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Thursday, 18 April, 2002, 10:49 GMT 11:49 UK
Analysis: Zahir Shah's dilemmas
Ex-king Zahir Shah (centre) at Kabul airport
The ex-king's return has raised Afghans' expectations

The official role of former Afghan king Zahir Shah is limited to opening the "loya jirga" - or grand assembly - to be held in June to select a transitional government for Afghanistan.


The king offers an alternative, a way out. No one else can head a central government there without having continued conflict

Dana Rohrabacher, US congressman

This role was part of the Bonn agreement which set up Afghanistan's interim administration under Hamid Karzai.

Many Afghans have a deep love and respect for Zahir Shah, whose lengthy reign is associated with peace, security and modest political reform.

But he is also a Pashtun, a community that has been hugely under-represented in the interim administration with the largely non-Pashtun Northern Alliance holding most key portfolios.

Amid the celebrations surrounding the former monarch's return, there are those who regard his presence in Afghanistan as a potential threat.

Ethnic tensions

Supporters of Zahir Shah, like US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, however, insist his return is vital to the country's future.

Mr Rohrabacher says Zahir Shah is the one person who has the love and admiration of all Afghans irrespective of their ethnic and tribal backgrounds.

Zahir Shah is greeted by officials at Kabul airport
The ex-king has to satisfy conflicting aspirations

"The king offers and alternative, a way out," Mr Rohrabacher said. "No one else can head a central government there without having continued conflict."

Zahir Shah has not been tainted by the bloodshed and atrocities of recent years, and his 40-year reign saw women receiving education and voting in elections, and a free press.

But analysts such as author Ahmed Rashid say there is an ethnic and political significance to the ex-king's return, especially for the Pashtuns who feel neglected under a government dominated by the Northern Alliance.

"The Pashtuns feel very left out and very angry, not to speak of the killings of Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan.

"The King will be a rallying point for all Afghans but he will be a rallying point also, and most importantly right now, for the Pashtuns," Mr Rashid said.

In fact, some Pashtuns have already been calling for the restoration of the monarchy.

Political ambiguity

It is generally accepted that the former king has no political ambitions but there has been speculation about the political aspirations of some members of his family and other associates.

US and Canadian soldiers in an operational area
Parts of the country are still at war

His son Mirwais Zahir says his father's role is to open the "loya jirga" and reunite the people, serving as the symbol of the unity of Afghanistan.

He says what happens after that depends on the Afghans themselves, and that Zahir Shah would do whatever the people ask him to, including taking on a "greater role" in national life.

Ambiguous comments like these have rung alarm bells among some elements including those in the Northern Alliance who fear the ex-king could represent a threat to their own powerbases.

Dangerous uncertainties

Afghan analyst Michael Clarke of King's College in London says a lot would depend on what Zahir Shah does and how his actions are perceived.

If he is seen to represent a broad-based Pashtun element in the new government, if he symbolises continuity and international support, then he would be a healing force for Afghanistan.

"The worst scenario is that he is not seen, and does not behave, as a sufficiently unifying force, that he seems to represent a way of offering a sop to the Pashtun community which is not believed, and that he himself becomes involved in factionalism," he says.

Zahir Shah has been keen to promote himself as a father-figure, a man above politics.

He is likely to be aware that any attempt to become politically active could risk alienating many of his own supporters.

Tensions are undoubtedly building up and the fighting this week in Wardak province is thought to have been caused by differences over his return.

Those who see Zahir Shah as a threat will be watching his every action.


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18 Apr 02 | South Asia
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