Mohammed Daoud Khan

Mohammed Daoud Khan was the first of five Afghan republican presidents that served between the fall of the Afghan monarchy in 1973 and the establishment of the Islamic state in 1992. Four out of the five, including Daoud, met untimely deaths.

Born 18 July 1909, Mohammed Daoud Khan served as the Afghan prime minister from 1953 to 1963 under the king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, his cousin and brother-in-law. During his decade in office, and under his influence, Afghanistan drew closer to the Soviet Union, becoming dependent on Soviet imports and assistance. But tension between Afghanistan and its neighbour Pakistan forced Mohammad Daoud Khan into resigning in March 1963. The following year the King instituted a new constitution which prevented members of the royal family holding ministerial posts, thereby blocking Daoud’s plans to re-enter politics.

The new Republic of Afghanistan

However, in 1973, while the king was detained in Italy undergoing an eye operation, Mohammed Daoud Khan staged a coup. But rather than naming himself the king’s successor, he declared Afghanistan a republic with himself as its first president.

Daoud set about implementing reform – the emancipation of women and the suppression of Islamic fundamentalism. The Islamists migrated across the border into Pakistan. Amongst them was Ahmad Shah Massoud who, in returning to Afghanistan, tried to exploit the discontent caused by Daoud’s reforms and stage an uprising. It failed and Daoud used the attempted coup as a pretext for enforcing greater repression of Islamic fundamentalists.

Daoud had been accepting shipments of arms from the Soviet Union but following a fallout with the Afghanistan Communist Party – the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), he expelled the Soviet advisers sent by Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, and looked elsewhere for assistance.

‘Poor but free’

The Soviet Union feared that Afghanistan was about to ally itself to the West. The final, irrevocable split with the Soviet Union came in April 1977 during Daoud’s state visit to Moscow. When Brezhnev objected to the encroachment of American and NATO influence within Afghanistan, Daoud reacted angrily, “We will never allow you to dictate to us how to run our country and who we employ in Afghanistan … Afghanistan will remain poor if necessary but free in its acts and decisions.” As he left he had to be reminded to shake Brezhnev’s hand. A year later Daoud would regret his show of defiance.

The ‘Saur’ Revolution

In April 1978 a prominent PDPA member was assassinated and his subsequent funeral attracted and stirred the emotions of large numbers of Afghan communists. Mohammed Daoud Khan, sensing the danger, attempted a crackdown but not with sufficient vigour, for on 27 April, the PDPA, trained by the Soviet Union and under the command of Nur Muhammad Taraki, staged a coup, the Saur (or April) Revolution.

Daoud, along with family members, was shot in the presidential palace. Brezhnev had no input into the coup but equally, still smarting from Daoud’s defiance, took no action to prevent it.

Daoud’s death was not publicly announced and Taraki, as the new president, announced that former president Daoud had “resigned for health reasons”.

Mohammed Daoud Khan’s body was found thirty years later, in 2008, and in March 2009 the former president was reburied with full state honours.

Rupert Colley
Read more about the Afghan Wars from the 1830s to the present day in Afghan Wars: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio.

See also articles on fellow Afghan presidents, Mohammad NajibullahHafizullah Amin and Nur Mohammed Taraki.

Rupert Colley’s novella, My Brother the Enemy, set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, is now available.

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