Former Afghan King Mohammad Zahir Shah

Mohammad Zahir Shah, left, and an unidentified official salute President Hamid Karzai at inauguration ceremonies in Kabul.
Mohammad Zahir Shah, left, and an unidentified official salute President Hamid Karzai at inauguration ceremonies in Kabul. (2004 Photo By Larry Downing -- Associated Press)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Mohammad Zahir Shah, 92, the king of Afghanistan who emerged from forced exile in 2002 to become the ceremonial "father of the nation" after the Taliban's retreat, died July 23 in Kabul. He had been ill, but the cause of death was not disclosed.

His four-decade rule began in 1933, when he succeeded his slain father as leader of an isolated and desperately poor country. King Zahir enjoyed one of the longest periods on a world throne, but more-powerful uncles and cousins exerted military and political authority in his country.

Nevertheless, King Zahir used his stature as royalty to win development aid from both the United States and the Soviet Union -- a remarkable achievement during the Cold War struggle for influence at the strategic Asian crossroads.

He was unsuccessful in other attempts at modernization. A new constitution over which he presided in 1964 tried to bring new political parties and greater freedoms to women and the press. Yet he was unable to see through the changes, partly because of his reluctance to cede control in such a fractious nation.

In 1973, King Zahir was overthrown by his brother-in-law, who was also his former prime minister and a top general. The coup was a backlash against the king's new constitution, which had made it illegal for the king's family to hold Cabinet-level jobs. The government's terrible response to a three-year drought that killed an estimated 80,000 people made the moment ripe for the king's opponents.

The deposed king slumped into obscurity while in exile in Italy. From his villa near Rome, he witnessed the breakdown of his country into violence: the long military occupation by the Soviet Union; the rise of the fundamentalist Taliban movement and its sheltering of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden; and the U.S.-initiated response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks orchestrated by bin Laden.

Yet the king's isolation from Afghanistan proved his greatest political asset in the long run, along with his reputation for shunning tribal provincialism despite his status in the majority Pashtun ethnic tribe.

After the U.S.-sponsored overthrow of the Taliban, quarreling political forces saw the king as a symbol of reunification, in part because the aging and ailing ruler carried no political threat and maintained the aura of a more stable period.

King Zahir was a descendant of Ahmed Shah, founder of the 18th-century Durrani dynasty. King Zahir was born Oct. 15, 1914, in Kabul and was the only son of Mohammed Nadir Shah.

The future King Zahir was educated at the Pasteur Institute and the University of Montpellier in France, where his father spent a period of exile during a family feud. In the late 1920s, Nadir was back in Afghanistan with several brothers, and they united to form an army that eliminated a fanatic who had sacked Kabul during a year-long reign of terror. Nadir was then "elected" king by the military.

Much like his son in later years, Nadir hoped to stabilize the country by establishing friendly relations with Russia and England, the two powers that had struggled for control over the arid region since the 19th-century geopolitical match known as the Great Game.

After his studies in France, the future King Zahir returned to Kabul in 1930, finished his education at Kabul's Infantry College and received postings in the Afghan defense and education ministries.

On Nov. 8, 1933, he witnessed the slaying of his father by a young gunman. The death occurred, by various accounts, either at a school celebration on palace grounds or while his father was leaving a royal harem.

By nightfall, the 19-year-old heir had become king. He spent more than a decade under the sway of powerful uncles. At the time, schoolmates reported to Time magazine that King Zahir was mostly known as "a good fellow and a good horseman."

While head of state, King Zahir avoided taking sides during World War II; the Germans had started air service and hydroelectric plants in his country before the war. After hostilities ended, he turned to the United States and the Soviet Union for aid.

The Soviets built Kabul's airport, and the United States constructed an airfield in Kandahar. The Soviets gave the Afghans fighter jets; the United States funded irrigation projects.

Fluent in French, King Zahir conducted European tours to encourage further investments. Despite his efforts, not much came in the way of lasting economic advancement, and subsistence farming and widespread poverty remained the norm.

At home, he asserted himself most boldly in 1964 to create a new constitution. In the aftermath, he called for the resignation of Gen. Mohammed Daud Khan, a cousin and brother-in-law who had spent the previous decade as prime minister.

In 1973, while the king was seeking medical treatment abroad for lumbago, Daud led a bloodless coup. He warned King Zahir against coming back and provided him a monthly allowance. Daud was killed during a Communist uprising in 1978, shortly before the Soviet invasion.

Having abdicated to avoid turmoil, the king spent the next three decades living in a comparatively modest villa in suburban Rome. He never mastered Italian and avoided the city's social lures. He was said to prefer chess and landscape photography.

He became a media recluse after a knife-wielding Muslim extremist, posing as a Portuguese journalist, stabbed him at his home in 1991. He attributed his survival to the cigarette tin he kept in his breast pocket.

King Zahir periodically tried to return to Afghanistan in a position of authority, but he was looked on with disdain by some Islamists as a reminder of feudal domination. Only with the overthrow of the Taliban was he invited back by Hamid Karzai, a fellow Pashtun who was president.

In 2002, before the loya jirga, a tribal assembly, King Zahir made clear his intention not to restore the monarchy. He was largely inconsequential to debate about the country's future as an Islamic republic, but his presence was said to have reassured many members of the parliament. A revised constitution outlawed the monarchy in 2004.

The late former queen, Homaira, a cousin whom King Zahir had married in 1931, died in 2002. Two sons also died. Survivors include three sons and two daughters.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company