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Afghanistan: Former King Begins Long-Awaited Home Journey

  • Askold Krushelnycky

Afghanistan's former king, Zahir Shah, has postponed his return to his battle-scarred country several times since the fall of the Taliban and the appointment of an interim administration, largely over security concerns. But the 87-year-old former monarch finally left Rome, where he has lived in exile since 1973, and has arrived in the Afghan capital, Kabul. Many ordinary Afghans, as well as leaders of the international community, hope the former king will help bring lasting peace to Afghanistan.

Ghazni, Afghanistan; 18 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's former king, Zahir Shah, who has not seen his country since being deposed in a bloodless 1973 coup, began his long-awaited journey home last night.

Many Afghans and world leaders hope he will help bring long-term peace and stability to his country, which has been ruined by 23 years of conflict.

Afghan interim government leader Hamid Karzai flew on 16 April to Rome, where Zahir Shah has lived in exile, to escort him back to Afghanistan. They arrived in the Afghan capital, Kabul, this morning.

Zahir Shah had been expected to return to Kabul several times since the overthrow of the Taliban regime and the appointment of an interim administration in December. He postponed his last scheduled visit in March because of security concerns.

Zahir Shah says he does not wish to rule again. But sources close to the former king believe he would accept the throne if there was a big enough clamor for him to take it.

Zahir Shah says he will try to use his influence and the respect he widely enjoys in the country to pave a smooth way for a traditional conference of Afghan politicians, tribal, religious, and ethnic leaders, military commanders, and other dignitaries, scheduled for June.

The conference, called a loya jirga, is seen by the interim government, the United Nations and international leaders as vital if Afghans are to plan a route to democratic elections and the successful reconstruction of their war-battered country.

In a country where telephones, televisions, and other communications barely function, even in the capital, accurate public opinion polls do not exist. Nevertheless, Kabul newspapers say that up to 80 percent of the population believe the king has a valuable role to play in ensuring the loya jirga is successful.

Afghanistan is a country full of bitter ethnic rivalries, however,and not everyone is welcoming Zahir Shah with open arms. The former monarch comes from the Pashtun tribe, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. But the most influential ministers in Karzai's interim government -- those from the Foreign, Defense, and Interior ministries -- are ethnic Tajiks. It is the Tajiks who formed the majority of the Northern Alliance forces that battled the Taliban for years before taking Kabul last December after massive U.S.-led air strikes and special forces operations tipped the balance against the fundamentalist regime.

They and others are suspicious that the former king aims to restore the monarchy in Afghanistan and thereby lessen the power of politicians, elected or otherwise.

Quari Baba is the governor of the city of Ghazni, capital of the province of the same name, which lies about 150 kilometers west of Kabul. Baba says the people of his province believe the former monarch can help bring peace to Afghanistan.

"I am on good terms with the interim administration of Afghanistan, and I do express my full and strong support to them. I also welcome the king's arrival in Afghanistan, and I consider it as a good omen. I think his arrival will bring an end to the fighting and mischief and discord which have been going on here in Afghanistan," Baba said.

Ghazni City seems plucked straight from the stories of "The Arabian Nights." It is a place of tightly packed houses and mosques set amid narrow streets that wind up steep hills. These are topped with crenellated fortresses and crumbling, domed mausoleums. Most structures are made of the mud and straw mixture called "pahrsa" and look as if they have erupted from the Afghan soil.

Operating around Ghazni are remnants of Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces who are fiercely opposed to the former king and who could try to mount attacks against him.

A fortress atop one of the hills is filled with U.S. Special Forces soldiers. Two soldiers, who refused to give their names, told our correspondent that two missiles were fired into Ghazni on 13 April, probably by Al-Qaeda forces who are still battling U.S.-led coalition forces in various parts of the country.

An Afghan commander in Ghazni, allied with the Americans, and who also would not give his name, said his forces and U.S. troops are preparing to strike a blow at local Al-Qaeda fighters. Governor Baba also said his men are ready to crush the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in their area.

In mid-April, neighboring Wardak Province saw fighting between two Afghan factions that resulted in the deaths of at least nine Afghans. The pro-government side said their pro-royalist opponents want to wreck preparations for the loya jirga. The royalist warlord accused the pro-government troops of wanting to delay the loya jirga process so they can extend their hold on power.

The fighting is still shrouded in confusion and the truth, a slippery commodity in Afghanistan, may never be known. But what is certain is that in a country brimming with weapons, the former king's return could spark renewed fighting.

The man who is to be appointed the new governor of Wardak Province, Mohamad Sherin, spoke to our correspondent in the provincial capital of Maidan Shahr. He said the former king's presence in Afghanistan could help the loya jirga.

"I believe that by convening this loya jirga, permanent peace and security will be implemented here in Afghanistan. It has been the only way in the past of resolving Afghan conflicts or problems. It has been the former, traditional way of resolving our internal struggles and our internal disputes," Sherin said.

Both Baba and Sherin, like most Afghans that RFE/RL has spoken to, believe that stability through security is the key to everything that needs to be done in their country.

Sherin said: "First of all, the most important thing that the people are in need of is security. Security should be implemented and maintained in this area. And once there is security, then everything else will flow from that properly. The economy will develop well and the rehabilitation and reconstruction programs will proceed without problems. We request and hope from the United Nations and the international community that they will help our vulnerable and disadvantaged people by creating or establishing some organizations that will look after the people in order to prevent these problems and in order to promote and improve the condition of the people in this area."

The interim government in Kabul is aware of the many potential threats to Zahir Shah. In recent days, white-helmeted Afghan police in speeding vans and trucks with wailing sirens careening along Kabul's crowded, chaotic streets, have been practicing escorting an empty vehicle representing the former king's convoy.

Now, if all goes according to plan, they will have the chance to perform the maneuvers for real.

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