Afghan king searches for his new role
The Afghan king returned to Kabul yesterday, while near Kandahar, an errant US bomb killed four Canadian troops.
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN, AND CAIRO
Afghanistan's former king ended a 29-year exile yesterday, arriving in the capital as flagbearers and costumed tribesmen danced in the streets. The crowd fought for a closer view of Mohammad Zahir Shah, a man many expect to assume the role of a patriarch and pacifier in this war-torn country.Skip to next paragraph
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The former king is due to chair the loya jirga (a quasi-democratic meeting of tribal elders) and possibly become the head of state, if elected, though most analysts do not expect the country to return to monarchy. The loya jirga, which will determine the composition of Afghanistan's future government, presents the Pashtun monarch with a host of ethnic and political complications including the strong clout wielded by members of the Northern Alliance, a distinctly non-royalist group comprised of mostly Tajik and Uzbek leaders.
Zahir Shah, smiling broadly and moving with a new spring in his step, strolled down a red carpet at the airport and saluted a military honor guard before greeting dozens of his most loyal supporters. On his ride to his new renovated villa in a black Mercedes-Benz, the frail but steady octogenarian wearing a black Italian leather jacket sat next to the country's interim leader, a fellow Pashtun, Hamid Karzai, who had flown to Rome to escort the former monarch home.
But the royal return has left Afghans wondering whether the deposed king will ever again exercise real authority. Several analysts in Kabul say they're concerned that the former king could, like Mr. Karzai, become a political "captive" of the powerful security and intelligence ministries controlled by the Northern Alliance. Mohammed Sahriqi, a lecturer in political sciences at Kabul University, warns that the northerners dominating key ministries would have the king under "lock and key."
"It will be difficult for him to work freely and independently surrounded by these northerners, many of whom still stand accused of the murder of Abdul Rehman," says Professor Sahriqi, referring to the royalist aviation minister, a non-Pashtun, who was killed early this year in a mysterious mob riot at Kabul's airport even as senior ministry of interior officials were in a crowd leaving for Saudi Arabia.
The Northern Alliance will be in a position to exercise "open or closed-door" control, analysts say, over the loya jirga process, which will choose a new government and adopt a constitution in the coming weeks.
Even if his political role is still unclear, the king's popular appeal seems undeniable. Upon his arrival, several hundred of his Pashtun tribal supporters marched from his residence at midday to the ministry of tribal and frontier affairs where they performed the "Milli Attan," a folkloric dance with drums and flutes. Some 50 turbaned dancers, their waists rung by red sashes and their long beards shaking with beads of sweat, spun on their heels to the beats of drums.