ZAHIR SHAH, the ex-king of Afghanistan, has been the major beneficiary of every military stalemate in the war in Afghanistan. The refusal of the Kabul government before 1986, and of the resistance since 1987, to negotiate with each other, has strengthened Zahir Shah's bid for power as a compromise solution to the conflict. Since the withdrawal of the Soviet forces, the inability of the mujahideen and the government forces to defeat each other, combined with increasing civilian casualties, have led to more calls for a political solution. Consequently, Zahir Shah's political star has been rising. A senior US official recently met with the former king, who is also discussing with the government of Benazir Bhutto the possibility of meeting with Afghan rebel leaders in Pakistan. All of this has been welcomed by the Kabul regime.
Zahir Shah is immensely popular. According to a 1987 poll, over 70 percent of the refugees in Pakistan prefer Zahir Shah to any other Afghan politician. His popularity among Afghans inside the country and 'emigr'e communities in the West is probably even greater. He stands for Afghan nationalism, traditional Islam, government of law, a considerable degree of political freedom, socioeconomic modernization, and a mixed economy.
He is also popular because of the unpopularity of his rivals - communists and fundamentalists. Oppression, genocide, destruction, economic chaos, lawlessness, atheism, and foreign (Soviet) rule constitute the legacy of communism. Similarly, Islamic fundamentalism, which negates Afghan nationalism, emphasizes radical Islam instead of traditional Islam, and is rather insensitive to human rights and political freedom, is not very popular.
Of course, Zahir Shah has very powerful adversaries too: Afghan fundamentalists, Pakistan, and Iran. Because of the strategic importance of Pakistan in the war against the Kabul government, the United States and Saudi Arabia endorse Pakistan's support for the Afghan fundamentalists, which (until now, at least) has meant opposition to Zahir Shah. Willingness to meet with the former king may indicate a change in US policy, however.
Zahir Shah's problem has been compounded by his do-nothing policy. Militarily weak, he does not have any activist strategy and organization which would transform his popularity into a major political force. His policy of wait-and-see has allowed his fundamentalist opponents to dominate the political agenda.
While this minimum-risk approach has helped Zahir Shah to survive physically (no assassination attempts) and politically, it has also made it very difficult for him to take advantage of political opportunities. Following the Soviet withdrawal, Kabul was extremely nervous about its future. The communists were ready for major concessions. Indeed, they begged Zahir Shah to accept the transfer of power in return for minor communist participation in government.
Zahir Shah was apprehensive that any negotiation with the government would be considered treasonous by the fundamentalists. Furthermore, he believed that without US and Pakistani support for such a deal the war would not end. Zahir Shah could have used the withdrawal of Soviet forces and replacement of the communist regime as historic achievements well worth the concession to allow minor communist participation in government. Zahir Shah could also mobilize his supporters in favor of peace, thus pressuring the US and Pakistan to endorse his initiative. However, his risk-averse personality prevented him from taking advantage of that opportunity. Consequently, as the strategy of military resolution of the conflict prevailed between early 1988 and the summer of 1989, Zahir Shah's star waned, too.
But the mujahideen have not been able to prevail, and a stalemate exists. This has led to increased domestic and international support for a political solution. Consequently, Zahir Shah's fortune has been rising. He is still immensely popular. Although the negotiating position of the government has improved substantially, Zahir Shah is still probably acceptable to Kabul and its Soviet backers. The lack of a military resolution, combined with the unpopularity of rebel attacks on cities and the power struggle within the resistance, have reduced the risk of negotiating a settlement.
Zahir Shah is popular enough to survive the negative political repercussion of minor concession to the communists in return for the replacement of the Kabul government. He can also mobilize his supporters in favor of peace and pressure the US and Pakistan to abandon the strategy of military resolution of the conflict - if he demonstrates more political courage than he has thus far.