was born in Kabul, on October 15, 1914, the son of Mohammed Nadir Khan. He was educated in Kabul until age 10, when he went to Paris with his father, who had been appointed Minister there by King Amanullah. He completed his primary and secondary schooling in Paris, and subsequently studied at the Institut Pasteur and the University of Montpellier
After King Amanullah was driven out of Afghanistan by a coup in 1929, Nadir returned to Afghanistan. He recruited an army, defeated the rebels who had overthrown the king, and was then proclaimed king. Zahir returned to Afghanistan in 1930. After receiving military training on infantry courses previously established by Turkish instructors, he was appointed assistant in the Ministry of Defense. He became acting Minister of Education in 1932.
Zahir ascended to the throne on November 8, 1933, following the assassination of his father. Although he was only 19, he was able to rely on his uncle, Sardar Hashim Khan, as a trusted adviser and Prime Minister. Khan was known throughout the country as an honest and able official who had no aspirations to higher office, and was therefore well liked by the citizenry.
Zahir's primary focus during the first years of his reign was to update the nation's infrastructure. With Khan's help, he was able to obtain financial credit from Germany which allowed for a program of development. On August 17, 1940, he issued a declaration of neutrality which kept his nation out of World War II, and was able to continue his development program with American assistance after the war.
During a six-month tour of Europe in 1949, Zahir's European education and background made it possible for him to encourage European companies to invest in engineering projects. In the 1950's he visited Moscow for talks with Soviet leadership. These talks added Soviet financial and material aid to Zahir's modernization program. In 1953, his cousin, Sardar Mohammed Daud Khan, became Prime Minister. Daud, however, proved to be a less able administrator than Khan had been, and the king's modernization program almost came to a halt.
In 1963, Zahir declared Afghanistan to be a Constitutional Monarchy. A new constitution was written, in which it was decreed that no member of the royal family could hold office as Prime Minister, thereby removing Daud from office. The constitution, which aimed to combine Western political ideas with Islamic religious beliefs and social customs, established a two-house Parliament, free elections, freedom of the press, and gave women the right to vote.
Although Zahir had been doing much to modernize his country and improve its standard of living, too much of his work was centered around Kabul. While the capital city was getting new highways, hospitals, schools, etc., the rural areas often had to make do with centuries-old infrastructure. It was this disparity that ultimately led to Zahir's overthrow. In July 1973, Zahir went to England for treatment of a degenerative eye condition, and then to Ischia in the Bay of Naples to recover. While he was away, he was deposed by Daud, who proclaimed Afghanistan a republic, renounced his royal titles, and assumed the offices of Head of State, Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defense. No attempts were made to capture Zahir, who subsequently took up residence in a villa outside Rome.
Daud himself was killed during the 1978 coup that brought a communist government to power. The Soviet Union invaded the next year, starting a ten-year civil war between Soviet forces and the mujaheddin (anti-Communist guerrilla fighters). In the late 1980's, as the Soviet Union was withdrawing from the country, some in Afghanistan sought Zahir as a possible force for the re-unification of the nation, but favorable circumstances did not prevail. Governments came and went frequently over the next several years, and Zahir was often mentioned as a possible interim ruler who might be able to restore stability. Zahir provided what assistance he could from his villa, but no single government lasted long enough for him to intervene directly.
In 2001, the United States launched an offensive against the Taliban-led government in retaliation for the bombing of the World Trade Center. In April, 2002, after the overthrow of the Taliban had been completed, Zahir was asked by the United States to return to Afghanistan and help his country recover. Although he was now well into eighties and not in the best of health, he accepted the challenge. Upon his return he first made it clear to his people that he had no intention to seek any political office. He did, however, agree to oversee the formation of an interim governing authority and to provide whatever advice and help to that authority he could. He spent the rest of his life in quiet retirment in Kabul.
King Mohammed Zahir Shah died on July 23, 2007.
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This page was last updated on 11/23/2012.