Finding a successor to Taliban's leadership

Elusive unity: Identifying a broad-based alternative for Afghanistan is easier said than done.

October 27, 2001

HATED as the Taliban are by many Afghans, the ruling group enjoys a powerful asset: the disunity of all others.

The United States must be ready to help install an interim regime acceptable to most Afghans the moment the Taliban falls.

Holding the broad base together as an alternative is an incredible problem. Holding coalition countries together in support of it will be harder.

Most rulers of Afghanistan have come from the dominant Pashtun people, who live on both sides of the border with Pakistan. A regime devoid of Pashtuns would lack credibility.

The Northern Alliance, the collection of rebel military units in the field, consists of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara. Its political front man, Burhanuddin Rabbani, was the last pre-Taliban president and holds the United Nations seat, but alienated most of the nation.

Pakistan, whose help is essential to the U.S. military campaign, opposes him and the Northern Alliance. Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan support the Northern Alliance, whose commanders once fought them.

They would regard a purely Pashtun regime as hostile and a puppet of Pakistan. Their aid is also essential.

Everyone's scenario is for a council of all factions anointed by the former King Zahir Shah to convene a traditional Loya Jirga, or grand assembly, which would create a regime.

A 600-member Association for Peace and National Unity did meet in Peshawar, Pakistan, Wednesday and Thursday. It called for a Loya Jirga to be convened there, with Zahir Shah playing a major role. But it met without a representative of either the king or the Northern Alliance. It denounced foreigners in Afghanistan, meaning al-Qaida, but also the U.S. military campaign - without which no one is supplanting the Taliban.

Jealousies and distrust were not overcome.

Pir Syed Ahmed Gailani, an Islamic party leader, emerged as unity spokesman, with others suggesting he was only amassing personal power.

The United States can neither pull all the strings nor stand aloof. A successor regime must be broad-based, majority Pashtun, Islamic, more humane than the Taliban and unthreatening to Pakistan and former Soviet republics alike.

Its visible presence, however difficult to achieve, would hasten the success of the U.S.-led effort to depose the Taliban.

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