The South Asia Channel

What Karzai Got Right

Around an hour after the polls opened on Saturday, April 5, for the 2014 Afghan elections, President Hamid Karzai left the presidential palace with some of his cabinet officials for a short drive to Amani High School, one of the polling sites. As the shutters of news cameras and the energy of enthusiasts buzzed around him, Karzai received his ballot and quietly disappeared into the designated cubical to vote. As ordinary and mundane as his appearance might sound, this was indeed a watershed moment for war-ravaged Afghanistan.

Casting his vote for who he hopes to be his successor, Karzai marked the beginning of a new chapter in Afghanistan's history -- a chapter that will be dictated by the 7 million Afghans who flocked to the polls that blustery Saturday. He is the first ruler of Afghanistan to step down from power and, if everything goes smoothly, witness a peaceful transition of power to someone other than him. A look into Afghanistan's past will indeed underscore the significance of this moment.

After the assassination of the Persian King Nadir Shah Afshar, on June 14, 1747, by his own guards, a grand assembly of tribal leaders in Kandahar chose Ahmad Shah Durrani as the first king of Afghanistan. Soon after coming to power, he proclaimed independence from the Persian Empire, officially founding the Kingdom of Afghanistan. The foundations of the country were thus laid by an assassination, sowing seeds of violence into the very core of Afghan history.

Ahmad Shah and his son, Timur Shah Durrani, who succeeded him, were lucky to survive the internal turmoil and violence that followed, shaking the foundations of the nascent monarchy. But their successors were not so lucky. Of the 28 monarchs and rulers who sat on the Afghan throne between 1747 and 2001, only six were confirmed to have died of natural causes while in power. Five were assassinated by political rivals or discontent subjects, the most recent being Burhanuddin Rabbani in 2011. The remaining 18 were all deposed and killed in vicious manners by their successors. In 1800, for instance, Zaman Shah Durrani was captured, blinded, and imprisoned by his own brother, Mahmud Shah Durrani. In 1845, Mohammad Akbar Khan was rumored to have been poisoned and killed by his father, Dost Mohammad Khan. And in 1929, Habibullah Kalakani, one of the only two non-Pashtun rulers of Afghanistan, was executed by firing squad after only nine months on the throne, with his body put on public display.

The most heinous of brutalities, however, happened within the last 40 years and are yet to be forgotten by the Afghan people. In 1978, Mohammad Daoud Khan -- then Afghanistan's president -- disappeared from the palace with his entire family after a coup-d'état by the Soviet-backed communists. Witnesses who toured the presidential palace after the communist take-over narrated spine-chilling stories of human flesh and blood on the palace's trees and walls. It was not until 2008, 40 years later, that their bodies were found inside two mass graves in the outskirts of Kabul.

Interestingly, the communist leaders had similar fates as the man they conspired to overthrow. The first, Nur Mohammad Taraki, was murdered -- rumors suggested that he had been suffocated with a pillow by his own apprentice, Hafizullah Amin. Amin subsequently took power, but after ruling for less than four months, he was murdered by the discontented Soviets who had put him in power, and a new regime was installed. Similarly, after taking power in 1996, the Taliban tied the last communist president, Mohammad Najibullah, behind a truck and dragged him through the streets of Kabul before publicly hanging him.

Almost every transition of power in Afghanistan, even between members of the same family, has come hand-in-hand with bloodshed and cruelty. Since being built by the British Indians during their occupation of Afghanistan in 1880, the coveted presidential palace has been a grave to many of the ambitious men who have sat on its throne. Karzai is no stranger to the sinister history of the palace, and he is wise to know that should he cling to it, the palace will not remain any more loyal to him than to those who came before.

Whether Karzai truly believes in democracy and the notion that the Afghan people should decide who rules them or if he contrived a plot to indirectly remain in power is known only to him, and maybe few around him. Nevertheless, his decision to step down from power and vote as an ordinary Afghan citizen closed the chapter on Afghanistan's history of violence and blood and ensures his legacy as the president who laid the foundations for Afghanistan's newborn democracy.

Although Afghanistan will still be plagued by insecurity, corruption, and a frail economy for the foreseeable future, the country strengthened its process of democratization the moment Karzai dropped his ballot inside the blue-colored election box.

Abuzar Royesh is a student at Tufts University, originally from Afghanistan. He specializes in the history and politics of Afghanistan and the Middle East.   

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