MUHAMMAD ZAHIR SHAH, THE KING OF AFGHANISTAN
Muhammad Zahir Shah, who has died aged 92, was King of Afghanistan for 40 years; after being deposed in a bloodless palace coup in 1973 he spent most of the rest of his life in comfortable exile in Rome, occasionally emerging into public view during crises in his homeland, and returning only after the defeat of the Taliban.
He was obliged to develop a languid approach to kingship during the long period of political impotence that he endured as a cosseted boy-king, installed by his more powerful uncles when his father, Nadir Shah, was assassinated in a dynastic feud. When he eventually emerged as a ruler in his own right, 30 years after his accession, his policy was liberal, progressive and humane, but marred by political instability which his tendency to vacillation only exacerbated. His 10 years of effective rule unleashed forces in his volatile kingdom that turned against him and later against his entire dynasty, when a communist coup d'état plunged the country into a long period of war and chaos which has yet to come to an end.
Muhammad Zahir Shah was born in Kabul on October 15 1914, the only surviving son of Nadir Shah. He was educated in a special class for princes at the Habibia school in Kabul, then the city's only modern school, and later at lycées in France, where his father was sent as diplomatic envoy.
Nadir Shah seized power in Kabul in 1929, and the following year Zahir Shah returned to Afghanistan, where his father began grooming him as his successor, an unprecedented step in a country with no tradition of primogeniture. He was enrolled at the Infantry School, and in 1931 married his cousin, Hamera Jan, eldest daughter of the minister of court, Ahmad Shah.
His education complete, the young prince was appointed privy counsellor, deputy war minister and minister of education. Despite these duties, the young Zahir Shah found Kabul dull after France and spent much of his time playing tennis, riding and shooting. Until a new palace was built he lived in a crumbling ancient citadel in the centre of Kabul.
On November 8 1933 his father was shot as he officiated at a prize-giving ceremony for students in the courtyard of the royal palace. The prompt, politically astute actions of the king's brother, the defence minister Hashim Khan, in the hours after the killing secured the relative stability of the country for the next 40 years. The king's body was whisked away, and his death kept secret until Hashim Khan had obtained vows from his brothers to accept the king's son as his successor. Hashim Khan succeeded in persuading all to fall in behind Zahir Shah, who was proclaimed king at six o'clock that evening.
He was given the regnal title "al-Mutawakkil 'ala Allah, Pairaw-i Din-i Mati-i Islam", meaning "confident in God, follower of the firm religion of Islam''. Hashim Khan became prime minister, ruling the country like a virtual dictator for the next 12 years, while Zahir Shah performed occasional ceremonial duties and shot duck twice a week. For the next 10 years, he rarely left Kabul, and then only when surrounded by a massive bodyguard.
By the time Hashim Khan resigned, due to illness, in 1945, the British representative in Kabul wrote that Zahir Shah was "quiet and unassuming, with pleasant manners'', though "resigned to a life of idleness and pleasure. It may be that years of confinement to the routine of a constitutional monarch have unfitted him to take a prominent and useful part in his country's administration.'' He was said to be taking a greater interest in his duties, but "is not one of the world's workers''.
It was not until he had been on the throne for 20 years that Zahir Shah began to chafe under the restrictions of his position, and in 1953 he and his older cousin (and brother-in-law) Daud Khan, a close friend from infantry school, conspired to remove their uncle, the ineffectual Shah Mahmoud, from the prime ministership. Daud Khan assumed the post, and held it for 10 years. Zahir Shah's life continued much as it had before.
In 1962, after nearly 30 years as King, Zahir Shah felt confident enough in his own abilities to attempt to establish his own power base. He began to tour the country, with the aim of cementing relations with tribal leaders. In March 1963 he demanded Daud's resignation, and, unexpectedly, Daud tendered it.
Zahir Shah's 10 years of active rule began auspiciously. In 1964 he promulgated a new constitution, which established parliamentary democracy and stripped the royal family of many of their traditional powers, as well as allowing a free press and free elections. Although he introduced a measure to allow parliamentary parties, he never signed it, fearing that parties would organise themselves along ethnic lines and threaten the country's precarious political equilibrium - a serious problem in a country in which 20 languages were spoken, and which had never been moulded into a cohesive nation.
Although Zahir Shah's liberal reforms seemed enlightened and progressive, they ultimately failed because he showed insufficient leadership in making them take root. One prime minister after another was appointed and then dismissed, as Zahir Shah was loath to relinquish power that he did not effectively exercise. While the countryside was left to follow its traditional means of subsistence, an increasing urban middle class agitated for change to the country's feudal power structure.
Zahir Shah's good relations with tribal leaders prevented the outbreak of conflict within the country, and in foreign policy he carefully balanced relations with the Soviet Union and the West, by accepting development funding from both the Soviet Union and the United States. Yet while peace and prosperity prevailed on these fronts, Daud Khan was building support among the Kabul middle class, who wanted a Leftist regime to replace the monarchy.
In 1973, while in London to have an operation on an eye that he had injured playing volleyball, Zahir Shah was overthrown by Daud Khan, who abolished the monarchy and proclaimed a republic. Zahir Shah sent his cousin a courteous letter of resignation, and retired to his villa in Rome. Daud himself was overthrown in a violent communist revolution five years later, which resulted in direct Soviet military intervention at the end of December 1979.
In 1983, at the height of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, Zahir Shah was actively, though cautiously, involved in plans to head a government in exile, but he could achieve no consensus among the increasingly powerful Islamist factions. His name was raised again in this connection during the American-led war against Afghanistan's extreme Islamist Taliban government in the autumn of 2001, and the following year he returned to his country to open the Loya Jirga which endorsed his clansman Hamid Karzai as president.
That he should have been called upon at a time of crisis showed that whatever his merits as King, he was invaluable as an embodiment of Afghan political legitimacy, as the heir to a tradition going back to the founding of Afghanistan in the mid-18th century by his ancestor Ahmad Shah Durrani.
Given the title "Father of the Nation", Zahir Shah moved into a palace in the presidential compound, where he died yesterday.
Zahir Shah was the father of two daughters and six sons, of whom four survive him.