When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan more than 31/2 years ago, few observers believed former King Zahir Shah would have more than a remote chance of ever making a political comeback.
The ex-monarch's prospects for regaining the Kabul throne still remain slight , but his presence, at least temporarily, as figurehead leader of the Afghan resistance could play a significant role in unifying its divisive guerrilla movements.
It was with this in mind that Afghanistan's so-called ''moderate'' resistance alliance last week publicly sent a delegation to Italy, where the King has been in exile ever since his overthrow by Mohammed Daoud in 1973.
(According to the Italian news agency, Ansa, the King announced Monday that he has decided to become ''the unifying force for the Afghan resistance'' at the UN-sponsored talks in Geneva.)
''The resistance is facing serious problems,'' said Sayed Gaylani, 1 of the 3 main moderate leaders at his headquarters in Peshawar. ''More than ever, we must seek a true unification of the Afghan resistance in order to regain our liberty from the Russians. Zahir Shah offers this possibility.''
Despite considerable opposition to the King's return, particularly by the ''fundamentalist'' political parties in Peshawar, there appears to be increasingly widespread support for the idea among the nearly 3 million refugees (most of whom are Pushtun) in Pakistan as well as guerrilla fronts inside the country. Enthusiasm for the King, who is a member of the Pushtun Durrani tribe, among non-Pushtun elements such as the Tadjiks and Hazaras has not been so evident.
The support expressed among refugees, however, is not necessarily for the King himself but rather for a leader in a position to bring Afghanistan's varied and often feuding resistance organizations together. Frustrated and fatigued by the pressures of war, many Afghans feel that their struggle against the Soviets lacks direction.
While not demonstrating any diminished zeal to continue fighting, they blame this lack of direction to a great extent on the inability of the political parties to overcome their differences and get on with the real task at hand, namely to force the communists out. For them, Zahir Shah magically appears to hold the solution to all these problems.
''We would be prepared to accept Zahir Shah if he can end the war,'' said Lahoor Khan, talking for a group of some 30 male refugees at Kachacha Garhi Camp just outside Peshawar. ''The people don't want political parties who only know how to fight amongst themselves.''
For others, the return of the King would only be a stopgap until a more competent and universally acceptable leader has emerged from resistance ranks. A number of regional commanders such as Ahmad Shah Massoud of the Panjshir Valley have distinguished themselves over the past three years, but none has so far gained national authority. ''The King is better than nothing, but we are afraid that there is something manipulative behind him,'' noted a mujahed commander from Kabul Province.
Although generally disposed to adopting Zahir Shah as a temporary figurehead, other mujahideen interviewed recently inside Pakistan's tribal areas bordering Afghanistan have questioned the King's resistance credentials. ''He has not suffered with us. If he suffers with us, then perhaps I could agree with him,'' said another commander.
A partisan commander from Nangarhar Province and a former member of the archly fundamentalist Hizb-e Islami (Gulbuddin faction), told this correspondent: ''The people of Afghanistan need a leader. Everybody wants Zahir Shah because he is all we have. The Peshawar leaders don't think so, but they have failed us.''
Since his 1973 overthrow, the aging Zahir Shah has been living in quiet and comfortable exile in Rome. Only rarely has he granted interviews, but when he has, his comments on events in Afghanistan have tended to be low key, often bordering on complete disinterest. Whenever pushed about eventually returning to Kabul, he usually expressed little enthusiasm. Nevertheless, he never quite closed the door on such a possibility, always adding as he did in a recent interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, that he might consider such an option were he recalled by his people.
Unlike the ''fundamentalists,'' the ''moderates'' have never hidden their desire to see the monarchy restored in one form or another. The ''moderates,'' some of whom are directly related to the royal family, have nurtured ''just-in-case'' ties with the King since well before the Soviet invasion. But only now have they found it politically feasible actually to appeal openly for his return.
For most Afghans, the King has never been fondly remembered. Critics say that during his nearly 40-year reign he failed to embrace the true interests of his people. If anything, he was more renowned for his and his family's lavish and decadent lifestyle.
''He did nothing for his country except enable the Russians to come in,'' observed a French-educated Tadjik referring to a commonly expressed charge that Zahir Shah had been responsible for allowing the gradual spread of Soviet economic, political, and military influence since the early 1950s.
Although Zahir Shah's reign was an uninspired one, it was nevertheless marked by relative peace and growing prosperity.
Whether the return of the King as a symbolic head of the resistance can change the course of the war is another question. Some observers argue that the strength of the Afghan resistance is that there is no one leadership. ''An overall organization body would only make it a lot easier for the Soviets to infiltrate,'' said a West European diplomat in Islamabad.
Nevertheless, it is generally recognized that a united resistance front is a necessity if the Afghans want to have a greater impact on the international scene. The Afghan resistance is not even remotely close to presenting an alternative government in order to provoke a Kampuchea-style situation whereby the Soviet-backed Kabul regime would be denied a seat in the General Assembly. As head of the resistance, Zahir Shah might be able to help establish such an international presence. But in the long run, it is highly probable that the Afghans will have to choose a leader who has emerged from the resistance struggle in order to be truly effective.