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Afghanistan: Is Former Monarch Credible Taliban Alternative?

Afghanistan's exiled former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, has recently emerged from obscurity as a possible uniting figure for his country, should the Taliban be deposed. Who is the former monarch, what is his background, and how is his rule remembered?

Prague, 1 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- While visiting Italy in 1973, Afghanistan's King Mohammed Zahir Shah was deposed by his cousin, and that is where the exiled monarch has remained ever since, ensconced in a villa in the leafy suburbs of Rome.

Zahir watched from afar as his country struggled under Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989 and then descended into anarchy and eventual Taliban domination. At 86 years old, he had been written off by most observers as a relic of history.

But all this changed after the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States. Zahir now finds himself the center of attention as a possible focus of efforts to assemble a new anti-Taliban coalition. On 30 September, the former king met representatives of the Northern Alliance opposition as well as U.S. congressmen in Rome. He received strong backing from U.S. delegation member Curt Weldon, a Republican representative from the state of Pennsylvania:

"He stressed to us that this is not a power-seeking move on his part. He is there to serve if the opportunity arises. He wants to see the people of Afghanistan liberate themselves -- that's the same thing we want. But we think perhaps that he is the person who can rally those against the Taliban most effectively."

And today, an adviser to the ex-king, former Justice Minister Sattar Sierat, announced that the former monarch and the Northern Alliance had agreed to work together to oust the Taliban:

"The delegations agreed to create a structure in the name of the Supreme Council for the National Unity of Afghanistan."

The Supreme Council, Sierat said, would work to represent all of Afghanistan's people:

"This Supreme Council for the National Unity of Afghanistan, considering the present situation prevailing in the world and in Afghanistan, will act or serve as the representative of the entire people of Afghanistan, which would be able to reflect the wishes and expectations and aspirations of the Afghan people."

Sierat said a traditional grand council of Afghan leaders would soon be called. This council would then convene a Loya Jirga, made up of representatives of all of Afghanistan's ethnic and tribal groupings, to decide on the country's new government. It was not immediately clear when or where the Loya Jirga would take place or whether it was dependent on the Taliban being ousted from power.

Are hopes that Zahir is the right man to unite the Afghan opposition well placed? Opinions among Afghan experts are mixed.

Mohammed Zahir Shah ascended to the throne in 1933 and ruled Afghanistan for 40 years. U.S. officials say the length of his tenure and the modernization programs launched under him point to his ability to unite and rule wisely. Those programs included the building of roads, the establishment of health facilities, the opening of the country's first university, and the drafting of a new constitution in 1963.

But Willem Vogelsang, a leading Dutch scholar on Afghanistan at the University of Leiden and author of a forthcoming history of the country, disagrees with this view. He told RFE/RL that for much of his time on the throne, Zahir did not actually rule. The last 10 years of his reign, when he did take firm control, were marked by increasing polarization and a failure to build long-lasting political institutions. Vogelsang opposes attempts to idealize Zahir's legacy:

"Forget about it. He was king from 1933. He was very young when his father was assassinated, so in 1933 he was made king. For the first 20 years or so he was under the tutelage of his uncles, one of whom was prime minister for 10 to 12 years and then another one came to the fore. And then in 1963 it was his cousin who took over. But in 1963, his cousin Daoud was deposed and he became the king with a prime minister from outside the royal family. And between 1963 and 1973, in the constitutional period, the Afghans were desperately trying to build up a state, to build up a constitutional state, but it just didn't work."

Vogelsang notes that despite passage of the constitution, Zahir never signed a law allowing the formation of political parties. He says the period was marked by growing instability, which eventually led to the king's overthrow.

"All through the 1960s, you have this development in Afghanistan whereby, especially young people, they either turn very left-wing -- the Communist, Maoist groups -- or very right-wing, the ones who later turned into the Islamic resistance parties against the Soviet Union. So, it was a very unstable period, and many Afghans still blame Zahir Shah for the developments in those years."

But Arif Azizpour, another Afghan analyst who used to work for Radio Free Afghanistan when it broadcast from Munich, says that despite those shortcomings, most Afghans still have positive memories of the king -- especially when measured against the misery they endured under Soviet, and later Taliban, rule:

"I do think that the majority of people -- despite some considerations over political parties -- despite that, I think even those parties playing a role when he was king of Afghanistan, have come to the conclusion that he can play a very good role."

One advantage Zahir has is that he is a Pashtun, the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, from whose ranks the Taliban has traditionally drawn support. Vogelsang says that if moderate Pashtun leaders can be persuaded to ally themselves with the former king, this could give him the platform he needs to make a comeback and sap the Taliban's power base.

"A solution would be to try to involve the traditional moderate leaders of the Pashtun tribes, of the Pashtun community. They are the ones that lost power when the Taliban came in. The Taliban is based on Islam while the traditional leaders are based on being Pashtun, and perhaps the traditional leaders of the Pashtun may support the king."

Skeptics point to the ex-monarch's advanced age, 86 years. But Azizpour says this could actually be an advantage:

"Traditionally, in Afghanistan, the older people are more respected. For the majority of Afghans, older people are more respected and they think that older people can solve problems better than younger ones."

The upcoming months may give ex-king Mohammed Zahir a chance to prove just that.

(RFE/RL's Tajik and Turkmen services contributed to this report.)