Accessibility links

Afghanistan: Ex-King Seeks To Build Broad Coalition Among Rivals

  • Charles Recknagel

Afghanistan's opposition Northern Alliance and the country's former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, are making fitful progress toward creating an interim government to replace the ruling Taliban. But the progress is complicated by rivalries between the alliance, largely composed of ethnic minorities, and leaders of Afghanistan's Pashtun majority. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports on the efforts to build a post-Taliban Afghan government.

Prague, 15 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Since U.S. military strikes began targeting Afghanistan's Taliban just over a week ago (7 October), the question of when the ruling militia might fall and what kind of government would replace it have become ever more pressing.

The answer to the first question -- how long the Taliban forces can retain their military effectiveness -- remains open. So far, the opposition Northern Alliance has made only cautious advances in the wake of the strikes and the Taliban remains in control of at least 90 percent of the country.

But the question of what kind of government will follow the Taliban is already under intense discussion. Much of that debate is taking place in Rome around the court of exiled Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shah. The king, who turns 87 today, was deposed in 1973 after a 40-year reign. He is widely regarded as the sole unifying force that could bind Afghanistan's disparate forces and ethnic groups into a cohesive administration.

Early this month, there were signs that the king and his circle were making fast progress in building a political coalition to succeed the Taliban.

The ex-king's spokesman, Abdul Sattar Sirat, announced in Rome on 1 October that Zahir Shah and the Northern Alliance had agreed to convene an emergency "Supreme Council for the National Unity of Afghanistan."

Speaking at a joint press conference with representatives of the alliance, Sirat also said that within two weeks of its inception the Supreme Council would be the sole decision-making body for Afghanistan -- apart from the Taliban. Sirat's translator phrased it this way:

"This Supreme Council [will] act or serve as the representative of the entire people of Afghanistan [and] will be able to reflect the wishes and expectations and aspirations of the Afghan people. Within one or two weeks from its inception, this Supreme Council for the National Unity of Afghanistan will be the only legitimate institution to make decisions on important issues relevant to Afghanistan."

Under the plan, the Supreme Council is to be composed of 120 members named or agreed upon by the former king and the Northern Alliance. They will be tasked with convening a traditional national assembly -- or Loya Jirga -- of representatives of all Afghanistan's ethnic and tribal groupings. The Loya Jirga is then to elect an interim head of state and government from among the members of the Supreme Council to prepare for national elections.

The plan has attracted notice because it brings the former king, who is from Afghanistan's majority Pashtun group, into cooperation with the mostly minority ethnic groups that comprise the Northern Alliance. This gives it the promise of winning broad popular backing from both the Pashtun -- who today are the Taliban's base of support -- as well as from ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Hazaras, and other groups that see the king as a neutral symbol of statehood.

But since the announcement of the Supreme Council's creation two weeks ago, any progress toward turning it into a working body has been rocky.

Representatives of the Northern Alliance were due in Rome over the weekend (13-14 October) to present their list of 50 nominees to the 120-member council, the number they are entitled to under the power-sharing agreement. The accord also provides for Zahir Shah to appoint 50 people and for both sides to agree upon the remaining 20 names.

But the Northern Alliance delegation has yet to arrive and reports from Rome indicate political tensions between the two sides are holding things up. AFP yesterday quoted unidentified advisers to the ex-king as saying the alliance has delayed sending its diplomats due to anger over Zahir Shah's unilaterally dispatching a delegation over the weekend to meet with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

The delegation is reported to have met with Pakistani officials today to discuss post-Taliban Afghanistan. The meeting upset the alliance because it considers Islamabad a foe. Pakistan has formerly backed the Taliban against the alliance and Islamabad has said the opposition group must not be allowed to take power.

Analysts say the reported row over the former king's delegation to Pakistan is just one of many divides that makes the nation-building efforts a complicated process.

Those divides include the agendas of numerous competing power figures within the Northern Alliance and -- beyond that -- within Afghanistan's Pashtun majority. Many of the Pashtun leaders -- warlords, politicians, tribal and religious figures -- also must be drawn into the former king's coalition if it is to succeed.

Fiona Hill, a regional expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, describes the challenges within the Northern Alliance.

"Even the name is part of the problem, the Northern Alliance. This is not the Northern Group or the Northern Unity. You basically have already a coalition of forces there, many with their own competing agendas. Many of these groups are centered around an individual who has a local power base."

The alliance has been centered around the former Afghan government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik ousted from Kabul by the Pashtun Taliban in 1996. Rabbani is still the UN-recognized head of Afghanistan but his allies in the alliance are also former rivals, some of whom have even betrayed him on the battlefield.

Powerful Northern Alliance figures include Ismail Khan, former governor of the western city of Herat, and ethnic Uzbek commander Abdul Rashid Dostum. Rabbani's military leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, was assassinated last month by suicide bombers posing as journalists. It is believed that Osama bin Laden may have been behind the assassination.

The situation among ethnic Pashtuns, believed to comprise just less than half the Afghan population, is equally complex.

RFE/RL Turkmen Service director Mohammad Nazar has been closely watching the coalition-building efforts in Rome. He says several key Pashtun figures who support Zahir Shah now are jockeying for influence:

"[There is] Adbul-Rab Rasul Sayaf, [who] was the leader of one of the Islamic parties in Afghanistan who joined the Northern Alliance. He is still with them and he is one of the important Pashtun leaders. A second one is Sebghatullah Mujadeddi. He [was] the first president of Afghanistan after the Soviets left Afghanistan [in 1989], he is also Pashtun and has a party. There also is Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani, [one of Afghanistan's powerful former anti-Soviet resistance leaders]."

Gailani arrived in Rome today to discuss his plans for a meeting in Pakistan of Pashtun leaders living in exile. One of the powerful former anti-Soviet Pashtun commanders who has said he will attend the meeting in Pakistan 21 on October is Abdul Haq.

What these leaders will demand in the way of power-sharing for their cooperation remains to be seen. As just one example, former Afghan President Mujadeddi already has asked the ex-king to increase the number of members on the Supreme Council from 120 to 220. The suggestion is reported to be an effort to increase the Pashtun voice in the nation-building process.

Several powerful Pashtun figures remain outside the process in Rome. One is the former anti-Soviet commander Gulbeddin Hekmatyar, now living in Tehran. A party around him has long sought to convene a Loya Jirga itself.

RFE/RL Turkmen Service director Nazar: "Their party members would like to call another Loya Jirga and they already started [that effort] a year or two ago, [with] the center of the effort in Cyprus. They have about 200 active members and they also would like to unite the [former anti-Soviet] commanders and they would like to compete with the Rome process."

Nazar, recently in Rome, says that those around the former king are hostile to Hekmatyar, making it unlikely -- at least in the short run -- that there will be any accommodation between them.

As Afghans opposed to the Taliban now try to nation-build, many Western observers say that the difficulty of the process is itself only a measure of greater challenges ahead. Those challenges will come when any new administration actually tries to rule a united Afghanistan again after so many years of warlordism and local rivalries.

Analyst Hill says the sole workable formula for Afghanistan may be a loose federation: "The consensus among most of the [Western] experts who have looked at the Afghan situation very carefully is that when the state has been workable [in the past], it has been as a highly decentralized state, with a very weak central government and a great deal of regional autonomy."

That sentiment was expressed by one top U.S. diplomat last week. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told reporters in Washington that Afghanistan "seems to work [best] with a very high degree of local autonomy."

U.S. and other Western diplomats are paying close attention to the Rome process but saying little publicly about their input, other than that they support a broad-based government representing all Afghans.

Earlier this month, U.S. State Department policy planning director Richard Haas met with Zahir Shah in Rome. The foreign ministers of Italy and France held joint talks with the former king today in Rome. No details of the meeting were immediately available.