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This transcript is produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

Former King of Afghanistan 1/10/01

DAVID SELLS:
Day in, day out, we see an America girding itself for war. Quite how it proposes to strike against Osama Bin Laden isn't clear, anymore than are its intentions for the bigoted Taliban regime that protects him. But the picture is one of war. What a contrast, then, to find attention over the weekend quietly focusing on Rome, that comfortable Mecca of tourism. The former King of Afghanistan, Mohammed Zaher Shar, lives here in exile and, unexpectedly, the diplomatic spotlight is upon him. He was 19 when he ascended the throne. His own father had been assassinated. The year was 1933 and Mohammed Zaher Shah ruled for 40 years. He shrewdly kept his country out of World War Two, met a series of world leaders, Eisenhower and Khrushchev among them, and was a guest of the Queen. In 1964, he gave Afghanistan a constitution that was unusually democratic for the region. Nine years later, his brother-in-law, disliking those democratic tendencies, kicked him off the throne. For years the former Afghan king, exiled here at the eternal city, has been politely ignored, not least by his own countrymen. Governments too world-wide have long turned a deaf ear to his proposals. That, suddenly, has changed. The former monarch is a key figure in a plan aimed at displacing the ruling Taliban. He is crucial because he is seen to be above the fray, a symbol of unity who still commands wide respect from Afghanistan's divided communities. If he were to return to his homeland, it would not be as king but as a symbolic unifying presence, an Afghan solution to the Afghan problem. This, is still little more than a thought. Realisation is a long way off. But he has become the centre of attention. And, yesterday, Italy's Secret Service panicked. It was bizarre. A small group of TV journalists, specially invited by the ex-king for a visit by American Congressmen, arrived outside his house only to be told, "No cameras allowed." The Italians feared suicide bombers.

MOSTAPHA ZAHER:
You are our guests and this is Afghan hospitality. But it's beyond our means.

DAVID SELLS:
The ex-king's grandson, Mostapha Zaher, was mortified. No cameras, no publicity. The Italians were adamant and they had a point. Three weeks ago, the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance leader, Ahmed Shah Massood, was murdered by a booby-trapped stills camera. And ten years ago, the ex-king himself had almost been killed.

DANA ROHRABACHER:
Some guy wanted to interview the king and they sat at the table. In the middle of the interview he grabs a knife on the table and plunges it into the king's heart. Luckily the king smokes cigars and had a metal cigar case right there, and it went right in. Can you imagine that?

DAVID SELLS:
Yesterday's ban was understandable, but potty. The threat of terrorism is having some odd consequences. This time, unwittingly, it was playing the Taliban game. But the ex-king does have a plan and the world has become interested.

MOSTAPHA ZAHER:
The aim of the plan is to empower the Afghan people through their own free choice, to use the democratic institution without outside interference, to bring together the components of all the tribes of Afghanistan, men and women, members of society, whereby shoulder to shoulder, they can work together to build a strong united Afghanistan and take Afghanistan out of this calamity.

DAVID SELLS:
The leading political and military figures from the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance had flown to Rome to discuss the ex-king's plan with his principal advisors. The Alliance fights on against the Taliban regime. Mohammed Zaher Shah's proposal is for the convening of a traditional Loya Jirga, a great assembly of Afghan tribal, regional, ethnic, political and military leaders, to plan a new future for their land. Taliban supporters could be part of this, but the Taliban itself clearly not. The ex-king would act as a figurehead leader for the transition to peaceful rule. Clearly scenting danger, the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, responded angrily, warning the ex-king not to meddle in Afghanistan's affairs. "How dare you think you can return to Afghanistan backed by the United States?" he said. He'd no doubt heard the news from Rome that the weekend talks had produced agreement between Mohammed Zaher Shah and the Northern Alliance.

YONUS QANOONI:
(TRANSLATION) He reigned as king for 40 years. He played no part in events of the past two decades. And so Afghans see this influential and respected person as the foundation for a new system, one to provide national unity for the people of Afghanistan. This is the people's expectation.

DAVID SELLS:
And the murder of Mr Qanooni's friend and leader, Ahmed Shah Massood, two days before the terrorist attacks on America, in his view was no coincidence.

YONUS QANOONI:
(TRANSLATION) The Taliban and the terrorists probably thought there'd be an American reaction to the terrorism and that this could threaten their position in Afghanistan. So they decided to get in first by killing Massood in a bid to take over the whole of the country. Fortunately the international community realised the danger and has reacted very seriously.

DAVID SELLS:
Dana Rohrabacher is a Republican Congressman who knows Afghanistan well enough to sit in with the ex-king's advisors and Northern Alliance delegates when they met here in Rome. He thinks the United States got its policy wrong after the Soviet Union pulled out 12 years ago.

DANA ROHRABACHER:
I think there was some deal that was made between the United States and perhaps Pakistan and Saudi Arabia who were our "Friends" in the region, that we would let them dominate this area. It wasn't alright to give away Afghanistan, we didn't own Afghanistan, it belonged to the people of Afghanistan. When you act immorally or amorally, sometimes it comes back to haunt you.

DAVID SELLS:
At the ex-king's house, where 11 American Congressmen, of all people, were threatened with televisual invisibility, a compromise emerged. Cameras would be admitted to the garden, as long as they maintained their distance. Potential booby-traps were kept at bay. This US visit itself was significant, unscheduled before September 11th. The ex-king himself is 86, old and frail, but his advisors insist, still alert. Whether his Loya Jirga will come about, given the eternally factious nature of Afghanistan's politics, is anybody's guess, but the political climate has changed.


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