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Afghanistan Report: August 15, 2007

No 'High Hopes' For Peace Jirga

Afghan men at a tea house in the southern Kandahar Province listening to news of the "peace jirga" on August 9

August 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Tribal leaders and other representatives from the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan are gathered in Kabul for a three-day assembly being billed as the first "Joint Peace Jirga" between people in the two countries.

JoAnna Nathan, the International Crisis Group's resident expert in Kabul, tells RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz that official Pakistan never appears to have taken the assembly as seriously as its counterpart across the border.

RFE/RL: Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was meant to lead Pakistan's delegation at the Afghan-Pakistan "Joint Peace Jirga," but he has pulled out of the gathering, sending Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz instead. What does Musharraf's absence bode for the event?

JoAnna Nathan: We've really got to see what it means -- whether this was a snub or whether this is about domestic events going on in Pakistan, which could well overtake whatever the jirga does produce. I don't think the Pakistanis ever took this as seriously as the Afghans did. It keeps on having been pushed off for a long time now because of the apparent reluctance on the Pakistani side to tie themselves down to it. Overall, I have to say I have never held out great hope for what it could produce. So I'm not sure whether having Musharraf there or not would have a dramatic effect either way.

RFE/RL: Tribal leaders from North Waziristan also are not attending the "Joint Peace Jirga" in Kabul. They have complained that there are no Taliban representatives there. They've also demanded that Pakistani military forces abandon checkpoints in the tribal region of North Waziristan as a precondition of attending. What impact do you think all of this will have on the outcome of the jirga?

Nathan: The jirga is a traditional conflict-resolution mechanism here in the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are largely Pashtun areas and Pashtun mechanisms. What this [jirga] is, actually, is a gathering of 700 people -- several hundred from each side of the border -- from provincial councils, from parliaments, from civil society [and] of all the different ethnic groups.

I think it was always fairly unclear exactly what this was and what could come out of it because it's not institutionalizing anything. So who these people represented, what decision-making authority they had, and how to actually institutionalize and action any decisions that were taken were all very unclear. I really do hope it is undertaken in a spirit of dialogue rather than confrontation. And I think, perhaps, it could have been more useful to have actually restricted it more narrowly to people-to-people contact across that border area.

RFE/RL: What is the mood in Kabul among ordinary Afghans about the "Joint Peace Jirga?" Are people there cynical about the gathering, or are there positive hopes about what it could achieve?

Nathan: It's not generating a lot of excitement at all. I think "irrelevant" is too strong a word. But it's just not seen by ordinary people, certainly, that this will generate any giant leap forward. So I don't think anyone is holding out high hopes of this producing a breakthrough. And to a certain extent, I am actually worried that officials have put too many eggs in this basket. And what is the plan? And what will happen when this is over?

Insurgents Kidnapping Afghans, Disrupting Society

By Farangis Najibullah

Afghan National Army soldiers search a school in Spin Boldak after it was damaged by a bomb blast last year

August 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- While almost every hostage crisis in Afghanistan that involves foreigners makes headlines in world media, the abduction and killing of local Afghans often goes unnoticed.

But being kidnapped for ransom is just one of many problems facing ordinary Afghans in the southern and eastern provinces where the Taliban are most active. And the situation has worsened as observers say the Taliban are increasingly targeting innocent civilians.

Ajabgul is a 22-year-old resident of Lashkargah, the administrative center of Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan.

According to international rights group Human Rights Watch, the Taliban's most worrisome new tactic is suicide bombings. The group said some 800 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in suicide attacks last year.

Held For Ransom

In recent years Helmand has became a center for the Taliban-led insurgency. Ajabgul, who runs a small shop in the city, says he was kidnapped recently by a group of armed men on his way home from work.

"It was around 7:45 in the evening," he said. "They forced me into their car. They blindfolded me. At 1 a.m. they took me somewhere. They tied my hands and put tape on my eyes. There were four other [hostages]. They beheaded two of [them] that night."

Ajabgul said he gave his abductors his brother's phone number and subsequently was freed after his brother agreed to pay the $16,000 ransom that the kidnappers demanded.

General Hussein Andiwal, the chief of police in Helmand Province, confirmed Ajabgul's account of the abduction and said it was not a unique case in the region.

"I know that two or three kidnappings have taken place during the past month, and it is big problem for us," he said. "We are keeping an eye on the kidnapping network, and [those responsible] will be detained soon. I cannot disclose anything more about this issue."

Local Abductions Unnoticed

Unlike the abduction of foreigners -- which usually is followed by international media coverage and the active involvement of the Afghan and foreign governments to free the captives -- the kidnappings of Afghans go largely unnoticed and unreported. Usually the hostages' family members have to pay the ransom -- if they can afford it -- in order to free their loved one.

Being kidnapped and held for ransom is one of many security problems that Afghans face, mainly in the country's southern and eastern provinces where the Taliban is strongest.

Tens of civilians have also fallen victim to ongoing military operations in the area as Taliban fighters reportedly hide among villagers.

News agencies quoted Gereshk Governor Abdul Hanaf as saying that some 25 civilians were killed during NATO air strikes in the area on July 28.

Dozens of others were reportedly killed and wounded on August 3, when air strikes targeted two Taliban commanders allegedly meeting in Helmand's Baghran district.

The continuing insecurity caused by the insurgent activity has also resulted in great losses to many local businesses, and in the shutdown of medical facilities and schools.

Terrorizing Schools

The Taliban often threaten people who work for the government or send their children to public schools.

Zuhur Afghan, the spokesman for the Education Ministry, said that 140 schools have been set on fire by militants in the past year -- the overwhelming majority of them in the southern and eastern parts of the country.

An estimated 300,000 children have stopped going to school due to the lack of security. Zuhur Afghan said the Taliban have attacked teachers and even young children while on their way to school.

"Since July of last year until today we have lost some 85 people who worked for the education system," he said. "They were killed by the Afghan nation's enemies. Some 50 education workers have been wounded."

Fleeing Insecurity

Speaking at a press conference in Washington on August 6, President Hamid Karzai said the Taliban -- which he described as a "defeated" and "frustrated" force -- have lately been focusing on soft targets, which means innocent civilians.

"The Taliban do pose dangers to our innocent people: to children going to school, to our clergy, to our teachers, to our engineers, to international aid workers," he said.

According to international rights group Human Rights Watch, the Taliban's most worrisome new tactic is suicide bombings. The group said some 800 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in suicide attacks last year.

The insecure situation has even forced thousands of Afghans -- many of whom have spent many years as refugees in Pakistan -- to leave their homes once again.

Some 50,000 people have reportedly been displaced in Helmand Province alone.

'Economic Development' Needed To Fight Taliban

Philip H. Gordon

August 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Philip H. Gordon is a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy with the Washington-based Brookings Institution who has authored numerous books or articles on counterterrorism and security in the broader Middle East. He spoke recently with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Abubakar Siddique about U.S.-Pakistani relations. Gordon described Islamabad's results against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda as "mixed," and argued that "economic development and modernization" are the best weapon against extremism.

RFE/RL: You advocate more economic and humanitarian aid for Pakistan. Why?

Philip H. Gordon: I think, in the long run, it's really economic development and modernization that are going to help with the problem of extremism. I think in the United States right now -- especially with the talk of Al-Qaeda reorganizing and extremism growing -- there's a temptation to want to deal with these issues with military force. And I think that there is a real risk that that would backfire and alienate the populations of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and I think that in the long run it's not the right approach.

RFE/RL: The U.S. Congress in late July passed legislation that would tie all U.S. aid to Pakistani efforts against Al-Qaeda and Taliban, and also its effort to promote democracy and reduce poverty and corruption. Do you think that this legislation will have a similar effect to that of the Pressler amendment targeting Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program in 1992, when Pakistan was sanctioned up to its eyeballs?

Gordon: That, of course, was very unpopular in Pakistan and that caused a lot of resentment in Pakistan -- and, I might add, didn't really deal with the problem because Pakistan pursued its nuclear program anyway. And I worry that this could have a similar effect in alienating the Pakistani population, in impeding Pakistan's development, and yet not actually getting the government to take the measures that the United States wants it to do.

RFE/RL: How do you respond to other experts who point to the dismal performance that Musharraf has shown in curbing Al-Qaeda and Taliban?

Gordon: I agree with those critics who say that Pakistani action in those areas has been mixed. I think, on one hand, there is a sign that Pakistan is helping -- a number of the so-called high-value detainees that the United States has captured have been captured in Pakistan [and] Pakistan has deployed soldiers and lost some of them in battles with extremists. So there is some sign that Pakistan is helping. There are also signs that it is not, and that Taliban from Afghanistan get refuge in Pakistan and that Pakistan's efforts are not 100 percent. But the question is whether cutting off American aid to Pakistan would lead to the sort of whole-hearted successful effort that the United States, understandably, would like to see. I'm not sure that it would, and I fear that it could backfire.

RFE/RL: What would be the likely fallout of U.S. military strikes inside Pakistan against Al-Qaeda? Senior administration officials have been talking about such actions for some time now.

Gordon: The National Intelligence Estimate [in July] suggested that Al-Qaeda is reorganizing along the border and in some places in Pakistan. And the [Bush] administration has said that nothing is ruled out, including strikes on actionable targets. And that has led to a lot of speculation about what the United States might do. I think if there really were clear and obvious targets -- of people training and plotting to attack the United States in a terrorist attack -- inevitably the United States would act and should act. That's what any country would do if it were able to prevent a horrific attack on its soil.

But I am concerned that we don't have such clear and obvious targets, and I think we shouldn't underestimate the negative results that would come in Pakistan if the United States started undertaking military strikes without the authorization of the Pakistani government in Pakistan. So I would much prefer -- to the extent possible -- that Pakistanis deal with this problem that, I should add and stress, they are also opposed to.

A vast majority of Pakistanis don't want extremist elements in Pakistan, don't want to support terrorism, and would want to fight it. And I would rather see the United States working with them than undertaking attacks that could lead to a backlash in Pakistan against the United States and make things worse.

RFE/RL: How real do you think the Al-Qaeda central regrouping is in Pakistan and how big a threat is it to international security -- U.S. security in particular?

Gordon: I do think it's real and I do think it's a threat. There seems to be no doubt that some of the [Al-Qaeda] leadership has found sanctuary in these ungoverned areas, and it's a good place to hide. I think, though, it can be exaggerated in this notion that there is some organized multinational Al-Qaeda movement that is directed in a centralized way from big camps in Pakistan. I don't think there is much evidence of that.

I think rather that what we call "Al-Qaeda" covers a whole range of different smaller groups -- some acting on their own, some acting in part with training and direction from Al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan, and some perhaps acting more directly. So I think it's very complicated, but [the] bottom line [is], yes, it's a problem, it's a threat, and it's a serious one.

RFE/RL: Hearing news about the U.S. wanting to arm Persian Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, where do you see Pakistani-U.S. cooperation going vis-a-vis Iran?

Gordon: It is fair to see the recent proposal to sell large amounts of weapons to the Gulf states in the context of Iranian influence or in the context of containing Iranian influence in the region. I think also that the Bush administration initially hoped that it could pressure these [Gulf] regimes to move in a more democratic direction. The reality is it knows that it's not going to happen anytime soon and it needs to have good security relations.

I really haven't heard Pakistan mentioned in that context. It is true that good military relations with Pakistan might help in containing the threat from Iran. But at the same time, it's linked to the other issue of Pakistani efforts on Al-Qaeda. The more Pakistani cooperation you see on efforts to contain Al-Qaeda, the more enthusiastic the United States would be about weapons sales and military cooperation. But if on the other hand, it appears that Pakistani military establishment is not prepared to fully move against Al-Qaeda, it would be a hard sell to the Congress to authorize military sales so long as that's the perception.

RFE/RL: Why do you think the United States has largely failed to reconcile Musharraf and Karzai, while it has been successful in kind of de-escalating the tensions between India and Pakistan, which are supposed to be archrivals?

Gordon: I think the United States is doing what it can and trying. The reality is that when you have such insecurity, leaders -- and it's true of Musharraf or Karzai -- want to blame somebody else for it. And as Karzai gets in trouble at home for insecurity in his country, it is very tempting for him to say that the problem lies on the other side of the border because Pakistan isn't doing enough. That similar dynamic, I think, applies on the Pakistani side, where Pakistan doesn't want any blame for that and says, "No, if there are Taliban fighting against NATO and against Karzai, they are Taliban on the other side." And Musharraf doesn't want to take the blame, and he doesn't want to alienate his Pashtun population by cracking down too hard.

So I think it's easy for them -- when things aren't going well, and the rise in violence suggests they're not -- to blame the other side rather than work together on the issue. That's clearly an important concern of the United States, to get them to stop blaming each other and start working together on it.

RFE/RL: Why do you think United States has failed precisely on this issue to convince Pakistan to give up what some say are its Taliban proxies in Afghanistan?

Gordon: I think a lot of Americans are very frustrated with Pakistan's apparent unwillingness to do that. My understanding is that Pakistan has always seen the idea of having a sort of "client" in Afghanistan -- dependent on it -- as an important part of its overall strategy. And given the ongoing tensions with India -- even though things are better than they have been in the past -- but given the perceived threat from India, and especially with the U.S.-Indian cooperation flourishing, some in Pakistan are reluctant to see Afghanistan develop in a direction that it would be very close to the United States -- and even, frankly, close to India -- and Pakistan would feel encircled if it didn't have a friend or client in Afghanistan. So that -- plus the ethnic element, where there are obvious links, ethnic and historical, between especially Pashtuns on both sides of the border -- there is a tendency in parts of Pakistan to see the Taliban at least as people who are going to defend Pashtun interests in both places.

So if you put these both things together, then you can understand, a little bit, why Pakistan is not willing to cut off the Taliban. I say you "understand" that; it seems to me a sort of analytical explanation. But I think a lot of Americans are appropriately frustrated with that -- because in the long run, Pakistan's interests really are to have a stable, democratic Afghanistan on one side and a stable, democratic India on the other. And with that, I think that Pakistan could ensure its security and its development and its growth and its prosperity -- but I think it's hard for some in Pakistan to see it that way.

Top U.S. Commander Optimistic On Developments In Eastern Region

By Ahto Lobjakas

Afghan National Army soldiers (file photo)

August 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A top U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan says the country's armed forces are increasingly able to hold their own against insurgents in one of the country’s more troubled areas.

Speaking this week in a video-link news briefing from the Bagram airfield in Afghanistan, Brigadier General Joseph Votel, deputy commander of NATO's regional eastern command, praised the Afghan National Army's growing competence.

He also praised its ability to cooperate not only with NATO forces, but also with local authorities and its Pakistani counterpart across the border.

He told the briefing that the Pakistani military’s increased military presence in Pakistan’s restless tribal areas, which followed the siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad last month, may already be having an effect on the cross-border traffic of insurgents into Afghanistan.

"Over the last week compared to the week previous to that, border incidents -- activities along our forces [at the]border here at Regional Command East have really decreased by 50 percent. Over time, if we look at about a month or so, there has been a slight rise, but as I mentioned, just recently over the last week we've seen a little bit of a decrease," Votel said.

"Whether that is caused by the Red Mosque incident [in Islamabad], the activities there, or the increase in Pakistani military activity in the Federally Administered Tribal Area, that could be one explanation for it."

Border Patrols

Votel said that in a "normal week," his forces are involved in some 10-20 "incidents" along the 900-kilometer stretch of border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which they patrol. He said the length of the border and the extremely rugged terrain in the region mean no one really knows how many illicit incursions into Afghanistan go undetected.

Votel said the mainly U.S. forces in the area are braced for further insurgent movements across the border as military operations on the Pakistani side of the border continue. He said his troops are in "near real-time" tactical contact with Pakistani units across the border.

"We rate their capabilities as becoming very, very good. They are definitely moving in the right direction."

Although the region is one of the most difficult, Votel said the Afghan National Army (ANA) is doing very well.

He noted that its main shortcomings have to do with what are known as "enabling capabilities" -- the equipment and logistics needed to support a military operation -- rather than manpower or skills.

"We rate their capabilities as becoming very, very good. They are definitely moving in the right direction. We look at the Afghan company-size formations, we look at their battalions and we [see that] they are capable of conducting operations, [although] in most cases they are still dependent on ISAF forces to help them with some of their logistics, to help them with aerial movement, to help them with close air support in situations where it is needed and certainly to help them with [medical evacuation] capabilities," Votel said.

'Leadership Qualities'

Votel also praised the ANA's "leadership qualities." He highlighted one particular recent operation in eastern Ghazni Province, in which an Afghan corps commander was in overall command of a force consisting of both ANA and NATO units.

Although Afghan officers have previously led operations involving NATO units in other parts of the country, none is said to have matched the scope of that in eastern Ghazni.

Votel said the ANA's standards are improving against the backdrop of a heightened threat presented by the insurgents. He said there exists an Al-Qaeda "influence" in Afghanistan's eastern provinces, which manifests itself in the presence of foreign fighters who lend local insurgents "confidence and expertise." Apart from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, numerous other groups are known to be active in the region, further complicating the situation there.

Votel also noted the increased use of heavy weaponry by insurgents, citing increased attempts to target NATO aircraft from the ground with rockets. He said some of the weapons recovered from insurgents were manufactured in Iran, but added there is no evidence about whether the weapons signify the Taliban enjoy direct support from the Iranian government.

Votel said that surveys conducted within NATO's eastern command region show the ANA is seen by the Afghan population as "one of the most respected institutions." He said, however, that the country's police force lags behind the ANA by comparison.

"Certainly there is work left to be done with the police structure here. We think we've got a lot of good things in place to do that. It will take some time, the Afghan National Police are probably a year or more, probably a couple of years behind where the army is right now. We've got efforts to really focus on area, and make sure we give them the capabilities they need to be successful," Votel said.

Votel did not answer a question about how long it will take for the Afghan army and police to be able to provide security in the country's east without a constant Western presence. However, he did say he "grows more optimistic every day" of the possibility of such an eventuality.

Votel said he believes that given the choice, Afghans will chose the vision of a stable and democratic Afghanistan over the "vision of the Taliban."

NATO Sees 'Tribal' Nature To Taliban Insurgency

By Ahto Lobjakas

Ferron said the Pashtun tribes don't recognize the Afghan-Pakistani border (file photo)

BRUSSELS, July 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- NATO's top intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Canadian Brigadier General Jim Ferron, says the tribal nature of the dominant Pashtun population makes the Taliban insurgency difficult to contain.

Speaking to a small group of journalists over a video link from Kabul on July 19, Ferron also said NATO believes the insurgency's roots are in the economic deprivation prevalent in Afghanistan, and not in implacable religious fundamentalism.

At the midpoint of his yearlong stint as chief intelligence officer of NATO's International Stabilization Force for Afghanistan (ISAF), Ferron readily admits there is little that is tangible or clear-cut about the problems he's grappling with.

Given the complexity and hermetic nature of Afghan society, NATO officials say there is no hard data on the number of insurgents, their precise composition, or motives.

Ferron says NATO is "very concerned" about the possible financial support, training, and ideological guidance the Taliban movement might be providing to what he describes as "traditional" Afghan insurgents. But he adds the caveat that NATO "does not have enough of an understanding" of the specifics of this relationship.

Tribal, Not National Organization

Much of what NATO has to go on is limited to deductions from basic facts. Ferron repeatedly highlighted the importance of the fact that Pashtun society, which provides most recruits to the Taliban, straddles the Afghan-Pakistani border and traditionally pays little heed to the frontier.

"As we all know, the Afghan insurgency is essentially a tribal-based organization, and tribes -- and this is not a political statement about borders -- but tribes, such as the Pashtun, do not recognize borders," he said.

"They base their movement along traditional lines and along their historical culture. So the fact that we see the insurgency moving across the Pakistan-Afghan border is not secret, [the question] is how we interdict or how we stop that," Ferron concluded.

Ferron said that puts Pakistan in an immensely influential position. He said Afghanistan is likely to be affected by the events that have followed the recent storming by Pakistani forces to wrest the Red Mosque from militants barricaded inside. Ferron said Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has promised NATO to follow up the siege of the Red Mosque with further initiatives against the frequently Pashtun insurgents.

Ferron said that the insurgents -- mostly concentrated in North and South Waziristan along the border with Afghanistan -- face a choice: They must either fight the Pakistani Army or cross over to Afghanistan.

Ferron said NATO is ready if they choose the second option. But Ferron also warned that the spillover of a growing radicalization of ethnic Pashtuns in Pakistan into Afghanistan may be unavoidable if it allowed a "stranglehold" on one region.

"So, if you take a communications network which is a tribal network -- and [given] that the Pashtuns are tribal, something that would be in effect in Pakistan, [that is] the 'Talibanization' [referred to in the question] -- if it does have an opportunity to take a stranglehold or to become stronger in one region, there is a definite potential that it moves stronger throughout that entire 'Pashtun belt,'" Ferron said.

Complicated Motives

Ferron identified the rejection of Western influence as an important motivating factor in the mostly Pashtun-derived insurgency in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

"If you take the component parts of these combatants and this theater, there are certainly those elements which have an ideological basis, an ideological belief, that what is happening in their country does not meet with their ideals in terms of governance, and, yes, I'll say religion," he said.

But Ferron quickly qualified this by saying he does not like to use the term "fundamentalism." He also emphasized that there are many Pashtuns who have not joined the insurgency.

Ferron said he believes the deeper causes of the insurgency are social in nature -- poverty, lack of economic opportunities, and insufficient levels of education. He says these factors might trump ideological fervor when it comes to the motives of the young men joining the insurgency.

"Who is 'the enemy' in Afghanistan? Who is 'the enemy'? 'The enemy' is illiteracy, it's poverty, it's unemployment," he said. "It is the social factors that do not allow a vibrant economy. So when you have young men, primarily, who may or may not be in a Pashtun tribe, [and who] have nothing else, they go potentially to the insurgency motivated by money, not necessarily by an ideological foundation."

Opium As Livelihood

Ferron said opium-poppy cultivation in Afghanistan further complicates matters. For many farmers, poppy growing constitutes their livelihood and, faced with the eradication drive, they have two options -- give up their livelihood or fight for it.

Ferron noted that if they fight, the poppy farmers automatically become insurgents from NATO's point of view. He said poppy growers, the criminal gangs trafficking heroin, and the Taliban live in a "symbiotic relationship." They all may have different aims, but they all need money to achieve them, and that is why all need the drug trade.

Ferron observed that in Afghanistan's north, the insurgency is mostly "criminal" in nature, linked to the interests of drug traffickers.

Former King Mohammad Zahir Shah Dead At 92

By Charles Recknagel

Former King Mohammad Zahir Shah in July 2004

July 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan has announced three days of official mourning over the death of the country's former king, 92-year-old Mohammad Zahir Shah.

The life of the deposed monarch spanned some of the most tumultuous times in Afghanistan's modern history, including the Soviet invasion, years of factional warfare, and the fundamentalist rule of the Taliban.

His final years saw him return to Kabul, not as king but as a frail "father of the nation" intent on helping bring democracy to his homeland.

President Hamid Karzai paid tribute to the former king in a statement today in Kabul: "On the death of the 'father of the nation,' I announce three days of national mourning. The Afghan flag will fly at half-staff, and there will be prayer events throughout the country."
"His death will have a negative impact on Afghanistan's political situation, and I am concerned that, after his death, there may be chaos in Afghanistan."

Zahir Shah only recently returned to the global spotlight after decades of relative obscurity.

The former Afghan monarch returned from exile in April 2002 in a blaze of media coverage that overnight made him a key symbol of international hopes for the country's reconstruction. His return, from nearly three decades of exile in Rome, came just months after the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban and the inauguration of a new UN-backed interim administration.

Unifying Figure

A biographer of the former king, Woriz Stanikzai, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan today that he worries that Zahir Shah's death could bring further trouble to a country that has had little respite from warfare since the coup that ousted the monarch in 1973.

"My personal view is that the entire nation was satisfied with him. Every tribe was counting on him and had special hope in him," Stanikzai said. "His presence in Kabul was very important for the peace process. Because of the respect for him, Karzai became president. His death will have a negative impact on Afghanistan's political situation, and I am concerned that, after his death, there may be chaos in Afghanistan."

Zahir Shah was an ethnic Pashtun steeped in classical Persian culture who had strong cultural ties to all of Afghanistan's ethnic groups. He asserted upon his return that he had no personal ambitions of restoring the monarchy. Instead, he said his only desire was to foster Afghan unity.

"I am not after reviving the monarchy, and my wish is to bequeath my services to the long-suffering people of Afghanistan. And I pledge, whatever my position, to foster national unity toward reestablishing democratic governance in accordance with the values of the Islamic religion," he said in June 2002 as he opened Afghanistan's first Loya Jirga, or national assembly, in decades.

That Loya Jirga endorsed the transitional government headed by Hamid Karzai that steered Afghanistan to its first-ever direct presidential election in October 2004.

Karzai won the 2004 presidential vote, and Afghanistan held provincial and national parliamentary elections nearly a year later, in September 2005.

Memories Of 'Golden Age'

Upon his return, Zahir Shah was warmly welcomed by many Afghans who regard his 40-year reign (from 1933 to 1973) as a "golden age" -- at least compared to the years of violence that followed.

The king was deposed in a bloodless coup in 1973 by a leftist cousin, Sardar Mohammad Daoud Khan. That set the stage for further power struggles. The Soviet invasion followed in 1979; then came years of factional warfare following the defeat of the Soviets in 1989 and, finally, the fundamentalist Taliban's capture of Kabul in 1996.

But while the former king was considered widely popular, his return was regarded as a threat by some political factions in the Afghan capital. Zahir Shah returned from exile surrounded by an entourage that for years had sought to retain influence in Afghan affairs, making rivalries with competing groups inevitable.

'Father Of The Nation'

In an apparent effort to defuse such tensions, the U.S.-backed Afghan administration bestowed on Zahir Shah the title "father of the nation." The position carried no official powers, and the former monarch confined himself to ceremonial functions and to quietly using his personal influence to enlist tribal and other leaders in Afghan reconstruction.

Zahir Shah used his appearance at the unveiling of the draft of Afghanistan's new constitution in November 2003 to make one of his frequent pleas for Afghans to work together.

"I hope that this constitution guides the people of Afghanistan toward prosperity and happiness," he said. "I wish that this constitution should be based on Islamic laws and democracy, and I ask God for prosperity for the people of Afghanistan forever."

During the past four years, Zahir Shah has been regularly meeting with citizens, as well as with tribal and religious leaders from all over Afghanistan. He has also been attending official ceremonies, including the December 2005 swearing in of Afghanistan's first parliament in 30 years, which he praised as "a step towards rebuilding Afghanistan after decades of fighting."

Zahir Shah had been in declining health for years. He was reported to be seriously ill and bed-ridden earlier this year.