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Afghanistan: Ex-King Returns To An Afghanistan Full Of Supporters, Enemies

  • Charles Recknagel

Afghanistan's former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, returned home today to an enthusiastic popular welcome tempered by security concerns. The former monarch has said he is returning as a private individual, but many supporters hope, and many of Afghanistan's power-holders fear, that he may again become a major political player in the country's affairs. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at Zahir Shah's return, his past record as the country's monarch, and the questions surrounding his future.

Prague, 18 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As 87-year-old Zahir Shah returns home to Afghanistan, he is completing a round-trip -- Kabul to Rome to Kabul -- that was abruptly interrupted nearly three decades ago.

The former king last saw Kabul in 1973, when he departed his realm for what he expected would be a brief Italian holiday. Instead, while he was away, his cousin seized power in a bloodless coup, abolished the monarchy, and declared himself president.

Supporters say Zahir Shah -- who had ruled Afghanistan for 40 years -- did not resist the coup because he feared doing so would spark a bloodbath. But he never renounced his throne, either for himself or his children, and always said he would return home as soon as possible.

For almost three decades, that possibility never came. The coup by Zahir Shah's cousin Mohammad Daoud -- who had once been the king's prime minister -- set off an increasingly violent power struggle between nationalists, communists, and Islamists that dragged the country into chaos.

In 1978, the communists seized power in a coup in which Daoud was killed, and the next year the Soviet Union sent troops into the country. After a 10-year war with the Islamist mujahedeen, Moscow withdrew and before long the mujahedeen groups themselves fell into a bitter civil war.

The four-year civil war -- which partly destroyed Kabul -- ended in 1996 when the capital was captured by the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban. The Taliban, who ultimately controlled some 90 percent of Afghanistan, fell from power in late 2001 amid U.S. air strikes, leaving behind a country with almost no infrastructure, no economy, and hundreds of fractious warlords.

Now, as Zahir Shah returns, it remains unclear what role he will play in the country's reconstruction. The international community has given him the official function in June of opening the loya jirga, the national assembly which will choose an 18-month government to lead Afghanistan to democratic elections. But after that, the former monarch's political future is vague and likely to be hotly contested.

Representatives of the former king have repeatedly said that Zahir Shah is leaving any decision about his future position to the Afghan people and has no ambitions of his own. Spokesman Hamid Sadiq expressed that position in a recent interview with RFE/RL.

"His majesty has always said that he will never reject the wishes or will of Afghanistan's people or their representatives in a Loya Jirga. He will abide by their will. He does not want to make people accept him as king," Sadiq said.

But correspondents say the ex-king and his family in recent weeks have begun suggesting publicly there could be a future role for a constitutional monarchy in Afghanistan. Ahmad Rafat, RFE/RL's Persian Service correspondent in Rome, says the king's grandson has been so outspoken that -- for now, at least -- he is being left behind in Rome so as not to raise tensions over the monarchy issue further.

"The grandson Mustafa in the last month has said many times he considers the monarchy to be returning to Afghanistan, and he was in some ways promoting himself as the next king after Zahir Shah. So Mustafa is not included in the list of people traveling with the king to Kabul and [informed sources] have told me that [the king's camp] has been asked officially by the Karzai government to exclude him from this trip back home," Rafat said.

Analysts say the former king -- who is an ethnic Pashtun -- enjoys wide popularity among older Afghans who remember his reign as the only peaceful period in their lifetimes. But many of the country's current power-holders regard him and his supporters as dangerous rivals.

That rivalry surfaced dramatically in October when the Northern Alliance -- a loose association of anti-Taliban forces mainly representing Afghanistan's ethnic minorities -- reached a shaky agreement with the former king's camp over forming a post-Taliban government. But when the fundamentalist militia retreated from Kabul the following month, the Northern Alliance unilaterally occupied the capital -- ignoring the protests of the king's camp and the international community.

Today, northern ethnic Tajiks hold the country's key Defense, Interior, and Foreign ministries following a UN-brokered deal in Bonn in December that made Hamid Karzai -- a Pashtun and Zahir Shah supporter -- head of the interim government. Several of the former Northern Alliance leaders have previously said they will only accept the former monarch back as an ordinary citizen.

Burhanuddin Rabbani, the longtime political leader of the now disbanded Northern Alliance (and head of the mujahedin government that was ousted from Kabul by the Taliban in 1996) told reporters recently that he supports Zahir Shah's right to return to his homeland. But he said, "I do not support the idea of a monarchy for Afghanistan.... The world has moved toward a republican form of government and not a monarchy."

The remarks by Rabbani typify the hostility of many former mujahedin leaders who blame Zahir Shah for paving the way for the Communist takeover in the late 1970s by sending students, doctors, and army officers to the Soviet Union for training.

Some of the strongly Islamist mujahedin also object to Zahir Shah's Western orientation. During his reign, the former king supported an end to the wearing of the veil for women and encouraged them to enter government. He also built Afghanistan's first modern university and used foreign aid to begin a cautious modernization of the country.

Amid tensions over his return, the ex-king has postponed his trip several times despite assurances by the interim administration that it will guarantee his safety.

The Italian government called off Zahir Shah's planned homecoming late in March following U.S. warnings of an assassination plot against him. The interim administration subsequently arrested some 300 people it said were planning to kill both Zahir Shah and Karzai and seize power. The administration said the plotters were loyal to ex-mujahedin commander Hekmatyar, an ethnic Pashtun once supported by the U.S. but now strongly anti-American. Hekmatyar's party has denied any involvement.

In Kabul, the ex-monarch will not take up residence at the former royal palace, which today is partly occupied by Karzai and partly by Rabbani. Instead, he will stay in a downtown villa whose windows were recently replaced with bullet-proof glass and whose walls have been strengthened against bomb blasts. The Italian government has said that most security will be provided by Afghan guards but that international peacekeepers, including 350 Italian troops, stand ready to help.

The security concerns are a measure both of Zahir Shah's uncertain future and his tumultuous past. The former king saw a deranged student shoot his father to death before his eyes in 1933. Zahir Shah himself later survived an assassination attempt in Rome in 1991, when a recent convert to Islam posing as a journalist tried to stab him.