Exiled king makes appeal to Afghans

Zahir urges moderation, opposition to terrorism

Terrorism Strikes America

The World

September 20, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Afghanistan's King Mohammed Zahir Shah arrived in Rome in the summer of 1973 to look after his health. He chose to remain in exile after a brother-in-law seized power that year in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

Zahir, now in his mid-80s, is still in Rome, his aides still thinking he can unite his people.

Afghanistan has been shattered by coups, invasion by the Soviet Union in 1979, civil war and the rise of the Taliban government that is accused of harboring Saudi-born exile Osama bin Laden, who is suspected of masterminding last week's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Yesterday, Zahir issued a message to the Afghan people, appealing "to their sense of honor and patriotism to rescue ourselves from this dangerous situation."

"Historically, our nation has acted in accordance to the guidance and tenets of Islam, embraced moderation and tolerance, opposed terrorism," he said in a statement.

His aides said the message was broadcast in Afghanistan.

Every few years, the king is mentioned as a potential unifier of his shattered country. And every few years, hopes are dashed as reality intrudes on the notion that a deposed monarch who lives in a villa by a golf course and riding stable can provide the answers to what ails Afghanistan.

With Afghanistan again threatened by invasion - this time by a United States embarking on a war against international terrorism - the king's supporters are courting attention.

"He can play a role," Zalmai Rassoul, a former top aide, said yesterday in a telephone interview from Rome. "He is the only man alive in Afghan society who people trust. The problem in Afghanistan is, no one trusts anyone."

Rassoul said the king does not wish to restore the monarchy, For years he has advocated a Loya Jirga, or Grand Assembly, to bring together tribal, regional and political leaders to create a new country from the rubble of unceasing war.

"To sort [out] the Afghan problem, we need a government elected by the people, with the support of the people," Rassoul said. "He is working on that."

The French-educated king claimed the throne in 1933, at age 19, after the assassination of his father, King Mohammed Nadir Shah.

Zahir's 40-year rule was noted for granting rights to women and unshackling the press. Some have sought to paint that period as a peaceful one in a land often racked by violence, but there was a fierce crackdown in the late 1960s against Islamic militants. A government split in 1963 resulted in the ouster of hard-line Prime Minister Sadar Daud, the king's cousin and brother-in-law.

Ten years later, Daud seized power in what he called a "bloodless" coup, though he acknowledged the deaths of five policemen, two soldiers and a tank officer. The king's family was allowed to go into exile.

Daud declared a republic and embarked on a dangerous game of trying to sidle up to both the Soviet Union and the West in the midst of the Cold War.`The Russians, at the time, hoped he would take power," Rassoul said. "He held off the Communist faction of the army. He thought he could play with the Russians. He was wrong."

In April 1978, a Communist-led coup toppled Daud, who reportedly witnessed the deaths of 30 members of his family before he was killed. The coup provided a preview of the anarchy that would sweep through the rugged desert land that has repulsed invaders through the ages.

Daud's successors, fighting over scraps of power, didn't fare any better. Nur Mohammad Taraki was executed in September 1979 after being ousted by Hafizullah Amin. On Dec. 27, 1979, Amin was murdered in the presidential palace to make way for Babrak Karmal, the Soviet-backed puppet ruler.

The Soviet invasion in 1979 triggered a fight to the death between a seemingly impregnable modern army and Muslim resistance fighters known as mujahedeen. The hardened resistance fighters received support from the West, including the CIA, which was trying to blunt the Soviet takeover.

The mujahedeen outlasted Soviet forces, sending a once feared army to inglorious defeat. After the fall in 1992 of the last puppet leader, Najibullah, the mujahedeen claimed the spoils and were corrupted by power, riddled by factionalism and headed toward civil war.

From the country's wreckage emerged the ultra-conservative students who formed the Taliban movement and later claimed Kabul in 1996. The Taliban set the parts of Afghanistan they controlled on a new zealous path and imposed a harsh Islamic rule.

Amid the period's violent sweep, there were articles in the Western press about bringing back the king. A dispatch from 1989 noted that the king's black Daimler limousine, with four flat tires, was still parked in Kabul.

"In a padlocked shed near the old royal palace," the story read, "the limousine of the last Afghan king waits in the dust."

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