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Afghanistan: Only The King Transcends Ethnic And Tribal Divisions

  • Charles Recknagel

As the Afghan crisis continues, Afghanistan's former king, Zahir Shah, is widely mentioned as the man best equipped to bring peace to his country. That is because for many Afghans his 40-year rule was the only peaceful period in living memory. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel speaks with one of the former monarch's supporters within the Afghan exile community in Pakistan to hear the argument for Zahir Shah's return.

Peshawar, Pakistan; 6 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- With U.S. military strikes targeting the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, many in the Afghan exile community in Pakistan say Afghanistan's best hopes for the future depend upon the return of ex-King Zahir Shah.

One of those who makes the argument for the king most forcefully is Rasul Amin, a former Kabul University professor who fled Afghanistan in 1980. He now heads the Afghanistan Study Center in Peshawar, Pakistan, an institute that advocates a peaceful end to Afghanistan's conflicts.

In an interview with our correspondent, Amin set forth the reasons why he and many other Afghans here say that the fastest way to end Afghanistan's two decades of conflict is for the ex-king to return to Kabul from Rome -- where he has been living in exile since being deposed in 1973 -- and revive Afghanistan's sense of national identity. Rasul Amin says: "Why the people of Afghanistan want the former king back is because now we have gone through, for the last 23 years, different regimes. Regimes which were working for ideologies or regimes working for particular parties [or] self-appointed by the ethnic groups. And everybody, including our neighbors, was trying to keep Afghanistan fragmented. Now the Afghans are fed up with all these warlords and the Taliban."

He continues: "Afghanistan has a very historical identity and people in Afghanistan used to live under the name of Afghans only, and this will be our identity again in the future. The Soviets unfortunately created these divisions of naming by ethnic groups in Afghanistan: Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, and Turkmens. I think Afghanistan is a very intermixed country, we have intermarriages in Afghanistan, we are living together, even in the same villages. I think it was a policy of the Soviet Union to divide and rule, and unfortunately our neighboring countries have also tried their best to keep this division wide enough, again to divide and rule."

Amin and others who support the king argue that the monarchy is the only Afghan institution which has enough historical weight among all Afghans to transcend ethnic and tribal divisions and lead the way to popular elections for a broad-based new government. Rasul Amin: "The former king is coming from a dynasty which has ruled for 300 years. He himself has ruled for 40 years. Whenever he was addressing the people of Afghanistan, he never said 'my dear Pashtuns,' 'my dear Tajiks or Uzbeks.' He used only one word -- 'my dear Afghans.' Now we need such a person to get us united."

He adds: "Now we have already experienced all the [other] systems. The leftist system failed in Afghanistan. The mujahedin system, the Taliban, they failed. I think the only way out of this tragedy is that if there is a fall of the Taliban in Kabul -- only in Kabul, I should say -- and security is [put in] there and the former king comes back and people say, 'He is now here, the king is here now,' then I think you'll see the disintegration of all these small groups. When the people say, 'OK, now we are here and there will be reconstruction of my country and a job for me, and I can work in peace,' who is going to fight for [the warlords]?"

Amin says that the greatest fear among Afghans inside Afghanistan today is uncertainty over who will occupy Kabul should the Taliban be ousted. Amin: "When people come from Kabul -- because so many people come -- when we sit together and I ask them how people are feeling there, they say people are confused. They don't know who is going to fill the gap in Kabul. The Northern Alliance, this is not a new phenomenon -- they have ruled Afghanistan in Kabul and left very bad memories. The southern warlords are not a new phenomenon -- the people know about their atrocities, too. That's why the people say that if the Northern Alliance is coming back or the warlords will enter from the south in the name of the Pashtun, there will be a continuation of the fighting."

Amin and others supporting the monarch's return say the only solution to those fears is to assure that whatever force takes Kabul does so to restore the king -- the nation's only symbol of union. They say only that would create a climate in which a broad-based interim government representing all Afghanistan's ethnic groups could operate. And he warns against any divvying up of positions according to factions, as was done in 1992: "In the past, for instance, we had Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks in the cabinet. But they were highly qualified people and they considered themselves first Afghans, and afterwards Pashtuns and Tajiks. The interim period requires a very intelligent government and intelligent administrative members. We have seen the formation of the administration in 1992, when all the mujahedin governments came together and they said, 'This is your ministry, this is my ministry,' and then fighting started."

Rival mujahedin groups finally ousted the Moscow-supported regime from Kabul in 1992 following the 1979-1989 Soviet Afghan war. But that only plunged the country into another 10 years of conflict which still shows no sign of a final resolution.

U.S.-led air strikes in recent days have increasingly devoted operations to targeting Taliban frontline positions around Kabul, where the ruling militia faces forces in the opposition Northern Alliance. But Washington has said it does not want the Northern Alliance to take Kabul unilaterally, and it is unclear if and when a battle for Kabul might take place.

Zahir Shah, who is an ethnic Pashtun, concluded a power-sharing pact with the Northern Alliance leaders in early October. The two sides agreed to form a joint council to convene a traditional national assembly, or Loya Jirga, of representatives of all Afghanistan's ethnic and tribal groupings. Under that plan, the Loya Jirga would elect an interim head of state and government from among the members of the council to prepare for national elections.