Dossier: The King of Afghanistan

Who is the king of Afghanistan, and why should anyone think he can head a new Afghani government?

Mohammad Zahir Shah, 86, reigned from 1933 to 1973 as the last monarch of the ethnic Pashtun dynasty that lasted more than 200 years. Pashtuns make up about 40 percent of Afghanistan’s population and include the country’s current rulers, the Taliban. Zahir Shah succeeded his father, Mohammad Nadir Shah, who served as king for four years before being assassinated. The previous king, Amanullah, a blood relative of Nadir Shah’s, abdicated in 1929 when his political reforms angered Islamic leaders.

Educated in France, Zahir Shah showed an early interest in literature. Crowned at 19, he served as a puppet king for three decades. His uncles and, later, his cousin, Mohammad Daud, managed the country’s affairs. In 1963, Zahir Shah removed Daud and became his own prime minister.

Zahir Shah’s most noteworthy accomplishment was the Constitution of 1964, which eschewed conservative Islamic law to establish a constitutional monarchy and universal suffrage. He created a parliament filled partly by popular vote and allowed women to work and study freely. (None of these reforms has survived.) In 1973, Daud ousted Zahir Shah while he was relaxing in thermal baths on the Italian island of Ischia. Daud ruled as a self-proclaimed president for five years until he was toppled by leftists in 1978, prior to the Soviet invasion.

Today, Zahir Shah lives in exile, in a luxurious Rome villa. He survived an assassination attempt in 1991, but several members of his family have been murdered. His platform for re-emergence: He wants to oust “foreign-imposed terrorists”–the cause, he says, of Afghanistan’s unrest–and reinstall democratic reforms. That means first calling a Loya Jirga, a meeting of local chiefs, to elect a new leader. As a non-Taliban Pashtun, Zahir Shah could serve as a figurehead for a broad ruling coalition that would include the Northern Alliance (whose members are mostly non-Pashtuns). His son told the Associated Press that he has a survey that says 86 percent of Afghans would welcome the former king’s return.

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