US took critical view of king it now wants to restore: Archives reveal American scepticism
by Julian Borger in Washington - The Guardian (UK) October 30, 2001
Afghanistan's former king, now being promoted by Washington as the linchpin of a post-Talibangovernment, was an ineffectual ditherer on the throne, according to contemporary dispatches from US diplomats, who did nothing to discourage the 1973 coup which toppled him.
Washington's sceptical view of Zahir Shah was revealed in state department archives unearthed by the National Security Archive, a research institute at George Washington University. The documents highlight the paucity of alternatives facing Afghanistan if the Taliban falls, and the irony of US efforts to reinstate a monarch Washington allowed to fall. Zahir Shah ruled Afghanistan for 40 years and now lives in Italy. He was there in 1973, recuperating from an eye injury caused by a volleyball, when his cousin, Prince
Daoud Khan, ousted him. The US ambassador in Kabul, Robert Neumann, had more than a year's warning of the coup. In a cable to the secretary of state, William Rogers, in March 1972, he reported on a visit by Wahid Abdullah, the information director at the Afghan foreign ministry, who was known to be a "fervent supporter and booster" of Prince Daoud.
According to the cable Mr Abdullah asked: "What would be USG (US government) reaction to Daoud's reassumption of power?" The ambassador asked Washington for advice. In its response in April 1972 Washington told Mr Neumann to stay in touch with Prince Daoud's emissary, Mr Abdullah, and to make the point that the US had maintained good relations with Afghanistan, no matter who was in power.
This apparent indifference to the fate of the Afghan throne was rooted partly in Washington's acceptance that Kabul would fall increasingly into the Soviet Union's sphere of influence, but also stemmed from US ambivalence towards the king. American diplomats credited him for embarking on a democratic experiment, but blamed his indecisiveness for the failure of the experiment to address the country's political instability and economic problems. "Zahir is no visionary," the US political officer in Kabul, Charles Dunbar, said. "He is obviously uncomfortable with the ideals of the experiment and its architects and has been reluctant to see some of the institutions it envisages develop."
As drought gripped Afghanistan in the early 1970s, the exchanges between American diplomats and the king increasingly reflected US frustration at the corruption and inefficiency of the Kabul government. At a meeting with the monarch in July 1971 Mr Neumann was openly critical of the government's handling of the economic crisis, pointing out that the "executive cannot escape responsibility for lack of leadership".
By the time Mr Abdullah called the next year to feel out the US response to a coup, the ambassador observed: "There is an atmosphere here of lassitude, of resignation as if the elan vital of the government has become exhausted."
The last US diplomatic cable referring to the king was sent in June 1973 when it was noted that he had left suddenly for London to have his eye treated. His stay in London would be followed by a "one-two weeks' vacation in Italy". King Zahir's Italian sojourn provided the opportunity seized by his cousin, the former prime minister Prince Daoud.
In a note to Henry Kissinger, a national security council memorandum described the coup approvingly as "well-planned and swiftly executed". Prince Daoud, the note said, might be "a little harder to deal with" than his predecessor, but it concluded: "There is no reason to think he will reverse Afghan policies."
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