Prince Nadir Naim was barely three when a now iconic National Geographic photograph was taken of him with his late grandfather, the former Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shah, at a farm near Kabul.
That was in the summer of 1968.
Five years later, the king would lose his throne in a bloodless coup d’état led by his cousin, Mohammed Daoud Khan.
Decades of occupation, jihad and civil war left the former king’s favourite retreat in shambles. Today, returning refugees in makeshift homes have overtaken the orchard where Prince Nadir remembers playing hide-and-seek with his cousins on Friday afternoons.
For Prince Nadir, the farm now stands as a symbol of a paradise lost, but one that can still be regained. He says that it must be restored and converted into a public park for all Afghans to visit and remember better days.
But right now, he is looking to the future, as he wages another campaign of “restoration”.
On October 6, Prince Nadir announced his candidacy for the 2014 Afghan presidential elections. He is among 11 figures across the political spectrum, who are running for the top job, including three former foreign ministers Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Dr Zalmai Rassoul and Hedayat Arsala, a former World Bank consultant, Ashraf Ghani, and the brother of the incumbent, Qayum Karzai.
With NATO troops set to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, whoever follows the current head of state, the affable Hamid Karzai, will inherit the colossal challenges of coping with a crumbling economy, a spike in opium cultivation, deteriorating security conditions and an emboldened, even metastasized insurgency.
If Ashraf Ghani’s platform is likely to be based on economic reform, and Abdullah would presumably pledge to quash the insurgency as he did in his previous campaign, then Prince Nadir’s mantra will focus on his contention that he represents “the voice of the silent majority”.
The 48-year-old former aide to King Zahir Shah defines this silent majority, as “the ordinary noble people of Afghanistan who love their country, want to live in peace with each other and lead a life of dignity in their country.”
Prince Nadir launched the “Voice of the People” movement at a People’s Jirga (traditional assembly of tribal elders) last March, following four years of “informal” consultations with the Afghan people.
The event, he says, was a massive gathering of more than 2,500 people from 34 different provinces, “bringing together ethnic Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and other noble ethnicities whose loyalties belong to the Afghan nation and one flag”.
“What we want is to establish an Afghan-led vision for the future of Afghanistan, one that would be inclusive to all Afghans. The participants of the Jirga called upon me as a member of the royal family to lead this movement,” he explains.
Prince Nadir, son of the late king’s daughter, Princess Mariam returned to Afghanistan as his grandfather’s private secretary in 2003 – after more than 20 years in exile in the UK.
Sources close to the royal family say he has come a long way, morphing from a shy young man with rudimentary Dari, into a polished politician with stellar communication skills and the poise of a traditional aristocratic Afghan leader.
Critics deride him and his family as out-of-touch with the realities of everyday Afghans and accuse them of seeking to reclaim their former wealth and status.
For his part, Prince Nadir insists his motivation stems from “a sense of moral duty” rather than “personal ambition”.
“I have always maintained that I am here to serve the Afghan nation in whatever capacity they see fit. I have made myself available to the Voice of the People and the entire Afghan nation. This is the main difference between the other political personalities and me,” he says.
Indeed, while Prince Nadir may be a fresh face on the Afghan political stage, he already stands out as one of the very few politicians who venture on city streets without armoured vehicles and dozens of bodyguards. His pedigree and his newly-acquired savy have now put him on par with some of the more seasoned and established figures vying for the presidency.
With a smile, he adds that he is the only presidential candidate who “did not buy his voter cards for the candidacy registration” – although other candidates have advanced similar claims.
On Wednesday, Afghan electoral authorities announced the final list of candidates to appear on the ballot for the country’s April 5 presidential election.
Afghanistan watchers expect a fierce contest full of the usual lofty promises that, without a doubt, will further highlight the complexities of internal politics in this troubled land.
are not very mature and don’t have the experience.”]
Mirwais Wardak, managing director of the Kabul-based Peace Training and Research Organisation, says peace-building, corruption and the economy will certainly dominate campaign rhetoric, even if he doubts that any of the candidates display viable strategies for tackling any of those issues.
“None of the candidates have been very articulate on peace-building or the economy,” he says, adding that perhaps Ashraf Ghani is the only candidate with the background to talk credibly about economic issues. “And they won’t have any clear strategy once they are in power. [Most of the candidates] are not very mature and don’t have the experience.”
So how does Prince Nadir’s vision for the future of Afghanistan play out in practical terms?
“Afghanistan is at a critical juncture as we move towards the 2014 election, which will be an important milestone for the nation,” he says. “Most Afghans believe that we would require the continued support of the international community for at least another decade.”
Still, Prince Nadir is calling for a better strategy to deal with the Taliban. Peace and security will be the top priorities of his campaign platform, he says, adding that he intends to propose national dialogue as a first step toward developing a successful mechanism for bringing peace to Afghanistan.
“I do not believe that the current approach is going to produce long-term solutions for peace and security in Afghanistan,” says Prince Nadir, who feels that as a relative novice, his reputation is unblemished, having played no part in the three decades of war and carnage the country has witnessed.
“I have never held a government position and this is a good thing. I believe voters will realise that as a neutral, non-partisan figure, I am in a better position to negotiate a permanent peace settlement for the good of our nation,” he says.
Unblemished or untested?
Yet 40 years after the abolition of monarchy in Afghanistan, it is fair to ask whether the country is ready for the return of a blueblood. Does this lineage still mean anything in a country where there may only be a faint recollection of the so-called “golden era” of the late Zahir Shah’s reign?
Wardak professes that Prince Nadir’s family background may help him in certain quarters, albeit mainly among ethnic Pashtuns, but elsewhere, he will be seen as an inexperienced candidate who spent most of his life abroad in exile.
“He doesn’t have national experience in politics, or even a background as a technocrat with a strategy for Afghanistan,” he suggests. “In Pashtun areas, he may have some supporters, but others will see him as not capable because he and his family lived outside for a long time.”
Prince Nadir is unfazed by such criticisms, insisting that what some perceive as his primary shortcoming, others will view as his greatest asset.
“Recently a very well-known Afghan jihadi figure told me: ‘Your family’s legacy is gaining value as time passes as all who came after them did so badly, so now people look back at their time with nostalgia,'” he recounts.
Furthermore, he claims to have the support of tribal elders who fondly remember the peaceful reign of the late Zahir Shah, and more significantly, he says he is determined to channel his energies toward harnessing the Afghan youth who make up the majority of voters.
“The youth view my great-uncle, Daoud Khan – Afghanistan’s first president – as an iconic and progressive figure who did not surrender to the communists in the 1978 coup d’état,” he says. Daoud Khan and 17 members of his family were brutally gunned down in the presidential palace by communists in 1978.
Daoud Khan remains a very popular figure in Afghanistan today, with posters sold in the bazaars.
But critics will point out that it is hard to play at once both the Zahir Shah card and that of Daoud Khan. There could nt be two more diametrically opposed figures in Afghan political history: One a modernist king who believed in democracy and the people’s will, and the other, a progressive republican who favoured dictatorship.
According to Nayeem Ayubzada, director of the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan, Prince Nadir’s primary support base is concentrated in the area that runs from the east to the southwest, or the so-called Pashtun-belt.
It is also the same political support base enjoyed by the late Zahir Shah – a base which is now also largely divided between the Karzais and Rassoul.
“In the southeast, the elders are still the decision-makers,” he says. “And those elders respect Nadir Naim’s family. There is no doubt he has the support of the elders in these elections.”
Prince Nadir is not the first royal to have entered the political fray in post-Taliban Afghanistan. In the 2004 presidential contest, his great uncle, Homayoun Shah Assefi, threw his hat in the ring, and despite some positive media coverage, did not succeed.
Moreover, it would be unfair to ignore the lineage of fellow presidential contender Rassoul, who is also a prince, albeit from another branch of the same clan.
Ayubzada maintains that winning the election is not necessarily the object of the game, though. He posits that Prince Nadir’s candidacy may well be a first step toward the re-immersion of the royal family into the Afghan political scene.
“Nadir Naim’s family has a long history in Afghanistan. But he is the new candidate and it doesn’t mean he is going to be the winner,” he says. “But this is a good opportunity for him to cement a stake in the next elections. Win or lose, if he garners 10,000 votes and people believe in him, he will have a good future.”
Ultimately, what will make or break Prince Nadir’s campaign and aspirations is how well he articulates his vision and strategy to make good on promises to restore peace and progress to the land of his forefathers.