Daoud’s Footprints: how Afghanistan’s First President Influences Ghani
Ghani is obsessed with Afghanistan’s first President Daoud Khan but fails to recognize the limitations of taking a Daoud-style approach. This has disabled his own era.
In the first days of his presidency, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani paid government agencies midnight surprise visits to check if officials were on their posts. The public welcomed his move with cheers and hurrahs, but this was not the only reaction generated. The visits also revived the image of Mohammed Daoud Khan, Afghanistan’s first president. In another unprecedented move after assuming power, President Ghani ordered the building of President Daoud monuments and “proudly donated $20,000” from his own account for the construction.
Met with the family of Shaheed Daud Khan. Proudly donating $20K from my own account to construction of his monument. pic.twitter.com/1tonOEwIlQ
— Ashraf Ghani (@ashrafghani) February 28, 2016
Daoud Khan, along with King Amanullah, are Ghani’s two most exalted Afghan political figures. They are well-known for their pro modernism agenda. King Amanullah crafted the country’s first constitution, while Daoud transformed Afghanistan from a constitutional monarchy to a presidential system.
In his writings, President Ghani often used to refer to their eras as an incomplete phase and proclaimed his own term as a return to their phase for the sake of completing the past endeavors. It is beyond doubt that Ghani is obsessed with Daoud and King Amanullah.
Ghani’s Role Model
Ghani’s understanding of Daoud is more than mere applause and has influenced the current president’s era deeply. In fact, Daoud serves Ghani as a role model. Since this role model aligns Ghani with the modernist change makers, the choice might sound wise at first glance but has proved to have controversial outcomes.
Agah Lala, a more intimate name for Daoud, remains a controversial figure in the history of modern Afghanistan. He is applauded for his patriotism and great ambitions by some, while others jump down his throat for his alleged Pashtun favoritism and authoritarianism.
Strong Central Government
There are plenty of reasons why Ghani favors Daoud. Amongst all, it is his advocacy for a strong central government. Some of Ghani’s critics refer to his Ph.D. dissertation, in which Ghani advocates for a strong Marxist style of governing in countries like Afghanistan.
Mir Mohammad Sediq Farhang, a famous Afghan historian, wrote in his valuable book Afghanistan in the Five Last Centuries that Daoud was an ardent proponent of a strong central government. Over the span of five years of his rule, Daoud had occupied several positions, namely the presidential chair, foreign ministry, ministry of defense, and premiership.
During the current presidency, Ghani has chosen the same path. In one of his first speeches as president, he pointed to what he called the “historical weakness of state in Afghanistan.” The implication for many commentators was that Ghani intends to pursue power centralization. However, time has proved that centralization has a number of fatal consequences.
For one, since Afghanistan’s political system is a centralized one, its re-centralization undermines the fragile separation of powers balance. Ghani’s move of centralization has fueled fears that the executive is trying to subjugate other branches. This fear is further fortified by Ghani’s praise for Daoud, who was extremely infamous for his authoritarianism and anti-democratic views.
The symptoms of weakening the state institutions have been reflected particularly in Ghani’s behavior with the parliament. In 2015, he extended the parliament’s term by a legislative decree which turned the parliament into a subordinate government branch.
On many occasions, the paralyzed parliament was not able to counter the president. When the parliament members looked Ghani in the eye, he threatened to dissolve the parliament in case its members would not step back.
Reviving Ethnic Tensions
Ghani’s imitation of Daoud has given a rise to ethnic tension in the country. Non-Pashtun writers often refer to the post-Daoud communist era as one that led to power sharing between different ethnic groups in Afghanistan. Because of the multi-ethnic structure of the country, this power-sharing was institutionalized in the 2001 Bonn Conference. For non-Pashtuns, Ghani’s bid for centralization is a move directed at unbalancing the power equation in favor of Pashtun dominance.
Indeed, the decentralization of power has been a historic desire of non-Pashtuns. Many non-Pashtun politicians are unhappy with the extreme power granted to the president in the 2004 constitution, let alone a new agenda of centralization. The figure of Daoud, again, has aggravated the discontentment even further. He is extremely unpopular with non-Pashtuns for his alleged Pashtun favoritism. Ghani’s frequent referencing to Daoud has strengthened accusations of ethno-nationalism.
Not surprisingly, as his popularity has been eroding among non-Pashtuns, the imitation of Daoud has served Ghani as a tool for promoting his profile amongst Pashtuns. By many accounts, Daoud was too extreme on his views of the Pashtunistan region and is still celebrated by many Pashtuns because of this stance. Ghani has subtly used Daoud’s image to gain legitimacy among Pashtuns.
Ghani’s affection for Daoud has had a bright side too. Quite similar to President Daoud, Ghani has brought youths to the political scene. In Daoud’s coup, the bulk of the soldiers were youths. In Ghani’s administration, youths are the drivers of the changes that Ghani talks about. Albeit, in Ghani’s government, youths in power have served a double function.
On one hand, it has provided Ghani a strong political rhetoric against his rivals who are labeled with cronyism. Promoting youths to senior positions has been frequently trumpeted by Ghani’s spokespeople as “generational change.”
On the other hand, Ghani has filled the vacancies in senior positions as his allies have turned against him over time. The power given to the young aides is so great the youngsters have been dubbed Sons of National Unity Government.
During election campaigns, Ghani’s choice of modernist figures initially raised hopes among intellectuals. His proponents used to overemphasize his choice as an indication of his in-depth knowledge of the country. But as time passed, his election strengths turned out to be his weaknesses ruling.
Ghani failed to recognize the limitations of taking a Daoud-style approach 40 years after Daoud’s death. This has consequently disabled his own era.