The Attempt to Modernize: 1953-73

The Attempt to Modernize: 1953-73

Many Afghans look back with nostalgia on the generation of modernization,democratization and diverse foreign assistance that began shortly after WorldWar II. For the royal family and its retainers, the challenge was to expandgovernment functions while retaining control after nearly a century of hard wonpolitical consolidation. By the early 1950s, the government presented an obviousparadox. Its authority was stronger than ever, but acquiescence was problematicamong large sections of the population. Special immunities maintained theloyalty of the eastern Pushtun tribes. The Shia Hazaras of the central Hazarajatstill resented the brutal suppression they had suffered at the end of thenineteenth century. A Tajik rebel had seized control of Kabul as recently as1929. In 1947 a revolt of the Safi tribe of the Ghilzai confederation had to besuppressed.

These challenges to royal authority firmly fixed the attention of thegovernment on internal security. Its primary objective was enforcement ofcredible coercion over all challengers. Army officers were frequently appointedgovernors of sensitive provinces. The Ministry of Interior, with its mostlyPushtun senior staff, maintained an authoritarian and arbitrary posture.Bureaucratic coercion was imposed in the autocratic manner adopted from Persiantradition. Government presence thus bordered on colonialism in the minorityregions of the north, west and center.

Such a heavy emphasis on control seriously limited resources available fordevelopment. And, while it served to make official authority appear formidable,the segmented and inward looking features of Afghan society assured that thegovernment's writ was actually shallow on matters of most concern to rural andnomadic Afghans. Traditional patriarchal, patrilinear organization ofhouseholds, lineages and clans determined local arrangements for propertycontrol, division of labor, dispute settlement, and for physical security.Government authority was kept at arms length.

Despite its own tribal heritage, the royal leadership was a foreign entity tomost of its fellow Pushtuns. Persianized in language and partially detribalizedin marriage and social relations, the royal and administrative hierarchy wassensitive to its cultural isolation. Its strenuous effort to impose Pushtu asthe working language of government on the Persian- (Dari-) speaking bureaucratswas an indication of the monarchy's anxiety to be identified with Pushtun rootsand sentiment. Its dispute with Pakistan over Pushtunistan was another means ofidentifying with Pushtuns.

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