King, warlords talk of Afghan takeover

Overthrown leaders seek to provide unity with U.S., U.N. help

Government-in-exile plan

Terrorism Strikes America

The World

October 04, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - From a villa on the outskirts of Rome to the private home of an Afghan exile in southern Pakistan, a cast of characters worthy of a spy novel is gathering to prepare a political framework for an Afghanistan no longer controlled by the Taliban.

The forces that are already contemplating the remaking of the country range from a deposed octogenarian king with a taste for ascots who hasn't set foot in Afghanistan for nearly three decades to the turban-wearing rebel warlords of the Northern Alliance who were ousted from power five years ago because of their savagery and greed. Assisting and encouraging this tenuous coalition are United Nations representatives and U.S. congressmen.

Afghanistan presents these would-be nation-builders and the world community with a staggering task: bringing peace to a country that has known nothing but war and poverty for more than two decades.

To succeed, the Afghans would have to overcome ethnic and religious divisions and bloody personal rivalries. Any formula for stability would require broad representation for the nation's varied ethnic groups, including the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, analysts say.

Any design for a peaceful political future must also take into account rivalries among regional powers, including Russia, Iran and Pakistan. They have supported various Afghan factions who have battled for the better part of a decade.

All this is to be played out across a desolate, mountainous country slightly smaller than Texas - a land so devastated by war that it has few government institutions and little infrastructure.

"Afghanistan is back to a mid-19th century economy," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a specialist on Afghanistan at the Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad. "There is no state in Afghanistan."

Given the nation's deplorable conditions, some people are turning to the past in hopes of building a foundation for the future. Afghanistan's former King Mohammed Zahir Shah has met in recent days with representatives of the Northern Alliance in Rome and agreed to a framework for a new government to replace the Taliban, if and when they fall. Zahir has agreed to convene by the end of this month a Loya Jirga, a 120-member tribal council to select a government-in-exile.

Resorting to a tribal council has a precedent: In 1747, a council was first used to anoint an Afghan king. And Afghan exiles have for years talked of convening one to bring stability to the country. The threat of an American attack, the possible collapse of the Taliban and the lack of other options have made it even more appealing.

Striving for legitimacy

Former King Zahir has been living a life of leisure near a golf course in Rome since being deposed by a relative in a 1973 coup. His four-decade rule was, in retrospect, a time of relative peace despite his crackdown on Islamic militants in the late 1960s. Zahir, thought to be about 86, is the only person whose authority might be recognized for convening a council to choose a new government.

"Right now what you need is some kind of symbolic figure which will have some kind of legitimacy," said Rifaat Hussain, chairman of the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies at Quaid-I-Azam. "The king may be the badly needed glue to hold these warring factions together."

The king may have some political legitimacy, but he has no troops. The only force immediately available is the Northern Alliance, which controls less than 10 percent of Afghan territory. The Taliban control the rest.

The Northern Alliance, though, has a tainted past. This coalition of failed warlords did so much damage to Afghanistan in the early to mid-1990s that many people welcomed their defeat by the Taliban. Under warlord rule, soldiers attacked truck convoys, raped civilians and taxed everything from transportation to opium.

Even people who opposed the Taliban's strict religious rules, which include a ban on education for most women and girls and prohibitions on most forms of entertainment, were initially supportive because they brought order from chaos.

The Northern Alliance also suffers from personal rivalries. Gen. Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord, is blamed with helping destroy Kabul through battles against other militia leaders for control of the capital. Burhanuddin Rabbani, whom the United Nations still recognizes as the president of Afghanistan, helped spark civil war in 1992 by refusing to step down from the position as promised.

Taliban moderates needed

If Afghanistan is to find lasting peace, analysts say, Taliban moderates must be involved in governing. They are said to include government ministers in Kabul who opposed the decision by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar to demolish giant, ancient Buddhist statues in Bamiyan province this year because he thought they were idolatrous. They are also thought to include those with business interests in Pakistan and those who oppose Omar's tight relationship with Osama bin Laden and his army of Arab fighters.

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