Afghanistan's destiny will be decided within

The future: United States cannot impose rulers

ultimately, women will determine country's fate.

October 05, 2001

U.S. LEADERS have backed off a pledge to replace the Taliban government of Afghanistan, even as U.S.-briefed allies from Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan to Prime Minister Tony Blair in the United Kingdom have restated it.

The United States has a poor track record of removing foreign leaders it said it would, or of creating regimes with legitimacy and staying power.

Credit the Bush administration with trying to learn from the failures of its predecessors and of other powers.

What's about to come will not be the bombing of Iraq or the Vietnam war or the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. And if the administration remains wise, it will not stake its prestige on the replacement of the Taliban.

A supposedly legitimate alternative, however, exists now.

The United Nations and most governments recognize the government-in-exile of President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Its army, the Northern Alliance, also called the United Front, holds perhaps one-tenth of the territory.

But President Rabbani was the warlord who shelled Kabul to rubble. The Northern Alliance consists of ethnic minorities. By themselves, they will not do.

Conspicuously absent is an effective Pashtun component.

Pashtuns are one-third to two-fifths of Afghanistan's population and provided all the national leaders, including the kings, Communists and Taliban.

The exiled former king, Zahir Shah, who reigned from his father's assassination in 1933 to his own overthrow in 1973, is Pashtun. He is 86, comfortable in Rome, and says he does not want to be king again.

He has what the Northern Alliance lacks: Pashtun identity. It has what he lacks: presence inside the country.

Their agreement to invite a broad-based council to issue a call for a grand council - resembling a Western constitutional convention - amounts to something. So would a collective call for a national rising.

The king's contacts are elderly people long exiled. They may remember his tolerant reign as the good old days.

Young people inside the country heard him denounced by Communists, warlords and the Taliban. The king is discredited, but so is anyone else who might be mentioned.

A broad-based coalition must include them all, especially defecting Taliban moderates, who are said to proliferate.

All would have to agree to eschew any monopoly of power.

There is a secret ally of the next regime already inside the country.

It is the women, dispossessed, oppressed, mostly illiterate, submissive, shrouded. Some who reached exile speak of widespread detestation of the Taliban and the condition of their lives under its rule.

When democratic reforms are observed and elections held with women holding rights of citizenship their Islamic sisters possess in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey and even Iran, women will be the decisive majority.

Thanks to two decades of warfare, the country is largely depopulated of men.

When free and fair voting under U.N. supervision comes - as it must in time - women will decide Afghanistan's future. It is likely to be very different from today.

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