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Afghanistan: Afghans Welcome Former King's Return

  • Askold Krushelnycky

The long-awaited return of Afghanistan's former king, Zahir Shah, who has lived in exile in Italy since he was deposed in 1973, has once more been postponed. Many Afghans hope Zahir Shah will be able to assist in uniting the devastated country. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky is in Kabul and spoke with Afghans on the street about how they see Zahir Shah contributing to post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Kabul, 26 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Since the beginning of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, the country's former king, Zahir Shah, has been regarded by many as a figure who could help unite the divided nation.

The 87-year-old former monarch, living in exile in Rome since being deposed in 1973, has announced his intention to return to Afghanistan several times. Each time, however, his journey has been postponed as events in Afghanistan overtook his trip or because it was thought his safety could not be guaranteed.

The king was supposed to finally arrive in Afghanistan this week. At the weekend, however, Afghanistan's interim government and the king's spokesman announced that the former monarch's arrival would again be delayed.

The king's spokesman, speaking from Rome, said: "The trip was postponed to the month of April by the Italian government, not by our side. They have some logistical and technical concerns. We understand, and we are cooperating." The Italian government has taken responsibility for Zahir Shah's safe transportation to Afghanistan.

The head of Afghanistan's interim government, Hamid Karzai, also said the king's arrival was delayed, but said the former monarch would be arriving within the next few days. It now appears as if Zahir Shah will not return to Afghanistan until April.

There were no official reasons given for the delay but, speaking on condition of anonymity, a official close to the Afghan government said it was due to security concerns. He said it might also have to do with protocol, as some within the interim government want the former king to return as an ordinary citizen and do not want to offer him an official residence in the capital, Kabul.

Zahir Shah came to the throne at the age of 19 after the assassination of his father in November 1933. He undertook a number of economic development projects using foreign aid, largely from the United States and the Soviet Union, and maintained Afghanistan's neutral position in international politics. But his reforms had little effect outside the Kabul area.

In the early 1970s the country suffered from drought, famine, and economic problems, as well as from tensions with neighboring Pakistan. Zahir Shah was deposed in a bloodless coup in 1973 by Mohammad Daud Khan, his brother-in-law, who proclaimed Afghanistan a republic with himself as its president. He was later assassinated by Communists in 1978 in a chain of events that led to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan a year later.

There are no accurate opinion polls in Afghanistan, although newspapers and other media in the country claim that between 70 and 80 percent of Afghans want the king to return in some role. Politicians, Western diplomats, aid agencies, and military sources confirm this, saying there appears to be a genuine feeling in the country that the former king's presence could help secure a lasting peace.

Zahir Shah is supposed to be present in June at a traditional conference of Afghan tribal and religious leaders, politicians, intellectuals, military commanders, and other notables. This Loya Jirga is tasked with appointing Afghanistan's 18-month transitional government.

The former king is supposed to arrive well before the beginning of the Loya Jirga, however, to travel around the country and hold meetings to smooth the path for the conference.

Mohammad Najibullah is an Afghan student who is working as a mechanic in Kabul. He says the former king should return to Afghanistan because he is respected and well-liked and because his presence could prevent the Loya Jirga from falling apart in argument.

"I think it's very important because Zahir Shah is a very good man and all the people want him to come to Afghanistan."

Abdul Kayum Sayeel is an Afghan working with the United Nations to help refugees returning to the country. He said he believes the former king's presence would be useful, but that it is not yet known what kind of role the former king wants to play in the future of the country.

"It is quite clear that the king has got a role here in Afghanistan. He was the ruler of Afghanistan. But now it's up to him whether he wants to have a role in the [current] government or not."

Sayeel himself believes the king should take an active part in government.

"I believe that he must have the role in the government, and I believe that anyone who can bring peace and stability to Afghanistan must have a role in the government. Now maybe 60 or 70 percent of the people want peace, and they want the king to return, and he must have a role."

In the end, Sayeel says it will be up to Afghans themselves to decide what sort of a role the king should play.

"It's up to the people of Afghanistan and the nation of Afghanistan whether they accept him as a king or president or elder of Afghanistan."

Haider Siddiq used to be an academic but for the past 18 years has driven a taxi in Kabul. He remembers when Zahir Shah was still on the throne.

"He was actually a very good king for Afghanistan and people liked him very much. Those times when I was a young man and the king was on the throne were a hundred times better than the times of the 'jihad' (resistance against the Soviet occupation) and the other conflicts which followed."

Siddiq strongly believes Zahir Shah should return to Afghanistan and says he was disappointed to hear of yet another delay in the former king's homecoming.

"Of course, he has a political role in the future of the government because all of the people, as we see, are for the king, and he is well-respected here in Afghanistan." But Siddiq believes Zahir Shah's role should be that of an adviser rather than a ruler. He says he does not believe the monarchy should be restored in Afghanistan.

Afghan opinion is divided on whether modern Afghanistan needs a monarch. Many favor the king's return to the country because they believe he will be a powerful symbol of unity, but they do not necessarily want the monarchy restored.

The king himself has said he is not seeking the throne. But a source close to the king, who did not want to be named, said that if Zahir Shah is offered the throne and feels the people want him to be their ruler, he would accept.