An associate of former Afghan King Zahir Shah has returned to Afghanistan for the first time in more than 30 years on a fact-finding mission for the former monarch. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz has been traveling with Habib Mayar Wardak as he investigates the political situation in Afghanistan ahead of Zahir Shah's expected return in a few weeks' time. He filed this story from the village of Chak in Wardak Province.
Chak-i-Wardak, 4 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When an associate of Afghanistan's former king, Zahir Shah, returned to his home in Wardak province in early March after more than 30 years abroad, even a former Taliban fighter joined in the celebratory dance.
A drummer with a white beard beat the rhythm of the Afghan national dance, Atan-i-Meli, while Pashtun militiamen under the command of Mohammad Nayeem and Sayed Omar fired their guns in time.
Hundreds of tribal elders, men, and young children were on hand to greet Habib Mayar's return to the central Wardak village of Chak on 1 March. They included ethnic Pashtuns and Hazaras from across the province. Men who now have white in their beards had only been children when Mayar left his homestead beneath Dushakh mountain in 1971.
Back home once again, Mayar's presence means more than closure in a personal odyssey. Mayar also is serving a mission for Zahir Shah. He is studying the political situation that the former king will face during his expected return to Afghanistan after leaving the country in 1973 and settling in Rome. Zahir Shah's long-awaited return could take place as soon as a few days before Afghanistan's solar New Year, Naw Rooz, on 21 March.
Sources in Kabul indicate that interim leader Hamid Karzai is planning a stopover visit in Rome around 18 March on his way back to Afghanistan from a state visit to Berlin.
Karzai's stop in Rome may give Zahir Shah an opportunity to return to Afghanistan in the presence of a popular Afghan leader who also has the backing of the international community.
But one issue that may delay the return of the former king is the deteriorating security situation in the country. The potential for danger was highlighted in February when interim Civil Aviation Minister Abdul Rahman was killed in an alleged plot by senior officials from the Interior and Defense ministries -- the same ministries that are tasked with providing security during Zahir Shah's return.
Both the Defense and Interior ministries are controlled by Jamiat-i-Islami -- a mostly Tajik faction of the Northern Alliance whose interests often oppose those of Zahir Shah's supporters in Karzai's so-called Rome group. Speaking in Paris recently, Karzai noted that security for political players in the country is of utmost importance.
"When we speak of security in our country, we mean political security. When we ask for the expansion of the [International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF], it does not mean that ISAF should go and [make sure] every Afghan man and woman [gets] protection. No, we mean it as a measure of commitment by the international community within Afghanistan," Karzai said.
But in the case of providing security to Zahir Shah, Mayar says domestic political considerations in Afghanistan make it impossible for the former king to return under the escort of any foreign military force. Instead, Mayar -- who heads the Afghan Community in America group, the oldest organization for expatriate Afghans in New York -- has presented a proposal for a security force that is now being explored by the United Nations.
Mayar said he can quickly muster 1,000 young Afghans who were brought up in the United States and Europe -- the children of expatriates who have spent their lives away from the influence of the regional warlords now threatening to push Afghanistan back into war.
"They are very patriotic Afghans and they are very well-educated people. The United Nations should invite that kind of Afghan-American or Afghan-European [from] the time his majesty the king returns to Kabul to the time the king opens the ceremony of the loya jirga [which appoints the transitional authority]. They will protect the king. This is my idea," Mayar said.
The details that still need to be worked out for Mayar's proposal to become reality make it seem unlikely that the plan could be implemented before Naw Rooz -- particularly since such a security force would require approval from the United Nations. But Mayar does appear to have the connections and clout to muster such a force on short notice.
Among the hundreds of well-wishers and admirers who gathered at Chak for Mayar's return, there was clear support for the idea of Zahir Shah heading the transitional authority that is due to take over power from Karzai's administration in June.
Maulawee Mohammad Hassan, head of the Pashtun tribal council in the Chak district of Wardak province, was among those expressing support for Zahir Shah: "Most of us welcome the return of [Zahir Shah], and we do accept him. We want him to come and become the president of Afghanistan [under the transitional authority]. We want him to take all of the power by himself and the people will serve him as they had served him earlier."
Chak council member Mohammad Nayeem Ghafoori seconded Hassan's sentiment: "Zahir Shah is the person who built this country and all of the people support him. We are all looking forward to seeing him as the king or president of Afghanistan."
In fact, Mayar has been careful to explain to Zahir Shah's supporters in Wardak that the former king has absolutely no ambition to reclaim the Afghan throne.
The constitution now in effect in Afghanistan does not allow for the reintroduction of monarchy. But it does allow for the possibility that Zahir Shah could lead the 18-month transitional authority.
Mullah Mohammad Anwar -- a former Taliban police chief who attended the celebrations for Mayar's return -- told RFE/RL that the unifying effect Zahir Shah's return could have on the country would be welcomed even by elements of the Taliban.
"Even if you ask the Taliban, they also agree on a government that can bring all Afghans together, and bring back the educated people [from abroad], and implement security for the country -- a government that can bring an end to foreign interferences," Anwar said. "In fact, Taliban members are still a part of this society. And this is also their wish."
But Mayar himself is the first to admit that there are elements in the Afghan society who do not want Zahir Shah to return -- in particular, a number of militant extremist leaders and regional warlords still active in the country.