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THE WORLD

With a Nudge, Ex-King Exits the Afghan Stage

June 11, 2002|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KABUL, Afghanistan — Former king Mohammad Zaher Shah announced Monday that he wants neither to restore the monarchy nor to be elected head of state, apparently pressured by President Bush's envoy to bow out of the volatile loya jirga political process that will choose Afghanistan's next leader.

The move by U.S. and other Western emissaries delayed the long-awaited grand assembly and drew rebukes from democratic watchdogs and the king's supporters as clumsy interference in Afghan affairs and a hindrance to national reconciliation.

Although the swelling ranks of loya jirga delegates were eager to debate how best to rule and rebuild their war-battered country, the convocation was twice delayed at the suggestion of the foreign observers. Bush's envoy, Afghan-born academic Zalmay Khalilzad, said the delays were called after "confusion" arose about the king's role in the transitional government that the weeklong assembly will choose.

"We have an interest in what happens in Afghanistan. We want this process to succeed," Khalilzad said, confirming that he had spent hours meeting with Zaher Shah late Sunday and Monday in search of "clarity" about his political ambitions.

Khalilzad announced two hours ahead of the former king that the frail Zaher Shah had decided against taking any leadership position and was throwing his support behind interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai. He said the loya jirga that was supposed to open Monday morning was postponed after two broadcast interviews given by Zaher Shah "caused some consternation and confusion."

"It appears those reports were incorrect, that the former king is not a candidate for any position in the transitional authority and endorses and supports the candidacy of Chairman Karzai for the presidency," Khalilzad told reporters summoned to the U.S. Embassy.

The U.S. envoy also accompanied the silent king and his glum entourage for a terse announcement read by an advisor on Zaher Shah's behalf that he was withdrawing from consideration as head of state.

Zaher Shah has said repeatedly since returning in April from three decades in exile that he would leave it up to the Afghan people to decide whether to restore the monarchy or give him any ceremonial role as father of the nation. The 87-year-old has also indicated that if he were to be brought back to power he would collaborate with Karzai, the charismatic Pushtun who has managed to maintain relative peace and keep ethnic rivalries in check during his six-month tenure.

Push for Former King

Some Western diplomats here have for months been casting the loya jirga as a rubber-stamp body that will empower Karzai to oversee billions in international reconstruction aid and political institution-building ahead of nationwide elections planned for spring 2004.

But as the 1,500-plus loya jirga delegates from throughout Afghanistan began arriving here late last week, it became increasingly apparent that many had been urged by their constituents to vote for Zaher Shah rather than Karzai.

The loya jirga tradition is 1,000 years old and has always been chaotic. The current assembly might have been expected to thrash out some division of powers that could appease both royalists and republicans. There had been much discussion in the lead-up to the convocation of bestowing some symbolic role on the king while vesting executive power in a presidency or prime minister's post to be filled by a more active figure, such as Karzai.

By stepping in ahead of the gathering to secure the king's public assurances that he seeks no office, the U.N. and diplomatic advisors to the loya jirga organizing commission might have confirmed many Afghans' fears that their future is being decided by outsiders.

Senior figures in the ousted royal family said Zaher Shah should be free to take up any role Afghans want for him and that the former monarch has been strong-armed into throwing his support behind Karzai.

"The role of my father is very important here. The people of Afghanistan want only him," said Mirwais Zaher, one of the monarch's younger sons. "The people want my father to have an important position in which he is in control."

He said the power-brokering that has sidelined the former king won't put an end to other family members' desires to serve the people. "No one can stop us from doing something for Afghanistan. It's my right, and no one can stop me."

Even before the maneuvering became public, the delays and the external influence were disgruntling loya jirga delegates. Frontiers and Tribal Affairs Minister Amanullah Zadran told journalists that the Pushtun delegates were threatening to walk out of the forum unless the king was allowed to run for the presidency.

Observers from democratic assistance groups, such as Alexander Thier, senior analyst in Kabul for the International Crisis Group, warned that the delegates would see the handling of Zaher Shah as foreign interference.

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