Exiled Afghans See Deposed King as Country's Only Hope

A small warren of shops surrounds the dusty field outside Islamabad where displaced Afghans come to sell utensils and used clothes every Tuesday.

They scatter their scraps of clothing or battered hardware on blankets and wait as customers kick up a cloud of choking dust in their quest for bargains. By the end of the day they will be coated in that dust.

If they are lucky they will have made a few rupees. They sometimes talk of politics, but without the passion that is the hallmark of their government.

The merchants represent a cross-section of Afghan society. There are Uzbeks standing next to Azeris. There are those who support the Taliban along with victims of its worst excesses.

But these days there is a rare unanimity on one topic: the future of their beleaguered country. Whatever the outcome of the threatened American attack, there is only one man, they say, who will be able to lead the country after the Taliban and allow them to return home.

He is Zahir Shah, the former king, who was deposed nearly 30 years ago and is now 86 years old. For most of his life he, like them, has lived in exile. He in the relative comfort of Rome, they in squalor.

The U.N.'s special envoy for Afghanistan, Fransesc Vendrell, met Sunday with the former king in Rome. He said Zahir has no ambitions to return to his homeland as monarch but "could play an important role in the future of Afghanistan."

The sentiment is one shared by some Afghan tribal leaders, who also insist they are not looking to restore the former king as a ruler but rather as a figurehead around which Afghanistan's quarrelsome tribes can rally.

Baktash Mohammedi, 25, was a civil engineer in central Afghanistan who first lost his job, then lost his hope. He fled Afghanistan eight years ago and opened a small restaurant in the market here. Ever since, he has been waiting to go home.

"There is only one man who can unite the Afghans and that is Zahir Shah. He is the only man everyone knows. No one is more popular than him," Mohammedi says.

He knows the former king may not have been a great ruler. But "he didn’t slaughter anyone either. With him there is some hope and there is no one else."

Yar Mohammed, a street vendor who sits next to his small display of wallets arrayed on a plastic sheet, says he supports the Taliban but still wants the king to return.

"I think the Taliban are good but there is no work as long as they rule. It is time for a change and the king will bring hope and unite the country," he says.

Hamid Mohemmedi, a tailor, placidly sits behind an old sewing machine, fixing a wedding veil. A Taliban supporter too, he too thinks the king's return will bring peace and allow many to return home.

"If he comes back, the situation will be good and I can go back. It is hard to work in someone else's country. Here the police always harass us. I want to go home."

Saleha Akbari fled two years ago, shortly after the Taliban captured her hometown, Mazir-I-Sharif, in a bloody battle. She says she fled because the Taliban made life for women in Afghanistan unbearable.

She now lives separated from her family with a cousin in Islamabad. She says she would like the former king to return as well. "I want my life and my country back," she says, "and there is no one else left who can do it."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.