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Afghanistan: Former King's Delayed Return Highlights Security Concerns

  • Charles Recknagel

Afghanistan's former king, Zahir Shah, has postponed his return to Afghanistan amid reported security concerns in the Italian government, whose forces will escort him home. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks into the nature of the security worries and prospects that the ex-king's homecoming now will take place some time next month.

Prague 26 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's former king, Zahir Shah, has never set a final date for his homecoming, but he had been widely expected to be in Kabul by now.

That expectation was fueled by Afghan interim administration head Hamid Karzai saying earlier this month that he would fly to Rome to accompany Zahir Shah back to Kabul on 23 March. At the same time, some officials in the Italian government told reporters in Rome privately that Italy was making arrangements to provide a plane and security escort for the former monarch to fly anytime between 20-25 March.

But Zahir Shah's expected homecoming was put on hold on 22 March when the Italian Foreign Ministry announced that his trip was being postponed over what was widely reported to be security concerns.

Ahmad Rafat, RFE/RL's Persian Service correspondent in Rome, is closely following the developments. He says that many people in the former king's entourage and the Italian government now expect that Zahir Shah will not return home until the end of next month or early in May. The reason is that it could take until then to resolve several problems that are raising new doubts about the welcome the former king can expect from some key powerholders in Kabul.

Rafat says one of these problems is an apparent resurgence of tensions between the former king's camp and key leaders of Afghanistan's former Northern Alliance, which took power following the collapse of the Taliban late last year.

Those tensions previously reached crisis levels in November when Northern Alliance forces moved unilaterally to occupy Kabul, ostensibly to guarantee law and order. The move by the Alliance -- drawn mostly from Afghanistan's minority Tajik and Uzbek populations -- infuriated the king's camp because it violated a power-sharing agreement with the former king, who is a Pashtun by birth.

Following the Northern Alliance's entrance into Kabul, the Alliance's key political figure, Burhanuddin Rabbani, said repeatedly he saw no political future for the former monarch. He also said Zahir Shah would only be welcomed back as a private citizen.

Rabbani, who returned to Kabul as president of Afghanistan's former mujahedin government (1992-1996), later relinquished his office in a new power-sharing deal at the Bonn conference in December, but still remains a powerful political figure.

Correspondent Rafat says some members of the former king's entourage are now privately charging former Northern Alliance leaders with opposing Zahir Shah's return to inaugurate the emergency Loya Jirga (National Assembly) in June. The Loya Jirga is to select Afghanistan's next temporary government.

"Speaking to the entourage of the ex-king here in Rome, they said that there are some pressures on the Italian government to postpone [Zahir Shah's] return back home because there are forces -- they told me without naming these forces -- that don't want the Loya Jirga in June," Rafat said. "It seems that these people who oppose the trip back home of Zahir Shah belong to the former Northern Alliance and are against any kind of monarchy and want to build up again the old Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, which was in charge of the country from 1992 to 1996."

There has been no immediate response from former Northern Alliance leaders to the charges, which have been made off the record.

Rafat says tensions also may be growing as Zahir Shah in recent days has begun suggesting there might be a future role for the monarchy in Afghanistan -- something he always declined to discuss in the past.

"In the most recent interview by the ex-king with some Italian newspapers, for the first time Mohammad Zahir Shah spoke about the eventuality of the return of the monarchy and that is something very, very new. Until last month, he always declined any questions on this matter, or he answered that the monarchy is over and he is going back just like a [symbolic national] father to help his son, the Afghan people. And I think that is something new and important and somehow can be related to the delay of his trip back home."

Amid these hints of growing political tensions, the question of how to guarantee Zahir Shah's security has become ever more worrisome.

One reason is the assassination of Afghan Tourism Minister Abdul Rahman in February. Karzai later attributed the murder to longstanding personal rivalries and ordered the arrest of several officials, including some who fled the country.

With those events still fresh in mind, both the Afghan interim administration and the Italian government have offered to safeguard the returning former king.

But Rafat says the Afghan interim government's proposed arrangements have proved less than satisfactory for some members of the royal entourage.

"The chief of security services in Afghanistan has said that something like 200 people have been prepared in Afghanistan to give this kind of [security] service to the ex-king. [But] the people in charge are the same people who were in charge of security for [late Northern Alliance] commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. And that is maybe one of the reasons that the ex-king decided not to go back, because as we know, commander Shah Massoud was killed in Afghanistan by people related to Osama bin Laden."

The Italian government now looks almost certain to provide the king's security, continuing its already 29-year-old record of guarding Zahir Shah's home in exile outside Rome. But the government has still to clarify to the Italian parliament exactly how it will provide the service -- adding yet another reason to delay his departure.

Rafat says that in the coming days the Italian government will request parliamentary approval for a plan to provide the ex-king's security at least until the Loya Jirga in June. He says the parliament's approval is needed for security force deployments outside Italy, and it has still to be worked out whether these security forces would be considered part of the Italian contingent of the International Security Assistance Force or be under the United Nations.

As these details are discussed, the ex-king's delayed homecoming is striking a sharp contrast with his own calls -- and calls by Afghanistan's interim administration -- for other expatriates to return home as quickly as possible to reconstruct the country.

At the same time, the fact that the ex-king now looks set to return with foreign security guards may be seen by some Afghans as a weak vote of confidence in their country's prospects for stability. That could make it imperative for the former king to develop his own security force of loyalists as soon as possible to take over from the Italians.

The U.S. daily the "Chicago Tribune" reported yesterday that U.S. military officials may take a role in training a special force of Afghans deemed loyal to the former king. The paper reported that Washington, too, is uncomfortable with leaving his protection to the former Afghan Interior Ministry, whose leaders -- drawn from the former Northern Alliance -- have said they opposed Zahir Shah in the past.

Zahir Shah, who ruled Afghanistan for 40 years, was deposed in a bloodless palace coup in 1973 by his cousin Mohammad Daoud. His return to Kabul will mark the first time he has seen his country in almost three decades.

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