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Ex-King Is Thrilled to Be Home

Afghanistan: Mohammad Zaher Shah returns quietly in a tense political atmosphere. His future role is vague.


KABUL, Afghanistan — Former king Mohammad Zaher Shah had just a handful of simple words for the Afghan people after he returned to the country Thursday: It was the happiest day of his life.

Those who accompanied the 87-year-old ex-monarch said he couldn't wrench his eyes away from the mountains of Afghanistan as his plane flew over them, and he had tears in his eyes as he stepped onto the ground at Kabul's airport after 29 years in exile.

In a short airport ceremony, strangely quiet and anticlimactic, Zaher Shah moved through a crowd of dignitaries before being whisked away in a motorcade, with few people lining the streets to wave or cheer. No official announcement had been made, mainly for security reasons.

Zaher Shah was escorted from his house near Rome to the Afghan capital by Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's interim government leader, who, like the former king, is an ethnic Pushtun.

The ex-monarch's presence is expected to boost Karzai's power and offset that of former Northern Alliance figures, ethnic Tajiks who control the key Defense, Interior and Foreign Ministries.

"The king is returning to his country at a time when it is secure, and I hope it will bring about stability and result in the rehabilitation of Afghanistan," Karzai said after Zaher Shah's return. "It is an unusual moment. Refugees are coming from Iran, Pakistan and other places, and the king is coming home to his country."

Government members are vague about precisely what role Zaher Shah will be allowed to play. He returns as an ordinary citizen, not a monarch, and there are few calls to make him king again. His main task in coming months is to convene a loya jirga, or grand council, in June to select Afghanistan's next leader and government.

It was not a day for recrimination or criticism from those who oppose the former king--including moujahedeen fighters and Northern Alliance commanders who fought the radical Islamic Taliban regime and control much of the country outside Kabul.

But the tensions over Zaher Shah's return, boiling beneath the surface, suggest the problems he will have in unifying the nation, the role he has adopted for himself.

With U.S. backing for the former king's return strong, figures associated with the Northern Alliance have muted their criticism of him. But they frame their complaints in subtle ways, pointing out that Zaher Shah is old and emphasizing that he is in Afghanistan as a private citizen.

Contrary to expectations, Afghanistan's currency weakened on Zaher Shah's return, taking currency traders by surprise. Most lost money Thursday, because traders had brought large amounts of afghanis to the market, expecting to make money as the currency strengthened on the former king's arrival.

Zaher Shah rested in his villa Thursday. In coming days, he is expected to visit his father's tomb, a once-grand structure on a hill overlooking Kabul. The tomb was badly damaged in fighting in the early 1990s, and the shattered roof and walls and graffiti-filled interior are likely to be a devastating sight for the former king.

State-owned local media gave Zaher Shah's arrival brief play, in coverage that was almost curt compared with that of overseas media here.

Kabul Radio described the former king's arrival in Kabul as "the only hope for our brave compatriots."

Zaher Shah is extremely popular among many ordinary Afghans.

"We would like to see him installed as our president, because we had a good life in his era," said Mohammed Saber, 47, a government worker who repairs bicycles to make ends meet.

But critics say that as ruler for 40 years until he was deposed in 1973, Zaher Shah neglected Afghanistan's development.

"He led the people in darkness," said Sarwar, 45, a former moujahedeen fighter now serving as a soldier in a security tent near the tomb of Zaher Shah's father. "During 22 years when there was fighting here, there was bloodshed in the country," said Sarwar, who uses only one name. "Did he raise his head? Did he take part in the fighting against enemies? No, he did nothing. It's too late for him. His time is up."

Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah said it was a momentous and emotional day for Afghanistan, but he was vague about Zaher Shah's role.

"It will add to the sense of integrity and national unity and will promote the political process," he said. The interim government will consult with the former king "when necessary," Abdullah said.

"It will be another reassurance to the people of Afghanistan that these political processes are taking the right path," he said.

Abdullah, who also traveled with Zaher Shah to Afghanistan, said the former king was so excited about arriving in Afghanistan that he didn't sleep during the overnight flight.

In a sign of the rapid social change that followed the defeat of the Taliban late last year, a group of women were present for Zaher Shah's arrival at the Kabul airport, wearing head scarves instead of the head-to-toe covering known as a burka.

"It was a very emotional moment," said one of the women, Najiba Qayum, 45, a professor at Kabul University. "I was thinking about how the king must have felt, because he has been away for such a long time. It's very difficult to be away from your country. You could kiss the soil."

"For me, he is like my father and grandfather," said another woman, Sima Tabib, 40, who works in a Geneva bank but wants to return home. "He is the savior of Afghanistan. His return is really important for the future of Afghanistan."

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