Afghan turmoil opens window for king's return
KABUL, Sept 22 (AFP) - Expressions of popular support for the return of former king Mohammad Zahir Shah are beginning to emerge in Afghanistan, as the threat of US military strikes places the future of the ruling Taliban regime in doubt.
Afghanistan's monarchy was ousted by a Soviet-backed coup in 1973, and king Zahir Shah, now in his late 80s, has lived in exile in Rome ever since.
But with the country in turmoil and the hardline Islamist Taliban facing US retribution for its refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden -- the main suspect in the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington -- some see the king's return as the best hope for restoring a semblance of stability.
"Among all the players in Afghan politics today, king Zahir is the best. People are more optimistic about him than anybody else," said Khan Haji, a 50-year-old trader in Kabul.
"I have to say he will not be able to solve all the problems, but at least he can establish an administration which might be pro-democratic," Haji said.
The former king is especially popular among Afghans who can remember the peaceful and relatively prosperous decade of the 1960s.
Having kept out of the bitter political and military wrangling of the past 28 years, he is also seen as a truly independent figure.
But his age and lengthy absence from the country may have left him as confused as many outsiders over the country's political scene, even though he would be assured the backing of the more moderate ethnic Pashtun factions, themselves pushed out by the Taliban.
Zahir Shah has also yet to state clearly whether he is ready to pick up the mantle of power in the country.
Shopkeeper Sakhi Dad, 42, said there was widespread concern that if the Taliban were toppled, the resulting power vacuum could trigger a damaging period of general lawlessness.
"We want a person or party who can protect Afgahnistan's territorial integrity and bring real peace and happiness to Afghan people," Dad said.
"The king seems the best option for now, but if the Taliban leave Kabul and establish a new frontline outside the city and the opposition frontline remains the same, I think he would find it hard to keep the situation in control."
Ajmal, a 37-year-old schoolteacher, said the main benefit from a restoration of the monarchy would be the king's general acceptability to the international community.
"He can make Afghanistan a real country again, with proper relations with the outside world," Ajmal said.
The number of countries recognising the Taliban was reduced to two on Saturday, when the United Arab Emirates announced that it was snapping diplomatic ties, leaving only Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
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