Muhammad Zahir Shah (born 1914), last in the 226-year dynasty of Pashtun monarchs to rule Afghanistan, emerged in the fall of 2001 as a symbol of unity for his country as its hard-line Taliban rulers were dislodged from power. In December 2001 Zahir Shah gave his blessing to Hamid Karzai, a fellow Pashtun selected as an interim leader for the troubled country.
The son of King Nadir Shah of Afghanistan, Muhammad Zahir Shah was born on October 15, 1914, in the capital city of Kabul. Educated in both his native country and France, he was thrust suddenly into power at the age of 19, only hours after his father was assassinated. On November 8, 1933, he replaced his father on the throne of the Durani dynasty, first established in 1747 by Ahmad Shah. The young monarch adopted the title Mutawakkil Ala'llah, Pairaw-I Din-I Matin-I slam ("Confident in God, Follower of the Firm Religion of Islam"). For nearly three-quarters of his years on the throne, however, he was the country's ruler in little more than name, as two of his uncles—Muhammad Hashim and Shah Mahmud Ghazi— effectively ran the government. The elder of the two, Muhammad Hashim, had been prime minister under King Nadir Shah, and he remained in that post until 1946, when he was succeeded by his younger brother, Shah Mahmud.
In the years immediately following the assassination of Nadir Shah, Hashim, who was described by insiders as a statesman of high personal integrity and impressive administrative ability, focused on two main objectives: building up the nation's army and developing Afghanistan's economy. To accomplish these goals, Hashim needed to attract foreign aid, but he desperately wanted to avoid any political entanglements with either Great Britain or the Soviet Union. Instead he turned to Germany, which had both an interest in the Afghan project and the technical expertise needed to get the job done. Limited amounts of foreign aid were also accepted from Italy and Japan. As a result of Hashim's powers of persuasion, Germany by the beginning of the 1940s had become Afghanistan's principal foreign partner.
As the winds ushering in World War II began to blow across Afghanistan, King Zahir Shah on August 17, 1940, issued a declaration of his country's neutrality in the conflict. This proved easier said than done, however. The presence in Afghanistan of large numbers of nondiplomatic German personnel was more than Britain and the Soviet Union could tolerate. The Allies demanded that the Afghan government eject all nondiplomatic personnel from the Axis countries. Although it bristled at the Allies' demand, in the end Afghanistan complied, having already seen British and Soviet forces invade neighboring Iran when that country ignored a similar demand. Although Afghanistan did cave on the issue of expelling nondiplomatic Axis personnel, a loya jirga, or grand assembly called by the king, upheld Zahir Shah's policy of neutrality.
Not long after the end of World War II, Hashim was replaced as prime minister by his younger brother, Shah Mahmud, who ushered in a period of upheaval in Afghanistan's internal and external politics. Shah Mahmud presided over the initial phase of the Helmand Valley Project, a joint venture between the Afghan government and an American company. The project was launched to harness the irrigation and hydroelectric potential of the Helmand River. More significantly, Shah Mahmud was in office during the resolution of international border issues between Afghanistan and the newly formed country of Pakistan.
In 1953 Zahir Shah's cousin, Muhammad Daoud, succeeded Shah Mahmud as prime minister. The younger members of the royal family, Daoud among them, had successfully agitated against the dominance of the king's uncles, eventually winning access to the seat of power for Daoud. Although he was western educated and was expected by many observers to push for a more open political system, Daoud proved to possess a more authoritarian bent than most anticipated. Although Daoud did little to open up Afghanistan politically, he did take steps to modernize the country, including providing continued support for the Helmand Valley Project, designed to transform life in the southwestern corner of Afghanistan. He also moved to emancipate Afghan women, allowing the wives of his ministers to appear unveiled in public for the 40th anniversary celebration of national independence, and managed to exert a degree of control over the region's tribes. However, Daoud's foreign policy resulted in an unhealthy dependence on the Soviet Union as Afghanistan's principal trade and transit link with the outside world, and he was forced from office in 1963 by the king. Zahir Shah eventually wrested total control of the government from his relatives under the constitution of 1964, which established a constitutional monarchy and barred royal relatives from all high-level government offices. The new constitution also established a two-house parliament, free elections, and freedom of the press and gave women the right to vote.
The 1964 constitution also provided for the formation of political parties, but the king never ratified that provision. Although not legally permitted, political parties were formed; their members kept in touch with one another through party-affiliated newspapers and periodicals. All members of the Afghan parliament were officially elected as independents, yet they all brought with them to the legislature the sharply differing philosophies of the political parties with which they were unofficially affiliated. The result was a parliament that was virtually paralyzed by political infighting.
Using foreign assistance flowing in from a number of the world's industrial countries, particularly the United States and the Soviet Union, Zahir Shah spearheaded a series of projects to help develop Afghanistan's infrastructure. However, most of the projects, which focused on irrigation and highway construction, were limited to the area in and around Kabul. Exacerbating the country's problems, particularly outside Kabul, was the drought of the early 1970s, which in time led to widespread famine and growing unrest in the countryside, particularly among some of the tribal factions along the Afghan border with Pakistan. On the plus side, one of the major accomplishments of the king's reign was his success in maintaining the country's neutrality in the increasingly divisive world of international politics.
In July of 1973 Zahir Shah traveled to England for surgery on an eye he had injured in a volleyball game. Once the surgery was complete, he continued on to Italy. As he and his family relaxed on the island of Ischia, not far from Naples, Muhammad Daoud, ousted as prime minister in 1963, staged a bloodless coup, and Afghanistan was declared a republic under Daoud's presidency. Daoud warned Zahir Shah not to attempt to return to Kabul, a warning the king apparently took seriously for he remained outside Afghanistan through the 2002 war against terrorism waged by the United States and formally abdicated on August 24, 1973. Daoud's days as the country's leader were numbered; he died in a 1978 coup that brought to power a communist government. The following year the Soviet Union, which bordered Afghanistan to the north, invaded the country and installed yet another communist government, sparking a ten-year war between Soviet forces and the mujaheddin, a rag-tag army of anti-Communist guerilla fighters. The United States supplied extensive military assistance to the mujaheddin to enable them to continue their struggle against the Soviets. Unfortunately the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 brought no lasting peace, for the country was soon torn apart by factional fighting. In the latter half of the 1990s the fundamentalist Taliban secured control of most of the country and imposed an oppressive rule. The Taliban's sponsorship of terrorist training camps run by terrorist leader Osama bin Laden eventually brought them into conflict with the United States, which ironically had been closely allied with many in the Taliban during their struggle with the Soviets.
During the years of turbulence in his homeland, Zahir Shah lived quietly in a villa outside Rome. Every time another government fell in Kabul, the aging king was inevitably mentioned as a possible interim ruler until a permanent new government could be established. It all came to naught, however, for events within Afghanistan always seemed to overtake the best intentions of Afghan exiles and others who hoped to see a return to stability in that country. Zahir Shah remained a potent symbol for those desiring the restoration of the monarchy, however, and in 1991 was stabbed three times by an unknown assailant in a suspected political assassination attempt. Although he remained outside Afghanistan, Zahir Shah remained connected to developments in his country. In 1993 he called upon the United Nations to allow the convocation of a loya jirga to select a new president to replace Professor Burnahuddin Rabbani, whose 1992 election the former king alleged was tainted by corruption and should be declared invalid.
In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attack on the United States and the beginning of the U.S. war on international terrorism, Zahir Shah called for another loya jirga to select an alternative to the government of the Taliban, accused of sheltering the Al Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden. In November 2001, after the liberation of Kabul, Zahir Shah called on the United States to end its bombing campaign in Afghanistan. He also urged all factions in Afghanistan "to safeguard life, property, and also be vigilant in preventing foreign designs from inflicting more harm on our people." The king threw his support behind Hamid Karzai, who was to lead Afghanistan until a grand national assembly could be convened in 2002 to select a transitional government to rule the country in the 18 months leading up to new national elections.
In January of 2002, Zahir Shah called up the government of Karzai, who like the king is an ethnic Pashtun, to guarantee women's rights. He noted that under the country's 1964 Constitution women enjoyed full rights, most of which had been revoked under the harsh rule of the Taliban. In an interview with the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, Zahir Shah said: "I firmly believe that every effort must be exerted to guarantee (women's) rights. Their active participation is a vital part of rebuilding our country." According to Reuters, the former monarch also said the new Afghan government needed "to find job opportunities to enable men and women to access resources. A whole generation has been deprived of their basic rights in education and health care."
Zahir Shah fathered seven children in all, five of whom survive. Although he was fourth in the line of succession, Prince Mir Wais was groomed as his father's heir. Like his father, Mir Wais lived near Rome, and served as his father's closest adviser. Whatever role Zahir Shah and his family might play in the political future of their troubled homeland, the former king remained intensely concerned with Afghanistan's future and was prepared to work to ensure his country's future political stability.
Associated Press, October 8, 2001; November 14, 2001; January 28, 2002.
Time International, November 18, 1991.
"Hamid Karzai No Stranger to Leadership," CNN.com, http://cnn.worldnews.com/ (February 3, 2002).
"Mohammed Zahir Shah," Biography Resource Center Online, http://galenet.galegroup.com/ (January 20, 2002).
"Mohammad Zahir Shah: King of Afghanistan from 1933-1973,"Afghan-Info.com, http://www.afghan-info.com/ (February 3, 2002).