LATE LAST WINTER, when international statesmen were suggesting that the exiled septuagenarian King of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, could be a force for unity in the country in the event of the withdrawal of Soviet troops, some 4,000 Afghan resistance fighters gathered in an isolated valley across the border in Pakistan. There, framed by the peaks of the Hindu Kush and the foothills of the Himalayas, they spent several hours chanting "Death to Zahir Shah! Long live the mujahideen ['holy Moslem warriors']! Long live Islam!" One fighter grabbed the microphone and declared, "So many mujahideen have been sacrificed for Islam that we don't want to be ruled by anyone except God." Although only four of the seven Pakistan-based Afghan resistance parties were represented at the rally, these four parties—all Islamic and all fundamentalist—were, and are, the four most powerful. Thus died, in the eyes of the mujahideen, the so-called Zahir Shah option. It was the victim of a religious rebellion that in fact broke out in Afghanistan more than a decade ago, before the Soviet invasion of 1979.
The Soviet Union has announced its intention to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by February 15, 1989, leaving behind a government in Kabul that, under pressure from the mujahideen, may soon collapse. As the overestimation of Zahir Shah's popularity showed, projecting the future of a post-Soviet Afghanistan is not a straightforward task, and it must begin with an understanding of the social and religious cataclysms that rocked the country prior to the Red Army's arrival. For the Soviet invasion was a well-nigh inevitable climax to a series of developments that dragged the Kremlin, which had for years been quietly expanding its influence in King Zahir's Kabul, deeper and deeper into Afghanistan's internal politics. Only the fundamentalist Muslims saw this clearly at the time.