He may be elderly (he is 86), and he has lived outside his country for three decades, but Afghanistan's exiled king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, thrust himself firmly into the world spotlight yesterday by declaring he would be prepared to help his country form a post-Taliban transitional government.
The message came from Rome, where Zahir Shah has lived with his entourage since he was overthrown in a 1973 palace coup by his cousin and rival, Mohammed Daoud, after ruling his mountainous kingdom for 40 years.
The ex-king, who has spent the greater part of his exile in obscurity, began to take a renewed interest in his homeland in the mid-1990s, as the mujahedin guerrilla fighters, who had forcibly ejected the Russians, began to fall out among themselves with bloody and disastrous results for the whole country – chief of which was the Taliban's own entry into power.
In 1994, Zahir Shah advocated convening aloya jirga, a traditional council of tribal leaders which might end the war, appoint a head of state and set up a transitional government.
He was unable to persuade enough of the main factional chiefs to agree, and abandoned the idea. But, 18 months ago, he revived it, and, in the aftermath of the attacks on the US, it has taken on real political significance as the US and its allies are forced to think about what will replace the Taliban government if it is toppled.
Zahir Shah's own importance has been further reinforced by the recent assassination of the only credible anti-Taliban leader inside Afghanistan, Ahmed Shah Masood, who was killed when two suicide bombers, posing as journalists, detonated an explosive video camera during an interview at Masood's base in the Panjshir Valley.
Interest in Zahir Shah has rocketed in the past fortnight and diplomats from various countries have been beating a path to his door, although the Foreign Office denied a report last night that two British officials went to see him on Friday specifically to ask him to return to Kabul and lead an interim administration if the Taliban were overthrown.
But yesterday, as Zahir Shah was expected to receive an envoy from the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, an aide to the king, Yusuf Nuristani, confirmed that he wants to be part of a post-Taliban reconstruction, although he does not want to return to Afghanistan as a monarch. "The king has always maintained he would return to Afghanistan if the people wanted him. He wants to play a role in the restoration of peace," Mr Nuristani said.
In another development yesterday, the king gave a brief interview to La Repubblica, the Italian newspaper, in which he defended the Afghan people. Despite decades of conflict, Afghans never resorted to terrorism, he said. Instead, he laid the blame squarely on "foreigners," adding: "I hope that the punishment for the acts of terrorism committed by foreigners in my country will not involve the Afghan people."
It was an unaccustomed public intervention from a former sovereign who has said little and been seen less since losing his throne. Zahir Shah has spent his years of exile in a large villa in Olgiata, a gated compound north of Rome which provides an ultra-secure country club-style haven for the wealthy. (Neighbours include well-known footballers and La Cicciolina, the porn star turned Italian MP).
Born in 1914, and educated in France and Kabul, Zahir Shar is fluent in Italian, French and English as well as Pashto, and is known for being reserved and prudent. He was proclaimed king at the age of 19 on 8 November 1933, a few hours after his father's assassination.
His liberal education in France helped him modernise the mountain kingdom and in 1964 he approved a new constitution that introduced democratic reforms, free elections, an elected parliament and a free press.
His cousin, Mohammed Daoud, had been prime minister from 1953 until 1963, when Zahir Shah forced his resignation, but Daoud took his revenge by staging a coup in July 1973 while Zahir Shah was in Rome for an eye operation.
As a result, a planned stay of a few days has now lasted 28 years. Daoud's own reign lasted only five years and ushered in the 30 years of instability with which Afghanistan has been bedevilled.
In Olgiata today, Zahir Shah lives quietly with his wife, Homaira, four of their six children and several grandchildren. His health is said to be good, and he takes a long stroll every day. Despite the security at Olgiata, in 1991 the former king was stabbed in the throat by a fanatic, pretending to be a Portuguese journalist, and since the terrorist atrocities in the US security has been stepped up further.Reuse content