A homecoming fit for a king?

Afghanistan's King Zahir Shah, after living in exile for 30 years, will return to Kabul early next week.

Most Afghans have never even seen the man the whole nation is waiting for, so beloved that his likeness appears on souvenirs, so important that rumors of his arrival cause currency fluctuations.

The exiled King of Afghanistan, Mohammad Zahir Shah, is due to return to the homeland early next week that he left three decades ago.

Some here are thrilled about his return, growing more hopeful by the day that he will unify a still dangerously fractured nation. But others are not-so-quietly brooding about the return of an 87-year-old monarch whose influence on Afghanistan's political future remains uncertain.

Even up on Nader Shah Hill, the royal family's burial place where the king's ancestors are interred, there is a palpable tension. The wizened chief caretaker of the tomb, a Pashtun like the king, oversees the government's cleanup of the vandalized and neglected site, while two international de-mining teams remove the deadly detritus from 23 years of war.

"We call [the king] the father of the nation," says caretaker Fazal Allah, as he unlocks the gate to the tombs. "I saw him many times when I was young, and I personally regard him as a father."

"During the 40 years of Zahir Shah's rule, there was peace and stability," says Mr. Allah, standing amid crumpled and graffiti-covered columns, which hold up a domed roof full of bullet holes.

But the young Hazara soldiers who are posted nearby scoff at the king's return, and joke that their own troops destroyed what is now being rebuilt. "He has done nothing for the rule of this country," says Munir Ahmad, the group's commander. "He's too old, and he cannot move around much, so he'll have his son or grandson rule."

Such comments are deeply insulting to those here who always refer to the king they await by adding "his majesty" before his name. But they touch on some sensitive issues that are beginning to define the dividing line between Afghanistan's pro- and antiroyalists.

The king's return has launched a debate that may prove more important than the country's many ethnic and tribal rivalries – and goes to the heart of what kind of nation a postwar Afghanistan can hope to become.

While advocates of the king's return argue that he is the best hope for uniting Afghanistan, others say that he will represent a return to monarchic rule that cannot be compatible with democracy. But, on a less ideological level, warlords and other military leaders, including senior officials of the Northern Alliance – the mostly Uzbek and Tajik group that ousted the Taliban – worry that the king's presence will translate into a weakening of their power and possible disarmament.

"It is a fact that Zahir Shah has a lot of opponents in this country," says Faizullah Jalal, the head of the department of international relations at Kabul University. The most worrisome among them, he says, are four Islamic fundamentalist parties, who lean toward the Taliban and Al Qaeda and may join forces with them to launch a new guerrilla war this spring.

Even within the interim government, there is serious friction over the king's return. Though Hamid Karzai, the temporary leader, is a Pashtun – a member of the country's largest ethnic group that remains the most loyal to the king – his government is dominated by senior members of the Northern Alliance.

"The Northern Alliance and the warlords who are in control, they want to hold on to a person like Karzai, who will act according to their demands. If the king comes here and does as he wants and uses his influence, they will not be happy," Mr. Jala says.

Added to the layers of Lear-like intrigue surrounding the once and future king's return are neighboring countries that – at least in the eyes of the Afghans – are not enthusiastic about Zahir Shah's homecoming.

Foremost among these is Iran, which faces the prospect of its own pro-royalists gleaning encouragement from Afghanistan and pushing for the return of the exiled son of the last shah of Iran.

A close second is Pakistan, which stands to lose its position as chief mediator between Afghanistan and the West if Kabul is able to establish a strong central government.

The king, who served for 40 years until his cousin replaced him, never had good relations with Pakistan. This is in part because he did not recognize the Durand Line, the British-drawn border that separated Afghanistan from India – and later became the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The border left Pashtuns on both sides of the border, and according to the king's interpretation, expired in 1993, 100 years after it was demarcated.

Closer to home, rival forces in provinces such as Khost and Paktia are fighting each other along the royal fault line. In Kabul, Northern Alliance-affiliated politicians say the king's return represents a grasp toward the past, but none wants to be quoted as outright opposing what promises to be an emotional national homecoming.

And no one here seems to know what it will mean to have a king at the helm. Some say he can and must rule, others say he will defer to advisers and democratic-minded institutions, such as the loya jirga, or national council. The opponents of royal-family rule, however, fear that the king's supporters will gain a majority on the loya jirga and dominate national affairs.

Political scientists at the best university in the country say that they do not know whether their king will actually rule, such as in Saudi Arabia, or be more of a symbolic head of state, as in England. "He hasn't announced his political agenda," Jalal says.

Zaia Mojadedi, a member of the king's court, dismisses some of the criticism surrounding Zahir Shah's return, as well as the doubts surrounding his ability to rule.

"I met the king one month ago," says Mr. Mojadedi. "He was looking forward to getting rid of this ethnic hatred created by all the foreign interference in Afghanistan, from the Pakistanis, Russians, and Iranians."

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