Washington — A year ago, few would have thought it possible. Zahir Shah, the former King of Afghanistan, has offered his services to the anti-Soviet guerrilla resistance in his country in a way that could strengthen the guerrillas.
Following publication recently of a letter from Zahir Shah in which he declared his interest in playing an active role in the resistance, opposition to the idea surfaced from a number of Afghans.
But Thomas E. Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, says there is considerable evidence of support for the King among tribal groups in Afghanistan. In an interview, he also said the former ruler has ''substantial potential'' for receiving support from among the many Afghanistan refugees.
According to Dr. Gouttierre, some of the Pakistan-based Afghan political groups oppose a major role for the aging former King in any future settlement of the Afghanistan crisis. But, he says, it can be argued these groups do not truly mirror the view of the Afghan rank and file. Gouttierre adds, however, that support for the King, who is living in exile in Rome, would depend in part on his ability to disown aspiration for a restoration of the Afghan monarchy and to oppose any effort on the part of his kin to restore the monarchy.
The King would also have to limit his leadership to the duration of the crisis, and make his services conditional upon a mandate from a united front of resistance groups.
Afghan nationalists meeting in Rome have held talks on unifying resistance to the Soviet intervention. The Islamic Unity of Afghanistan Mujahideen has reportedly agreed to ask Zahir to act as a focal point for opposition to the current regime, according to Reuters. Nationalist sources stress the meeting was not aimed at restoring the monarchy.
Having lived through several years of communist rule and a Soviet invasion, many Afghans apparently view Zahir's reign more benignly than they once did. The King was ousted in 1973, and his family's rule ended with the communist-led coup in 1978. But Gouttierre warns nostalgia for the King and disillusionment with current rulers is a far cry from saying the monarchy has regained acceptability. He says the life style and political excesses of some members of the royal clan tarnished the monarchy's legitimacy.
The King seemed to be aware of this problem. In a July 11 letter to his countrymen, he said he was ready to join in a united effort with the resistance, ''with no expectation of any special status or title.''
A year ago, few experts would have envisaged such a role for the King. But the failure of resistance leaders to form a more united leadership has led some Afghans to look to the King to help catalyze new efforts at unity.
This month, Nasir Shansab, an exiled Afghan businessman, summed up objections to a leadership role for the King. In a paper, he argued that ''in the minds of many Afghans, the monarchic era raises associations with impropriety, nepotism, disregard for law, lack of concern for political and human rights, indeed a lack of concern for life itself.''