Afghanistan's exiled King Zahir Shah, who turned 87 Sunday, has sent a delegation of his supporters to Islamabad to meet Pakistani officials. The former king has emerged as a key figure when discussions turn to a post-Taleban future for Afghanistan.
For more than 20 years, Afghan exiles have made Peshawar their home. The city is a hotbed of exile politics and intrigue, and never more so than now. Exile leaders who moved away have returned.
One of them is Abdul Haq, once one of the most feared mujahedin, or rebel commanders fighting the Soviet Army. The Dubai-based businessman left Peshawar years ago, disgusted by the infighting among former colleagues and the violence that engulfed Afghanistan in the early 1990s.
Now, Abdul Haq is back in Peshawar, with a plan to unite Afghanistan's warring factions. He says he is talking to old mujahedin commanders and even Taleban commanders who, he says, have lost faith with their leaders. Abdul Haq says Afghanistan's long conflict can end if the country's warring factions unite under the banner of King Zahir Shah. "Some of the Taleban commanders are tired and fed up with their own system. They know their system failed," he said. "They are looking for changes. Put them together with some tribes and bring changes to Kabul. Bring the king back to Afghanistan and finish this war, once and for all."
King Zahir Shah was ousted from power and left Afghanistan in 1973. He has never returned.
Abdul Haq says the king's non-involvement in Afghan politics over the past quarter-century means Afghans see him as a better alternative than anyone else to unite their disparate political factions. "Of course, there will always be disagreements," said Abdul Haq. "I do not think there is anything wrong with this type of constructive disagreement. The point is that what the king is doing is creating leadership which gives a chance for the majority of the people to come together. But you will never have 100 percent agreement of support on these things."
Taleban leaders in Afghanistan have ridiculed the idea of a role for King Zahir Shah as a peacemaker. Some exile leaders have voiced concerns about the king's long absence from politics. Pir Sayed Ishaq Gailani is another former prominent mujahedin leader, who now heads a Peshawar-based coalition called the Council for Peace and Unity of Afghanistan. Mr. Gailani says King Zahir Shah has not been as uninvolved in Afghan politics as many believe. "This is not true," he said. "He has always had an interest and an involvement in Afghanistan's case. Also, from time to time he voiced the concerns of the people of Afghanistan."
Most Afghan exile political leaders in Peshawar say they want to see King Zahir Shah play a role in bringing peace to their country. Many ordinary Afghans say they, too, believe the king can help. However, many - such as 23-year-old Ramatullah - say ordinary Afghans will not support the king if he is seen as being a pawn of a foreign power like the United States. "Young people at this time like the king. Our fathers and grandfathers told us the government was very good in Afghanistan before ... so now we also like the king," he said. "The problem is if he comes with United States forces."
Ramatullah, who is unemployed, says he would like nothing better than to return to his home near Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, and help re-build his country. Ramatullah says he would like Afghanistan to be like it was before he was born, when King Zahir Shah ruled. However, he says he knows that will never happen. Now, he says the best King Zahir Shah can do is to use his remaining days to try and bring Afghanistan's warring factions together so ordinary Afghans like himself can return home.