Afghan peace hopes rest on king's frail shoulders
By Alistair Lyon, Middle East Diplomatic Correspondent
LONDON, Nov 19 (Reuters) - He is 87 years old and has not set foot in Afghanistan since a 1973 palace coup forced him into exile -- and decades of political irrelevance -- in Italy.
But now many Afghan peace hopes ride on the stooped shoulders of ex-King Mohammad Zahir Shah, seen abroad, if not by all his compatriots, as the man to unite his warring people.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Saturday the king could play an important symbolic role in a new government.
"I don't want to prejudge what the discussions might lead to, but it seems to me that his role would continue to be symbolic as opposed to being the executive or the chief executive of the new government," Powell said.
After decades of upheaval, the king's tentative efforts at modernisation during his 40-year reign are a remote memory.
"The expectation is only that he would be a transitional figurehead who represents some sense of community before the period of internecine warfare," Roy Allison, of London's Royal Institute of International Affairs, told Reuters.
Ironically for a would-be unifier, Zahir Shah's aloofness and reliance on a narrow coterie of Pashtun kinsmen alienated many of his countrymen under his rule, according to Western diplomats stationed in Kabul in the early 1970s.
Today his name evokes mixed reactions on the streets of the capital, seized from the Taliban in a lightning advance by the Northern Alliance, bolstered by U.S. air power, last week.
"People are fed up with war and also the current vague situation which may turn dangerous if not dealt with in time," one Kabul resident said on Monday. "Zahir Shah seems to be the favourite man for a large number of people."
But another resident said the king could play only a limited part in Afghanistan's fractured political landscape. "He can be the symbol of unity and may not want to reinstate himself. We don't want the royal family to come to power again," he said.
QUEST FOR STABILITY
U.N. diplomats, backed by major Western powers, are not seeking to restore Zahir Shah, but view him as a vital rallying point for efforts to set up a broad-based government that could bring peace to a ravaged and ethnically divided land.
This is a tall order for an elderly man with a bad back, whose entourage protects him ferociously from the media.
The French-educated monarch speaks Dari, rather than the Pashto of his own ethnic community, and has not spoken in public since the September 11 attacks on the United States.
"The only hope for long-standing peace and stability in Afghanistan is to put in place a political structure which is representative of all Afghan people and all sectors including Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks," he told Britain's Sunday Telegraph in a rare interview at the weekend.
"If this is not in place then peace will not come."
U.N. special envoy Francesc Vendrell met more Afghan leaders in Kabul on Monday but his spokesman said he had yet to strike a deal with the Northern Alliance, now in control of the capital, on a meeting of all Afghan groups that the United Nations hopes to arrange outside Afghanistan in the next week or so.
Little trust is lost between the Alliance and the king.
The two camps agreed in September to call a 120-member council in which they would be equally represented. The council, yet to convene, would call a Loya Jirga, or traditional assembly of Afghan notables, to map out the country's political future.
Now that the Northern Alliance, made up largely of minority ethnic groups, has wrested Kabul and most other cities from Taliban control, it is unclear whether it will keep to the bargain.
Zahir Shah's son-in-law General Abdul Wali told the Sunday Telegraph the Alliance's march into Kabul had upset the king.
"The Northern Alliance promised us that it would stop at the northern gates of Kabul to give others in the south time to move. But they did not stop," Wali said.
Alliance leader Burhanuddin Rabbani said last week the king could return to Afghanistan, but only as "an ordinary citizen."
FAVOURED BY FOREIGNERS
Allison said the king had always found more support from the international diplomatic community than from Afghans at home.
"Formally the United Nations still seems to be committed to presenting him as symbol of national unity, but it is understood he would not be ruling in any sense," Allison said.
"He has no political ambitions and has been out of the country for so long he has no real feel for the situation there and has no forces under his command," he added.
The king relies on a small group of media-shy relatives and advisers, of whom Wali appears the most formidable. Potential successors include his son, Mir Wais Zahir, and grandson, Mostapha Zahir, neither of whom is known in Afghanistan.
Allison said feverish U.N. diplomacy to shape a post-Taliban future could founder on Alliance reservations about Zahir Shah.
"Now if the Alliance is backing away, this blueprint may have to be shelved," he said of the anti-Taliban forces' deal with the king. "His position is looking quite uncertain."
Zahir Shah acceded to the Afghan throne in 1933 after a deranged student assassinated his father.
From the 1950s onwards he backed an end to the wearing of the veil for women, used foreign cash to modernise a medieval economy and kept a balance between Soviet and Western interests.
In 1973, while holidaying in Italy, he was ousted in a bloodless coup orchestrated by his cousin and brother-in-law, Prince Daoud, ending two centuries of Durrani dynastic rule.
Mujahideen groups accused him of paving the way for the 1978 communist takeover by sending students, doctors and army officers for training in the Soviet Union. Moderates were disappointed at his reticence in exile and say he missed a chance to shape events after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
Allison said Zahir Shah had not been a very effective monarch, but said this did not matter now as long as he had competent advisers. "It's a mistake to have too high expectations of what he can do," he said.
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