Afghan return

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 April, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 April, 2002, 12:00am

For a man of 87 in poor health, a great deal of hope and expectation is resting on the shoulders of former Afghan monarch Mohammed Zahir Shah. Following at least two aborted attempts to return the exiled king to his homeland, it now seems likely that Zahir Shah will fly from Rome to Afghanistan today or tomorrow. After a 29-year absence, he will be returning to an Afghanistan all but destroyed by the draconian rule of the Taleban and now in danger of being riven by re-surfacing ethnic and tribal tensions.

While Zahir Shah will live as a private citizen, his political role will nevertheless be crucial in the near term if the country is to maintain its nascent return to some semblance, if not of unity, then at least an acceptance among most Afghans that the old ways of rule by Kalashnikov and internecine conflict must end.

It is a lot to ask of the man. Initially there was euphoria that, with the Taleban vanquished, Afghanistan could look forward to being governed by a more enlightened and stable leadership. But hardly have the celebrations died down and there is already evidence of the return of lawlessness and ethnic rivalries that are ready to spill over into renewed conflict.

Previous plans to bring the former king home were put on hold after threats were made to kill him, including one a fortnight ago following which more than 100 people were arrested. Such is the minefield to which Zahir Shah is returning.

It is therefore important that expectations are not raised unrealistically. At best the ageing ex-king can act only to signal that civilised aspirations have at last returned to this tragic country. However, one task of great import does await Zahir Shah - to preside over a grand gathering of Afghan leaders in June. The purpose of this meeting is to determine a new constitution and to create a new government to steer the country towards full democracy. If the former king can help this essential forum to success, his stated aim of acting as a unifying force for his people will have been achieved.