The great grandson of Afghanistan's legendary Iron Amir – who once forced an adulterous man to eat his mistress – has joined the race to be the country's next president. Prince Abdul Ali Seraj, who opened Afghanistan's first nightclub in the 1970s, says it is time to launch "psychological warfare" against the Taliban and reclaim Islamic law from the extremists. He insists Afghanistan needs a "change candidate" because President Hamid Karzai has failed.
His great grandfather Abdur Rahman Khan ruled from 1880 to 1901, massacring tens of thousands on the battlefield, while executing and torturing hundreds more who he suspected of dissent. He made slaves of an entire province, yet he is fondly remembered inside Afghanistan as one of the few rulers in the last 250 years to unite the country's tribes.
Prince Ali fled Afghanistan in 1978 after a communist coup, disguised as a hippy. He returned in 2002 after the Taliban regime collapsed, and says Abdur Rahman is his hero. "Afghan-istan needs a strong leader," he said. "Afghan people have never rallied around policies; they have rallied around people."
He owes his life to a bunch of stoned Australian hippies who smuggled him out of the country in their bus. They even gave him a guitar, as a disguise, when secret police boarded close to the Pakistan border. "I had no idea how to play a guitar," he said. "But they just told me to strum it whenever they did, so I did." He left behind a string of businesses including Kabul's first disco, called 25 Hours, a bowling alley and a Chinese restaurant.
Echoing his great grandfather's nickname, he said the president needs an "iron fist". "Afghanistan needs a ruler with two heads," he said. "He needs compassion for 95 per cent of the people, and an iron fist for the other five per cent – the terrorists, al-Qa'ida and corrupt officials."
The Amir was famous for the ruthless punishments meted out to anyone who disobeyed him. He claimed he was chosen by Allah and allegedly strangled a mullah who accused him of betraying Islam by accepting British subsidies.
The Taliban make similar claims about Hamid Karzai's government, which is largely dependent on foreign aid.
The Amir kept the sons of his provincial governors hostage in Kabul, to guarantee their fathers' loyalty. If tribal chiefs erred, his army dragged them back to Kabul in chains.
Today, President Karzai is often accused for failing to rein in his own brother Ahmed Wali, who is a tribal leader in Kandahar and head of the provincial council. He is widely suspected of controlling a billion dollar heroin trade. "Karzai is weak," fumed Prince Ali. "He can't even control his own brother, how can he control a whole country?"
Abdur Rahman's worst punishments were saved for adulterous couples, according to the specialist historian Bijan Omrani. "In one case a woman was boiled to a broth which was then fed to the man before his execution. Cannibals, according to Islam, are incapable of entering Paradise," he wrote.
Prince Ali insists he is a reluctant candidate, pressured into running by the tribal elders who support him. He is president of the National Coalition for Dialogue with Tribes of Afghanistan. A report he issued warned: "At the current rate of decline, support for the coalition forces is likely to have evaporated by early 2010. We could then be faced with the prospects of a nationwide jihad."
His uncle was the modernising King Amanullah who introduced girls' schools, outlawed torture, and let women unveil in Kabul. He fled Afghanistan in 1929 amid a conservative revolt. Prince Ali is also a distant cousin of the late King Zahir Shah, who tried to turn Afghanistan into a democracy. He was exiled in 1973, amid a conservative coup.
"Trying to force fit Afghanistan into a Western template is likely to arouse resistance and risk failure," Prince Ali warned. "Afghan history has plenty of examples where reforming zeal has foundered on the rocks of conservatism."