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Op-ed: How chance and chutzpah allowed a young Tribune correspondent to tell the world about the coronation of a new king of Afghanistan

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In the following excerpt adapted for the Tribune by Ken Cuthbertson from his 2015 book “A Complex Fate: William L. Shirer and the American Century” (McGill-Queen’s University Press), the biographer details foreign correspondent William Shirer’s chance 1930 meetings with the king of Afghanistan, Mohammed Nadir Shah, and his son, Mohammed Zahir Khan, Afghanistan’s crown prince.

In the first week of early October 1930, the Chicago Tribune’s “man” in India was in Bombay preparing for the ocean voyage home when a chance encounter with a young Afghan man prompted him to change his travel plans. The 26-year-old, Chicago-born William L. Shirer was at a diplomatic party and there he met Mohammed Zahir Khan, the 16-year-old crown prince of Afghanistan.

A member of the Pashtun tribe, the teen spoke no Western language other than French. As a result, none of the other journalists at the gathering, most of whom were British, could talk with him. However, Shirer spoke French, and so he and the prince struck up a conversation about their mutual experiences in Paris. The young man then revealed that two days hence he was leaving for Kabul, the Afghan capital, where he planned to attend the coronation of his father as the new king of Afghanistan, a land few Americans at that time had heard of, much less visited. Shirer, ever hungry for an exclusive, smelled an opportunity.

The crown prince’s father, Mohammad Nādir Shah — also known as Nādir Khan — had seized power in 1929 and then moved to formalize his rule. When Shirer asked the prince if he could tag along with him on the trip to Kabul and attend the coronation, the young Kahn agreed, although he had pegged Shirer as being an American spy or a government agent who could help influence Washington to look favorably on the new Afghan regime. As the new king himself would later tell Shirer, “(America) is the one great country in the world which has no political interests in Afghanistan. If we can establish commercial relations with you, why not diplomatic relations? Perhaps you can mention this in Washington. I have no one there to do it.” In the 1930s, the few Afghans who had traveled to the west had no more knowledge of the United States than Americans had of Afghanistan.

There was yet another reason the Afghan prince was willing to befriend Shirer: He was eager to thumb his nose at the British, who had relinquished control over Afghanistan’s affairs in 1919. India’s colonial........

© Chicago Tribune

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