Refugees call for return of former king as 'symbol of peace and nation'

War on terrorism: Opposition
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The Independent Online

There were elderly refugees with long white beards and turbans, young men bundled up in western suits. A separate section was reserved for women, all veiled but none in burqas. All the country's main ethnic groups were represented, including Pashtun, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks.

The meeting would have been unthinkable a month ago when the Taliban remained securely in control of most of Afghanistan and Pakistan stood solidly behind the regime. But this week in Peshawar about 1,000 Afghan expatriates gathered to call for the return of the former king, Zahir Shah.

"The main target of the meeting is the coming of the king," said one young man in the audience. "It will be a great opportunity to request the previous king," said another.

Until recently, the open airing of contrary views by Afghans in Pakistan was perilous. "If people criticised the Taliban they were killed," an Afghan teacher told me. "They died in strange accidents."

A long-term refugee said: "We could criticise other previous regimes but if we criticised the Taliban we had to do it secretly."

The fear has not gone yet – one speaker at the conference declined to be interviewed at her home lest Taliban supporters saw her interacting with a foreigner – but in the conference hall in Peshawar it was quelled for a few hours.

Frisking at the gate was thorough, and a burly guard with a submachine gun patrolled the hall. And Afghanistan's extraordinary new situation gave the delegates courage.

The main speaker, the former mujahedin commander Sayeed Isaq Gailani, called the king "a symbol of peace and the powerful character of the nation, who is supported by a majority of the people".

Mohammad Zahir Shah became King of Afghanistan on 8 November 1933, following the assassination of his father. He was only 19, had no experience of public life and for the first 20 years of his reign Afghanistan was ruled by his uncles. But by 1974, when he was deposed by his cousin, he had brought his country a long way along the road to constitutional government and democracy.

"Afghanistan still has the opportunity to succeed in its experiment in democracy," wrote the American expert Louis Dupress in 1972, "and the key figure remains King Mohammad Zahir Shah [who] genuinely wants to construct a full modern constitutional democracy... The King serves as a symbol to his people until constitutional ideals can be transformed into realities."

But at age 86, would the former king resume where he left off 27 years ago? Probably not.

Most speakers wanted him to come to convene a Loya Jirga, a national conference which for centuries has been Afghanistan's way of reaching major decisions – and which can only be convened by the King.

It was an impressive display of support for a figure who seemed to have disappeared into history. "We have lost all our other important leaders," a veteran author explained. "He is the only one considered a leader by the Afghan people and by the world."

But is it not worrying that the United States seems to be eyeing him as a potential puppet? "The people need such a worthy person," said the author, smiling broadly, "and such a worthy person does not come without support."