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Friday, 21 September, 2001, 20:05 GMT 21:05 UK
UN moots return of Afghan king
Taleban fighter
Preparations are underway to replace the Taleban
By Eurasia analysts Malcolm Haslett and Ian MacWilliam

President George W Bush has warned the Taleban authorities in Afghanistan to hand over the militant Osama bin Laden and his followers, or share in their fate.

Mohammed Zahir Shah, exiled Afghan King
Zahir Shah is being suggested as a possible leader
Behind the scenes, there are reports of diplomatic efforts by the United Nations and Washington to put together an Afghan coalition which could replace the Taleban as an alternative government for Afghanistan.

One possibility being mooted is that ex-king Mohammed Zahir Shah, who was overthrown by a coup in 1973, could be reinstated as the head of an interim administration.

Unity problems

As Afghanistan's war has dragged on, the idea of a broad-based interim government has often been raised as a first step towards peace and a permanent political settlement for the country.

But the idea has always foundered on the difficulty of getting Afghanistan's many ethnic and regional factions to work together.

Now the UN's special representative on Afghanistan, Francis Vendrell, is urging Washington and its European allies to bring moderate Afghans into a coalition aimed at replacing the Taleban in the event that the current crisis deals them a fatal blow.

The name of Zahir Shah, who is now 86 and living in exile in Rome, has once more been put forward as a possible figurehead for a moderate interim administration.

Reformist monarch

The idea of bringing a king back to power at the beginning of the 21st century sounds anachronistic, but during his 40-year rule King Zahir Shah emerged as a cautious moderniser and reformer.

Afghan old woman
Exhausted Afghans would grasp a chance of peace

In 1964 he introduced a new constitution providing for an elected parliament, political parties and freedom for the press.

The king also encouraged social reform, trying to improve the status of women.

But his innovation was hampered by traditionalists and by factionalism and the country's growing prosperity was not shared evenly.

Widely respected

In 1973, while he was abroad, the king was ousted by his left-wing cousin Mohammed Daoud and has lived in exile ever since.

If the Taleban were ever to lose control some see the king as the nearest thing there is in Afghanistan to a unifying figure.

Anti-US protests by Afghan supporters
A US imposed government would not be accepted

Though a Pashtun, his first language is Persian, and he is one of the few Afghan leaders who might be able to reconcile the Pashtu-dominated south with the non-Pashtuns in the north.

Despite an absence of almost 30 years he is still widely respected in the country, and much of the Afghan population, exhausted by the years of warfare, would grasp at any chance of a return of peace.

Most importantly, any political settlement under the aegis of the United Nations would win wide approval among ordinary Afghans, who would not want a government imposed by Washington, or any other foreign country.

Dr Zalmary Rasool, Adviser to Shah Zahir
"The king is putting himself on the side of all Afghans"
The BBC's Fiona Werge
"The 86 year old former King is seen as a possible unifying figure"
See also:

21 Sep 01 | Americas
Analysis: Bush rises to the occasion
21 Sep 01 | Americas
Text: Bush address to Congress
17 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan - a tough military option
21 Sep 01 | South Asia
Millions of Afghans face starvation
21 Sep 01 | Americas
Taleban face US wrath
21 Sep 01 | Americas
Q&A: Military options
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