Disenchantment with the Reforms

Afghanistan Table of Contents

Toward the end of the constitutional period, the Wolesi Jirgah became increasingly critical of the government. In May 1972 the incoming cabinet was subjected to nineteen days of denunciation of the previous cabinet before it was given grudging approval. Despite a heavy backlog of bills, foreign loan agreements, budgets and treaties, it found a quorum only once in two months in the autumn session of 1972. In its final session (Spring 1973), it reached a quorum once in eighty-two days.

Such legislative failures were crucial to the demise of the constitutional effort. The Jirgah's recalcitrance seriously affected the morale and discipline of the bureaucracy. In an atmosphere of contention both sides became increasingly frustrated and corrupt.

Government performance was unpromising in other areas. Economic development was moving from construction projects to more advanced operational phases. Afghan government departments and industrial units found the transition difficult. Productivity failed to keep up with the infusion of foreign money, bringing serious inflation to Kabul in the early 1970s.

As the rural population became increasingly aware of the concentration of modern facilities and industry in Kabul and a few other cities, signs of resentment assumed political importance. This mood changed to widespread anger when the government failed to respond promptly and adequately to a drought which ravaged the Hazarajat and much of northern Afghanistan in 1970-72. The experiment in democracy had brought few benefits to the most Afghans while economic opportunities and profits from corruption appeared to be monopolized by the elite.

Discontent was especially intense among the rapidly growing numbers of secondary and university students. Between 1967 and 1972 the number of secondary schools increased from forty to approximately 200. A much wider segment of rural and small town youth was graduating from the middle schools beneath them. By 1973 the number of secondary school graduates far exceeded the openings to higher education available at the university, the teacher training colleges, or the various technical institutions.

Previously, the rural population had been content with informal, largely religious, instruction offered by resident mullahs,which produced rudimentary literacy at best. By the late 1960s,villages throughout Afghanistan were volunteering materials and labor to construct school buildings and were clamoring for the government to send teachers. Education had become identified with upward social mobility.

In the early 1970s,the products of this burgeoning system were mostly converging on Kabul. The revolution in expectations had suddenly created a marginalized class which was unemployed or forced to accept work far beneath its expectations. Embitterment changed many students and graduates into recruits for radical and protest movements.

Marxist critiques of the constitutional experiment quickly appeared. In 1966 a newspaper published by the newly formed communist party branded the reforms an attempt to co-opt the expanding educated elite so that the monarchy could to retain power. Activist students on the Kabul University campus organized informal political and study groups that ran the spectrum from Maoism to the Islamist views of the Muslim Brotherhood. By 1970 the strongest of these had become well organized. The Marxists were foreign funded and advised. Led by a medical student, Najibullah (later to be president of the Marxist government), they took control of the student government. In the early 1970s, they lost it to their militant Muslim rivals.

Both sides opposed the government, and both movements flourished on the anxieties of students for whom jobs were suddenly scarce. Both also saw the political establishment as a corrupt impediment to their own opportunities, and both demanded radical changes in the structure of political power.

These problems and growing resentments gave Zahir Shah ample reason to doubt the viability of the constitutional experiment. His attempt to broaden and liberalize government had created growing opposition. It had not brought about a visible improvement in government performance, especially in planning and implementing development. Foreign assistance was declining--the Arab oil boom that brought new funding was still in the future. Sooner or later the survival of the government would again depend upon effective coercion. Zahir Shah had never directly associated himself with that side of statecraft.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress