Former Afghan King, Mohammad Zahir Shah, Dies

Afghanistan's former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, has died at the age of 92. Born October 16, 1914, the king ruled Afghanistan for 40 years until he was deposed in a bloodless coup in 1973. After a lengthy exile, he returned in 2002 to help his war-torn country's new democratic government. VOA's Benjamin Sand reports that the former monarch will be remembered fondly as the symbol of a simpler, more prosperous and peaceful time in Afghanistan.

To millions of Afghans, Mohammad Zahir Shah represented an almost mystical time, the era just before the Soviet Union invaded in 1979 and set the country on the path to more than three decades of war and violence.

Former Kabul University professor Abdul Khaliq Fazal says the king was able to reach out to all of the country's factions.

"He was a symbol of unity in Afghan society," said Fazal. "He is the symbol of bringing different political factions, different religions together and whoever, from whichever religion, language or tribe, they always respected his majesty."

Zahir Shah was born in 1914, in the Afghan capital Kabul. At the time, most of the country's borders were still defined by two of the world's great empires, the British in the south, and the Russian to the north. Afghanistan was a troubled, mostly tribal and largely undeveloped nation.

The king was crowned in 1933 after his father was assassinated for his attempts to modernize the country, including providing greater freedom for women. Only 19 when he ascended the throne, he had spent much of his life overseas, studying in France and traveling through Europe.

In his early years as king his influential uncles overshadowed him. But by the mid-1960's he became more comfortable exercising power and took the lead in reform.

Professor Fazal says perhaps most important was the king's attempt to keep Afghanistan out of the growing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

"Afghanistan was in a very tough time between two superpowers and his majesty was very successful and he kept Afghanistan an independent and non-aligned country," he said.

Foreign aid poured in from both sides of the Iron Curtain, with both Washington and Moscow eager to gain influence.

In 1964 the king oversaw passage of a new constitution, which helped transform Afghan society. For the first time Afghanistan had an independent parliament, open elections and a free press.

The king also took the lead in promoting new rights for women, including the right to vote.

But the latter part of his reign was marred by factionalism and political infighting. The economy suffered amid a nationwide drought. Pashtun tribes along the Pakistan border demanded greater independence.

In 1973, his cousin, Mohammad Daud, seized control of the government while the embattled king was out of the country, forcing him into exile for nearly three decades. He spent most of it in seclusion in a small villa in central Italy.

The coup ushered in decades of instability and destruction. The Soviet Union invaded in 1979. The communist government collapsed in 1992 following the Soviet withdrawal, leading to years of bloody civil war.

In 1996, the Taleban took power. The Muslim hardliners brought peace, but also imposed a harsh form of Islamic law. Its leaders allowed the terrorist organization al- Qaida to set up its headquarters in Afghanistan.

Throughout that time, the king remained a distant figure, rarely commenting on Afghan politics, spending most of his time either writing his memoirs or painting.

The stage was set for his return in 2001. After al-Qaida attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, a U.S.-led invasion drove the Taleban from power.

In 2002, at the age of 87, Zahir Shah returned to Afghanistan to help open a Loya Jirga, a traditional tribal council convened to select a new form of government.

When he reached Kabul the former king told Voice of America it felt very much as if he had never left.

"I found the people of Afghanistan almost unchanged, as far as their attitude and sentiments were concerned regarding me," he said.

Several factions, especially within his own Pashtun ethnic group, called for a restoration of the monarchy. But a democratic form of government was chosen, and Hamid Karzai was chosen to lead it.

Zahir Shah was given the symbolic title "father of the nation." He moved into his old palace in Kabul, serving as a largely symbolic advisor to the new government.

The former king said the most important thing was for all Afghans to work together to rebuild the war-torn country.

"To bring about different elements of the Afghan society, ethnic, religious, or otherwise, to work together as they used to in the past," he said. "And all efforts should be directed and concentrated on one issue only, the reconstruction of our destroyed homeland."

His death comes amid fresh concerns for the country's future. 2006 was the deadliest year in Afghanistan since the Taleban were forced out of power and the Islamist insurgency has not eased this year.

Zahir Shah leaves Afghanistan much as he left it in 1973, in the grip of factional disarray, its future uncertain.