Ex-king top pick as interim Afghan leader

Former ruler emerges as choice of factions at talks in Germany

War On Terrorism

November 28, 2001|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

KOENIGSWINTER, Germany - The former king of Afghanistan has emerged as the first choice to lead an interim government for that war-torn country, but his role is likely to be limited and there would be no re-establishment of the monarchy, officials monitoring talks here among four Afghan factions said yesterday.

"Everyone sees the king as a rallying point and hopes he is willing and able to fill that role," said James Dobbins, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, summarizing the talks' first day.

But the king would primarily be a symbol and not a ruler, said a U.S. official who asked that he not be identified. "We have no intention of restoring the monarchy, and he has no intention of governing Afghanistan," the official said.

Mohammad Zahir Shah, the 87-year-old king who lives in exile in Rome, is not at the talks.

Importantly, the king has the support of the Northern Alliance, which sent representatives to visit him a few weeks ago and which controls most of the urban areas of Afghanistan.

Officials from both the United States and the United Nations, which is sponsoring the talks, gave upbeat assessments of the meeting. They said the participants seemed to be serious about burying differences and rebuilding their country.

Much is riding on the talks, held in Germany in a 19th-century hotel above the Rhine. Billions of dollars in aid depend on setting up a transitional government, Dobbins said.

The United Nations has proposed that the participants agree to form a temporary administration of no more than 25 people and a larger parliament that would rule until the Muslim new year in March, when a grand assembly could select a transitional government that would last another two years.

The parties are in general agreement with that goal, the U.S. official said. An issue certain to prove more contentious is the nature of a security force needed to guarantee safety in the country.

The Northern Alliance opposes a multinational force. The other factions represented at the talks - an Iran-backed group based in Cyprus, an ethnic Pashtun group based in Peshawar, Pakistan, and those loyal to the ex-king - have supported an international force.

The United States has backed the idea of an international force. But a senior U.S. diplomat in Washington indicated yesterday that the United States is not willing to press the Northern Alliance on the subject. He said the idea of sending in an international force was "in limbo."

The U.S. delegation has met with each of the 18 other countries with representatives at the talks, including Iran, Russia and Pakistan, and Dobbins said he was gratified by how tired Afghanistan's neighbors were of the factions and the fighting inside the country, which has gone through 22 years of civil war. They have conveyed that message to the rivals meeting around the table in Germany.

"For the first time in the last 20 years, they are receiving signals from abroad that are pushing them together rather than pulling them apart," Dobbins said.

The talks began with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer's welcome and sober warning that the Afghan people were depending on those in the room to seize the opportunity. "The responsibility is yours," Fischer said, looking around the table. "No one can relieve you of it, and no one wants to."

A new government in Afghanistan must guarantee the rights and dignity of women, Fischer proclaimed. Each of the four factions traveled with women who served as delegates or advisers.

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