Philip Hensher: This plan sounds like a right royal recipe for disaster

'I've heard some terrible ideas in my time, but this idea is about as sensible as proposing Gore Vidal for president of the USA'
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The Independent Online

The decisions have now been made and a consensus reached about what we want to achieve in Afghanistan. In the immediate future, humanitarian aid will be supplied to the people – a nice idea, but no substitute at all for a major programme of reconstruction, which is going to have to come, in the end, from outside Afghanistan.

In political terms, we seem to have agreed that the Taliban's sheltering of bin Laden justifies treating them as an enemy. The Prime Minister shrank somewhat from a commitment to depose the Taliban yesterday by saying that "changes would be made within the Taliban regime", but there seems little doubt that a new government is envisaged as being assembled under some non-Taliban figure. And we all know, by now, to our slight incredulity, who this means.

I have to admit, when I read in April an interview with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar on the subject of American plans for Afghanistan, I wrote it off at the time as yet more of Hekmatyar's ramblings. Hekmatyar is probably the most deplorable of the many maverick warlords who have been ruling over the factions tearing Afghanistan apart in the course of the long civil war. He is a pundit about as trustworthy as Mystic Meg.

In light of recent events, however, one wonders whether he was on to something. Hekmatyar claimed that "the US has chalked out a plan to bring former Afghan ruler, Zahir Shah, to power in Afghanistan." This proposal, which seemed wildly implausible in April, has now become a serious possibility. The US Congress has sent a delegation to Rome, where the ex-king now lives, which emerged with statesmanlike declarations that he has "a role to play in a new administration".

The reports went on that the ex-king has called for the summoning of a loya jirga to establish a government of national unity after the removal of the Taliban. The loya jirga is customarily described as "a grand assembly of national elders", dating back to 1747, but anyone who knows anything of the recent history of Afghanistan will have let out a quiet groan at the mention of the term.

The last occasion on which the loya jirga was seriously touted was at the institution of the Tunisian UN envoy to Afghanistan, Mahmoud Mestiri, who extracted a commitment from the UN in 1994 to summon one to prepare for elections within two years. Well, we all know what happened to that promise, within which hid another absurd plot to reinstate the old king. If that weren't enough to discredit the whole idea of a loya jirga in the eyes of ordinary Afghans, there is also the memory of its previous deployment, an entirely cynical exercise in 1988 by the Soviet-backed president, Mohammed Najibullah, to approve a new constitution.

The loya jirga, as has often been observed, is something which has never commanded the support of the Kabul political classes, and for the reason that it has always in recent history served a very particular political purpose, and one determined in advance. At this point in history, the summoning of a loya jirga would strike Afghans purely as a means to reinstate a long-forgotten king at the command of hostile western governments.

Basically, talk of 1747 is entirely beside the point. In modern times the nature of a loya jirga was established in 1977, when it was part-elected, part-appointed, for the discussion and implementation of the new, post-Zahir constitution. It was always envisaged that the loya jirga would be convened only to perform specific functions – its role is set out in chapter 6 of the 1977 constitution. Routine legislative work would be performed by the meli jirga, the usual sort of quadriennial legislature, elected by secret ballot. All this was intended to replace the former situation of a lower and an upper house, a meshrani jirga and a wolesi jirga.

The dangers of a legislative body, summoned at specific need in this way, has become horribly apparent since the disappearance of any democratic, permanent parliamentary body. In the absence of that, calls for a loya jirga are only heard from voices who know precisely what they want the body to come up with. In this case, they want a king: either Zahir, or, as has been mentioned, his youngest son, Mirwa'iz. It all sounds so brilliant – an assembly of august elders, who have mysteriously existed apart from the civil war, who may summon an apolitical and much-loved old monarch to unite Afghanistan. To me it sounds like a recipe for disaster.

I want to quote here from a remarkable transcript of a speech which a senior member of the Taliban, Syed Rahmatullah Hashimi, made in March in, of all places, California. Many of my correspondents who have been writing to me after my recent explorations of the merits of leaving the Taliban their authority while we fund a reconstruction of the country will switch off at this point (no, please don't recommend that I go and live in Afghanistan); probably, too, the 17 separate people whose idea of disagreement was to attempt to infect my computer with a virus.

Nevertheless, this document (to be found at is of some interest and apparent honesty. Even when it invites profound disagreement and even revulsion, it must convince one that the Taliban's motives cannot be regarded with pure cynicism. It is on the subject of the last king of Afghanistan, I must say, that he expresses a view I have heard many times from non-Taliban Afghans, which anyone proposing the return of Zahir must accept is the ordinary view of many ordinary Afghans. Hashimi says: "I'm sorry to say, you know what the old king of Afghanistan, he was 88 [sic] years old, and he spent seven years living in Rome, he had bought an island there, and now this man wants to come back to Afghanistan and head the government. The old, rotten knucklehead. So, we were very surprised as to what did he do in 43 years of his government? He didn't do anything. He only knew how to decorate his palace."

Afghanistan is a young country. Most Afghans were born after Zahir's expulsion in 1973, and have only the memory of a king who, coming to the throne in 1933 at the age of 18, was content to leave the rule of the country to his uncles and cousin until 1963. In the interim, he was chiefly notorious for having a bodyguard who dressed in cast-off SS uniforms, until a famous confrontation between them and an appalled US ambassador some time in the 1950s.

To be fair, in the 10 years between 1963 and his deposition while taking the waters at an Italian spa, he made some cheerful Shah-like gestures towards democracy. But the idea that Afghans long for his return is demonstrably baseless. The US delegation is obviously under the impression that Afghanistan thinks of Zahir as the heir of Dost Mohammed, the great 19th-century amir. The real analogy is with Shah Shujah-ul-mulk, the discredited old king the British fondly believed Kabulis longed for, and who, without his western bodyguards, came to a swift and unregrettedly bloody end.

I've heard some terrible ideas in my time, but the whole loya jirga and Zahir idea is about as sensible as proposing Gore Vidal for president of the United States of America. Fantasy politics: but pursuant of so very hilarious an idea, it is worth remembering that people, in their tens of thousands, are going to die.