The men who would be rulers

Afghanistan: A national unity council convenes in Pakistan to discuss the type of government that might succeed the Taliban.

War On Terrorism

The World

October 25, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PESHAWAR, Pakistan - Their symbolic head of state is an 86-year-old dethroned king, exiled to a Roman villa. Their spiritual leader and public spokesman is a Muslim holy man who once sold sleek French cars. But at a time when the idea of a peaceful and well-governed Afghanistan seems a remote dream, they represent, for the moment, the best bet to assume power should the ruling Taliban regime collapse under the pressure of American bombardment.

They call themselves the Association for Peace and National Unity, and yesterday some 600 of them crowded into a stuffy auditorium. They were tribal elders, village chieftains and former Jihadi commanders who fought the invading Soviets all through the 1980s, grave-looking bearded men in turbans and skull caps who rode here by bus and bicycle, some of them bribing their way across the Pakistani border.

Others needed only to walk a few blocks. Dusty, hazy Peshawar, the first major stop in Pakistan along the ancient trading route leading east from the Khyber Pass, is Afghanistan's de facto capital-in-exile, with more than 1 million refugees crowded into its teeming streets and bazaars.

Leading the multitudes yesterday, and fresh from a recent meeting in Rome with former king Mohammad Zahir Shah, was Pir Syed Ahmad Gailani, 67, head of a Sufisect of Muslims and a one-time Peugeot dealer in the Afghan capital of Kabul.

"We believe that only negotiations can resolve the problem," Gailani told the receptive crowd, which winnowed its numbers for a more substantive and selective private meeting last night and was expected to reconvene en masse today. "The American strikes cannot put out the fire."

Opposition to airstrikes

Although a few speakers, Gailani included, condemned the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that have, ironically, brightened their political futures, nearly all of them spoke in opposition to further American air strikes, whether the Taliban toughs it out or not.

"America declares it is the champion of human rights," said Fazal Hadi Shimwari. "If this is so, then why are they hitting human targets? ... Our children, our women, our elderly, they have been destroyed, everything destroyed."

Such statements made it clear that, for this audience, at least, the Taliban is easily defeating the Pentagon in the propaganda war over the issue of civilian casualties. Among some, even Osama Bin Laden has emerged triumphant with his string of hideout videos issued by courier to Arabic media.

"He fought in the jihad against Russia," said Amwaral-Haq, "and any government in Afghanistan has the right to give him shelter."

It was impossible to say how many others held similar opinions.

It was clear to yesterday's gathering that the Taliban has a political future, as long as it ditches its more extreme leaders and its repressive Munkrat, or religious police. They turned life upside down after taking power in 1996, issuing decrees against pleasures ranging from music to kite flying, with the television becoming an enemy of the state and women becoming virtual prisoners of their homes, banned from schools and from traveling without husbands or fathers.

Islamic framework

Outsiders expecting some sort of secular democracy to emerge from this process will most likely be disappointed. At the time of the Taliban's triumph five years ago, 11 other political parties were vying for a share of the action, and 10 included the word "Islamic" in their names.

Gailani led one called the National Islamic Front. In his statement to the media yesterday, he proposed an interim government nominally led by King Zahir, who would serve as chairman of a "leadership council" of faction leaders. The council would draft "a constitution within the framework of the holy religion of Islam," Gailani said.

Many here say the king's role beyond that point would be minor, that of a father figure. The key ingredient to the transition, Gailani said, would be an inclusive political system that "should be broad-based to represent all the walks of life in Afghanistan." He also suggested the deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping force made up of soldiers from Islamic countries. And he advised those members of the Taliban who wish to be included to get moving.

"Those Taliban, who agree to our ideas as regards peace and broad-based government, should start the task immediately," his statement said. "I consider their cooperation significant and fruitful."

Notable no-shows

For all the talk of inclusiveness, not every faction was represented. Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi, head of the Islamic Party, was one notable no-show. So were the Taliban.

Also absent was Abdul Haq, an exiled Afghan businessman who fought the invading Soviets. Haq suggested to reporters a few weeks ago that he could solve the Taliban problem by raising a small force of ex-guerrillas, who would join Taliban defectors in an uprising that would carry him all the way to Kabul.

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