Accessibility links

Breaking News

Exiled Former Afghan King Could be Unifying Figure - 2001-10-02

In Rome, Afghanistan's aged, exiled king met with other opponents of the Taleban and some members of the U.S. Congress. Their aim was to put together a coalition that could govern Afghanistan once the Taleban are gone. The king would serve as a unifying figure.

At 87, Afghan King Zahir Shah has missed the tumult in his country because he has been in exile since 1973. That works in his favor, says Ashraf Ghani, professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. He cannot be blamed for all that has gone wrong in Afghanistan, including the Taleban rule. "Positively, the king is unknown to his people," says Mr. Ghani. "He has not done anything significantly to articulate an agenda as to what the future of the country would look like, and his age of course prevents him from playing a very active managerial role."

Professor Ghani says the king could preside over a transitional government until Afghanistan's various factions reach more permanent agreement. It will be an enormous challenge for a man who has been out of action for so long.

Too great a challenge, says Brian Cloughley, a former Australian defense attache in Islamabad and author of a book on the Pakistani army. "He is a very decent old man, but the operative word is "old." I am afraid that in order to rule Afghanistan, you have to be strong and ruthless," says Mr. Cloughly. "He is not, and he will not get support from many of the factions, enough of the factions to rule Afghanistan.

But then his mission is not necessarily to rule, says Graham Fuller, former vice chairman of the CIA's national intelligence council. "His prospects really rest largely on the diplomatic efforts of outside forces. On his own, I think he is not in a position to do anything and indeed is reluctant to get involved at his particular age," says Mr. Fuller. "His name has been mentioned for years and years as a potential unifying figure. That said if you are looking for a purely symbolic figure, he is probably one of the best."

He is also a Pashtun, says Mr. Fuller, as are the Taleban. This is Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, comprising about 40 per cent of the population. But the king has a reputation for working with other Afghan groups, a must if he is to succeed. "It is inconceivable that Zahir Shah could be brought back as a leader who would then restore Pashtun dominance," he says. "He would have to share power with other elements, and at this point, the other ethnic groups are not really organized except as represented in the Northern Alliance, and that is hardly a fully representative organization by any means, but it is all there is right now."

Although members of the Northern Alliance, now fighting the Taleban, met with the King, it is not clear how much they are willing to support him. Factionalism remains rampant in Afghanistan. It was the incessant fighting of the various groups that led to the Taleban takeover. Will a post-Taleban future be any different?

Professor Ghani cautions that many Afghans share the stern Taleban view of Islam and are equally hostile to the United States. "The Taleban, I would argue, are a spent force politically," he says. "The key to bringing about their political end is a broad map for Afghans where they can trust that a credible political process is going to be there to take care of them - and to assure the rank and file of the Taleban that they cannot be blamed for the sins of their leadership, a very small minority."

Much careful diplomacy is needed, says Professor Ghani, with no relevant group excluded, not even defecting Taleban members. He says Afghanistan must be reconstructed, not plunged into civil war.