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Afghan King Delayed in Return to Kabul - 2002-03-29

Because of fears for his safety, former King Mohammad Zahir Shah was prevented from returning to Kabul from his home in Rome. That delays the process of establishing a permanent government in Afghanistan since the deposed king is a unifying figure acceptable to most, though not all elements of the country. VOA's Ed Warner asked two longtime analysts on Afghanistan what the delay may mean.

At 87, former King Mohammad Zahir Shah was packed and ready to return to Kabul, which he had not seen since he was deposed in a 1973 coup. Then, at the last moment, he was told not to leave because of threats to his life, including a plan to shoot down the plane taking him to Kabul. The Bush Administration wants to train a special force to guard the former King because it is said not to trust the interior ministry in Kabul. That will delay the ex-king's return for at least three weeks.

This caution is well advised, says Edmund McWilliams, a former U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, who recently visited the country and found widespread enthusiasm for the former king's arrival. "I suspect he is probably the only Afghan figure alive today who can honestly claim to have support within all camps, but that having been said, there are elements particularly on the fundamentalist side, including the Taleban, who do not want to see him back," he says.

Mr. McWilliams says most Afghans fondly recall the deposed king's 40-year reign when Afghanistan was largely at peace and made progress.

Yet there were signs of indecisiveness even then, says Thomas Barfield, chairman of the anthropology department at Boston University. Older today, the former king may be less disposed to act. "At many moments of decision or crisis, he has often chosen to withdraw," he says. "Certainly the excuse of not having appropriate arrangements or uncertain security, if you are of that frame of mind anyway, would allow you a way to gracefully postpone."

But Mr. McWilliams thinks the deposed king is determined to go back and quite capable of assuming the burden of forming a government. "All the accounts that I have heard indicate that he is in good shape, both physically and mentally. I was in Rome back in October with some friends who did actually meet with him," he says. "They were all very positive about his composure, his thinking and his attitude; that is, genuinely wanting to get back and make a positive contribution."

The former king faces some opposition from interim cabinet members associated with the Northern Alliance and backed by Iran and Russia. They especially object to any restoration of the monarchy.

They have little to worry about, says Mr. Barfield. There is no evident successor to the aged, former king. "Even though he has sons, they are never really mentioned as possible successors. Even at the time he was overthrown in 1973, the next generation was almost non-entities, They were never really important on the Afghan scene, and none of them established an independent personality during the past 25 years of war and turmoil. They kept a very, very low profile," he says.

The deposed king's return is critical, says Mr. McWilliams, but only an expanded international force will assure stability in Afghanistan and give a new government a chance to succeed.