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.
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.
"I was a guard for the king when he was a young man, and I am as happy as if my father had returned from the grave," shouted Malik Eid Marjan, his face stained with tears.
But others say they oppose any ambitions for the former king being plotted by his loyalists. "What can a dying 87-year-old man do for his war-battered country?" asks Janat Khan, a Kabul schoolteacher. "Instead of bringing back an old monarch, the international community and the UN and the US should be helping our current leader, Hamid Karzai, remain in power and get a grip on the divided ethnic groups in this country."
Other daunting challenges face the monarch as he contemplates an active role in Afghan affairs. The US, acting in concert with British and Canadian forces, is still working to snuff out remaining Taliban and Al Qaeda forces in the eastern part of the country a see-saw effort that suffered a setback yesterday. An American F-16 fighter mistakenly dropped a laser-guided bomb on a Canadian position near Kandahar, killing four soldiers and injuring eight others.
For the king, the plunge back into Afghan current affairs comes after a long period on the sidelines. Zahir Shah ruled from 1933 to 1973, when he left Afghanistan for therapy at thermal baths on an Italian island. He returned yesterday to his native country with an extensive entourage, including 15 elite Italian Carabinieri guards, three sons Ahmad Shah, Nader Shah, and Mirwais Zahir and five other family members.
The former king, a Pashtun, who speaks more Farsi (Persian, the language of the Tajik minority) than his native Pashto, has remained strikingly modest about his own aspirations for power, saying that he merely wants to serve his country in any way that he can in the last few years of his life. In a recent interview, he said: "I'm a patriot who does his duty. I will carry out any role or mission the people of Afghanistan wish to bestow on me.''
That role, for now, appears to be in helping Afghanistan convene the loya jirga, to create a more stable form of government. "For now, the king is only a symbol of the past and the future," says Aman Ullah Khan, the country's powerful minister for tribal and frontier affairs. "We are waiting for the loya jirga meeting in June, when we hope to have him elected as our new head of state."
But continued strife across Afghanistan and growing tensions between the Tajik and Uzbek dominated north and the Pashtun-dominated south and east still threaten to derail the fairness of the loya jirga process.
Human Rights Watch, the New York and London-based watchdog group, has warned that ongoing ethnic attacks, displacement of civilians, and regional warlordism "could prevent many northern Pashtun communities from being represented in the loya jirga process." In a recent report, the group warned that "the criteria for deciding who sits on shuras [councils] are complex, unwritten, and fluid; and the groups are often controlled by the most economically or militarily powerful forces in the region."