shah, who liked to “unveil” women in a far less liberating way. In his early years as king – when he was a mere boy by Asian standards – his two uncles, who effectively ruled the country, supplied him with a driver and a black Chevrolet. The job of “the man in the black Chevrolet” – as he was known in the streets of Kabul – was to tour the colleges of Kabul and choose the most desirable girls for the king’s bed. The Afghans has a word for their pleasure-loving king – ” ayoshi” – which roughly translates as “having a good time” . “Ayoshi” is not a polite word. Even so, in a country whose kings were almost all cruel – Amanullah, the reformist Shah was an exception – Zahir was a peaceful man. He did not want to involve himself in politics; indeed, he had no interest in political life. He was an artist who loved paintings and books. He was actually taking a mud bath in Italy when his cousin Daoud – a highly ambitious prime minister who adored politics – staged his bloodless coup d’etat in 1973.
And what did our favourite Afghan king do as his country descended into foreign invasion, occupation, mass murder, civil war and Islamic puritanism of the least educated kind? He enjoyed Rome. Just as he ignored the possibility of war with Pakistan when he was King, so he largely ignored the catastrophe of his country when he was enjoying his long years of exile. His life in Rome, his visitors reported back to Kabul, was very much like the life he had lived in his royal palace at home. He was happy with his art and archaeology books and sport, and with his friends among the Italian upper classes. True, he occasionally – very occasionally – expressed his sorrow at the chaos of Afghanistan. But he was a man of the past, a victim of politics rather than a leader, a long-forgotten figurehead – until the Americans rediscovered him – for whom the dramas of his homeland were like the shadows in Plato’s cave, mere ghosts of the titanic tragedy played out 2,000 miles from Rome.
His life, of course, encompassed a familiar narrative of the 20th and early 21st centuries; exile amid the ambitions of others and then the resumption of colonial rule, first under the Russians and then – after the overthrow of Mullah Omar (a man who at least understood the history of Afghanistan and acted a role in it, however perverse) – under the Americans and British. As the poppy crop was reborn under Nato’s gaze, the British found themselves fighting for their lives in Helmand and on the very site – did they realise this? – of the Battle of Maiwand. The Taliban know their history even if the British do not.
And yet, it was to the ageing king that the Bushes and the Blairs turned when they needed a “unifying” figure to reunite the Afghans. In reality, it was folly to think that the old man could be taken from his Saturnalian life of ease in Rome to play the one game in which he was never interested: politics. Yes, he was exotic. He was, after all, a king, even if he had no robes to match those of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s impotent President. But he was attractive to us in the same way that all monarchs appear useful in the West. He was educated, pro-Western, pro-democracy (up to a point) and, though a Pashtun, a supposedly popular figure across all Afghanistan’s tribes. He was not. But we like to promote these people because we feel they are “safe”. We understand monarchies, and Zahir, though he was closer to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in his desire to ” secularise” his country (why must we always expect Muslim countries to be “secularised”?), was a king and we are familiar with kings and queens. We liked King Idris of Libya and King Farouk of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan, just as – after we were forced to dispense with Idris and Farouk and replace them with supposedly pro-Western colonels and generals – we continue to love King Abdullah of Jordan and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and all the other princes and emirs of the Gulf.
That is why the Americans – and, to a lesser extent, the British – thought that they could return Zahir to create a land of peace. His welcome was supposed to be as glorious as that which was supposed to be accorded the Americans and the British in Iraq. It was a dream; it was our Orientalist view of how the Afghans should behave. We thought the natives would admire this symbol of old-world élitism because – and here’s the rub – old Zahir Shah was more like “us” than “them”, more European than Afghan, more secularist than Muslim. If he was trained as a soldier in Afghanistan, he was educated in France. “I wish just to do things for my country and serve it,” he said pitifully when he returned to Kabul, to be proclaimed by Karzai and the Americans – but few others – as “Father of the Nation”. When he ascended the throne in 1933, he was hailed as a new star in the Afghan firmament, a foreign-educated man who could modernise his country, govern during a period of rapid transition to ” modern political institutions”. I’m quoting from a US history book published the year before Zahir’s overthrow by Daoud. The same words were pulled out of the drawer for reuse in 2002. Will we ever learn?