Progress has been made in U.S.-led efforts to involve Afghanistan's former king in a transition role to establish an alternative government to the Taliban. Agreement was reached yesterday in Rome between the ex-king and the opposition Northern Alliance on a program to replace the Islamic militia. The process appears to be gaining momentum, but RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports from Pakistan that any effort to involve the king would have to appear legitimate in the eyes of the Afghan people.
Islamabad, 2 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The former Afghan king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, and members of the opposition Northern Alliance have reached agreement on a program aimed at ousting the ruling Taliban militia.
At a meeting yesterday in Rome, where the 86-year-old ex-king has been living in exile since 1973, the groups agreed soon to hold a council of Afghan leaders to appoint a Loya Jirga -- or grand assembly -- of tribal and ethnic statesmen. The purpose of the Loya Jirga would be to elect a head of state and transitional government to replace the Taliban.
Sattar Sierat, an adviser to the former king, said the Loya Jirga would be open to all segments of the Afghan population:
"This Supreme Council for the National Unity of Afghanistan, considering the present situation prevailing in the world and in Afghanistan, will act or serve as the representative of the entire people of Afghanistan, which would be able to reflect the wishes and expectations and aspirations of the Afghan people."
Zahir Shah, with the backing of the U.S. and the Northern Alliance, has assumed an important role in a new alliance of Afghan forces opposed to the radical Islamic Taliban government. The Taliban has drawn international ire for sheltering Saudi-militant Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the 11 September attacks in New York and Washington.
Yesterday's decision won the backing of Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was ousted by the Taliban as Afghan president but who is still recognized by the international community as the country's leader.
The Taliban was quick to condemn the decision and scorned any attempt to revive the king's role. But in a move that may be calculated to stave off support for the king, the Taliban offered to share power with tribal leaders in three Afghan provinces, Pakitika, Paktia, and Khost, where the king has retained popularity.
Many older Afghans have fond memories of the ex-king. Zahir Shah came to the throne in 1933 at the age of 19.
He is credited with maintaining Afghanistan's policy of neutrality by balancing demands from both the West and the former Soviet Union. And he oversaw the adoption of a modern constitution in 1960s, creating independent executive, legislative, and judicial branches and excluding close relatives of the king from high office.
Zahir Shah was ousted in a coup in 1973 by his cousin, Daoud Khan, following a drought and economic stagnation.
Daoud was killed in 1978 at the beginning of a sequence of events which led to the installment of a communist government backed by an invading Soviet army, and a civil war still raging today.
In spite of his exile, the former king has been active in the country's turbulent politics. During the Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989, one of the main mujahedin resistance groups made the ex-king's restoration one of its main aims.
That group was largely sidelined by U.S. strategists, who believed the more radical Muslim groups, forerunners of today's Taliban, would fight more effectively against the Soviets.
In recent years, the king has convened meetings in Rome in an attempt to reconcile warring Afghan groups. But these were rejected by the Taliban and its supporter Pakistan.
It's not yet clear whether this latest attempt to involve the former monarch will succeed.
Commander Shaoor Yasini, who led 1,300 mujahedin during the war against the Soviets, says he welcomes the ex-king's role. But he says the effort could fail if Afghans feel the king represents only foreign interests:
"If the Afghan people restore Zahir Shah to the throne themselves, that will be all right. People will accept him. But at the moment we don't know who is trying to restore Shah and who is with Zahir Shah. If he is brought back by the Afghan people that will be okay, but if he is restored by other countries, especially neighboring countries, then their hands will be in that government and the Afghan people will not like that. It will create problems."
Yasini concedes that Afghans need the world's help to promote the Loya Jirga. He says that many men, including his own former comrades, would fight for a new government if it was clear to all that it enjoyed the overwhelming support of a proper Loya Jirga:
"America should help to bring us [the Afghans] together. If the Northern Alliance is brought into Afghanistan, they are against Pakistan and that would not be fair. If the Taliban remain in power, that's not fair either. So I would ask the rest of the world to bring us together. Afghans from abroad should come. We will sit together and have a jirga [traditional meeting]. If anyone does not accept the decision, we will be against them. The Arabs inside Afghanistan are nothing, we could easily exclude them from our country. But the main problem is that we must come together and we should be brought together, but without the help of America and other countries we won't be able to come together. If they bring us together we will talk together and this matter will be solved by Afghans."
Until now, the Pakistani government has been fiercely opposed to Zahir Shah playing a role in Afghan politics. But a spokesman for the country's foreign ministry, Raiz Khan, said yesterday that Pakistan would not be averse to contacts with him:
"Pakistan would like to see national reconciliation. Pakistan would like to see that the conflict in that country comes to an end. Pakistan would like to see peace and stability in Afghanistan, not just in the interest of the Afghan people but...also in the interests of Pakistan, of the region. How would that national reconciliation be achieved? It has certainly so far eluded all international efforts, particularly efforts by the United Nations and the Organization of Islamic Countries. Last year, a delegation was sent by former King Zahir Shah and met our foreign minister at the time and so in that sense we did have contacts."
Until a few days ago the Northern Alliance opposed giving the king a role in any new administration. One of its key backers, Iran, is also unlikely to be happy with the restoration, even symbolically, of a monarch because of echoes of its own history.
Iran's shah was toppled by the Islamic revolution in the 1970s, but monarchist opponents living abroad have been a constant thorn in the side of the Iranian regime.