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Former Afghan King Still Holds Considerable Influence - 2002-06-05

More than 1,400 Afghan delegates are gathering in Kabul for the opening Monday of the Loya Jirga - or grand national council - that will determine the political future of the country after 23 years of war. The former king, Mohammad Zaher Shah - who ruled Afghanistan for 40 years until a coup in 1973 - will open the Loya Jirga. The former monarch who, despite long absence and advancing age, still holds considerable influence with many Afghans.

In the reception room of the modest villa in the diplomatic sector of Kabul, the furnishings are sparse but refined. Aides and relatives come in and out, greeting visitors and chatting, while a white-uniformed nurse pads quietly from room to room.

In the audience room, former king Mohammed Zaher Shah sits comfortably in an armchair. His voice is somewhat weak and his speech is sometimes slow, but his thoughts and his mind are clear. The former monarch returned home in April after 29 years in exile, but he says it is as if he never left.

"I found the people of Afghanistan almost unchanged, as far as their attitude and sentiments were concerned regarding me," the former king said.

Born in Kabul in 1914 and educated in Afghanistan and France, Mohammed Zaher Shah was just 16 when he became king in 1933, after the assassination of his father, Nadir Shah. Because of his young age, older relatives in effect governed the country for a time.

In the 1960s, however, then-King Shah introduced reforms instituting a parliament, elections and freedom of the press. He also sought to improve the status of women and to attract foreign aid for development.

But the latter part of his reign was marred by factionalism and political in-fighting. While traveling abroad in 1973, during a period of drought and political unrest, he was deposed by his cousin, Mohammad Daoud. Mr. Daoud proclaimed Afghanistan a republic and declared himself president. The deposed king went into exile in Italy.

The coup ushered in years of political instability that included the Soviet invasion in 1979, the collapse of communist government in 1992 following the Soviet withdrawal, the Taleban military victories in the mid-1990s and the ouster of the Taleban last year following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Despite his lengthy exile, many Afghans remember the former king fondly as having presided over one of the country's more peaceful and prosperous eras. And many Afghans want the former king to play a political role in the country. Some, especially among his Pashtun ethnic group, want the monarchy to be restored. On that question, the former king is non-committal.

"I have considered myself for many years entirely at the service and at the disposition of the Afghan people. With pride I will perform any mission or duty that the representatives of the people of Afghanistan wish to bestow upon me," he said.

Some Afghan leaders, including many in the Northern Alliance that led the fight against the Taleban and now control important ministries in the central government, do not want the former king to become involved in politics.

A United Nations official working in the ex-king's stronghold in southern Afghanistan, Robert Kluijver, said many more are against restoring the monarchy. "Most people, not all of them, but most people, truly desire Zaher Shah to play a role. Now the monarchy is something else. Nobody speaks about descendants of Zaher Shah as being good candidates. So in that sense, I don't think people are very interested in monarchy," Mr. Kluijver said.

Many Pashtuns feel their group is under-represented in the central government despite the efforts of the head of the interim government, Hamed Karzai, himself a Pashtun, to balance the ethnic and regional interests. Some say a role for the king, perhaps symbolic, might ease this concern.

For the former monarch, who returned home to spend his final days among his people, the most important thing is for Afghans to work together to rebuild the country.

"To bring about different elements of the Afghan society, ethnic, religious, or otherwise, to work together as they used to do in the past. And all efforts should be directed and concentrated on one issue only, the reconstruction of our destroyed homeland," he said.

The former king pledges to help as much as he is able, but said the greatest effort must come from his countrymen and the younger generation of leaders.