Will the Afghans turn to their exiled King?

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Will the Afghans turn to their exiled King?

Born in 1914, Mohamed Zahir Shah, the former king of Afghanistan now being touted as possible leader of a post-Taliban country, lives in a modest four-bedroom villa north of Rome. He was educated in Kabul and in France. He was proclaimed king in 1933, a few hours after his father had been assassinated. He had previously helped his father and brothers reassert government control during a period of lawlessness and had served as a Minister. The young king took the title, “Confident in God, Follower of the Firm Religion of Islam”. Afghanistan’s monarchy had been established in 1919. During the early years of his reign, power was actually exercised by his uncles, who ruled the country through the powerful office of Prime Minister. Throughout the Second World War and afterwards, the king helped steer the country on a path of neutrality. In 1953 his cousin Mohamed Daud became premier but Zahir Shah forced his resignation in 1963, after which he began to assert his own power to the full.

In 1964 he promulgated reforms which provided for a parliament, elections and a free press. Members of the royal family were also banned from holding public office. Parties were not strictly legal but tolerated. Social reforms included attempts to improve the status of women. Foreign aid flowed from both east and west but, apart from roads and irrigation projects, this help made little impact outside the Kabul area. Throughout his reign many potential advances and reforms were stymied through factionalism and constant political infighting. Zahir Shah himself was frequently accused of indecisiveness. However, his reign did see a long period of peace to which many Afghans now look back with nostalgia. During the early 1970s, however, Afghanistan was beset by drought and famine and the demands of Pashtun tribes along the border with Pakistan for autonomy. Zahir Shah frequently travelled abroad and it was during one trip in 1973, while taking mud baths near Naples for his lumbago, that he was overthrown. The coup was led by Mohamed Daud, who declared a republic and himself president.

Although it is almost three decades since he has seen his homeland the former king says he is more than willing to head a transitional government as head of state rather than king. Once he played golf, went skiing and shot partridge in a kingdom at peace but today Zahir Shah wanders the streets of Rome as a hunched, anonymous figure, his reign a golden era of which Afghanistan can only dream. The homeland he remembers had embassy parties, marbled palaces and rivers filled with trout, but that was 1973, the year of his overthrow. Now he is an 86-year-old ex-monarch nearing a third decade in exile. Home is a four-bedroom villa north of Rome, modestly furnished compared to the neighbouring compounds of the Lazio football club’s millionaire players. After breakfast he strolls through deserted lanes before retiring to his drawing room to read about archaeology, Greek mythology, and biographies. He appears forgotten and lost but Zahir Shah is neither. He has been plotting his return and this crisis may sound the call.

Representatives from the US, European Union, UN, and Afghan opposition groups have visited. After the recent murder of opposition leader Ahmad Shah Masood, the one-time king has become a central figure in the US strategy to overthrow the Taliban, with officials eager to install him in place of the militant Islamist leadership. On one point he is clear: should the Taliban be toppled, he is willing to fill the vacuum. He believes the regime is split, unpopular and vulnerable to an Afghan-led overthrow. Analysts say that the French-educated exile is perhaps the only figure with enough weight and symbolism to head any transitional government.

Pakistan and the Taliban have fought to block his return but the west and other powers have wavered, unsure about its plausibility. Zahir Shah would not recognise his country today and Afghans nostalgic about his reign are outnumbered by those too young to remember. Ethnic Tajiks may be suspicious of installing an ethnic Pashtun and all Afghans would be suspicious if he appeared to be an American puppet. He never shows up at Rome’s diplomatic cocktail parties but the exiled king has persuaded some policymakers to back his plan for a jirga, a traditional grand assembly that gathers Afghanistan’s tribal chiefs, intellectuals, religious figures, and politicians. Out of that a transitional government could be formed, with himself as a possible head of state (not a king), until elections could be held. The ex-king wants democracy. Since the current crisis erupted he has refused all interviews but has called on Afghans to “rescue themselves” by renouncing terrorism. Italy has restored his police guard as the importance and number of visitors to his villa increased. His spokesman, Zalmai Rassoul, says the king is a reserved, austere man; after his secret talks he relaxes with a cappuccino, books and satellite television. But, he says, “He is homesick. He wants to go back.” (Royalty Magazine Vol. 17/04)