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Pakistan: Islamabad Softening Its Stance Toward Exiled Afghan King

Throughout its history, Pakistan has had an uneasy relationship with the exiled king of Afghanistan, Mohammad Zahir Shah. But discussion of a possible change in governments in Kabul in the wake of U.S.-led military action is leading Islamabad toward granting the former king a hearing. The Northern Alliance and a group calling itself the National Solidarity Movement of Afghanistan are also vying for roles in any post-Taliban Afghan leadership.

Peshawar, 9 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have assured Pakistan that its opinions will be taken into account in formulating any post-Taliban government that might emerge following U.S.-led air strikes against Afghanistan.

As part of those efforts, representatives of various groups opposed to the Taliban, including the Northern Alliance, met in Rome earlier this month with exiled Afghan King Mohammad Zahir Shah. The U.S. State Department also sent a diplomat to meet with the king and with potential members of a new opposition movement.

Zahir Shah has offered to help establish an interim government to replace the Taliban in the event the regime falls, and to prepare the way for free elections.

But Zahir Shah -- whose 40-year rule was brought to an end by a coup in 1973 -- has always had an uneasy relationship with Pakistan. Pakistan is suspicious of him as well. The king argued against the recognition of Pakistan at the United Nations when it emerged as a state in 1948. He did not recognize the border, drawn up under British imperial rule, between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The border cut through the lands of Afghanistan's majority Pathan, or Pashtun, tribe, stranding millions of Pashtuns on the Pakistani side of the border.

Pakistan, for its part, distrusts the Northern Alliance, which has been supplied by two countries it regards as hostile -- India and Russia. In turn, the Northern Alliance dislikes the Pakistani government for having supported its Taliban enemy.

But a senior Pakistani official tells RFE/RL that the government is now prepared to deal with Zahir Shah. Indeed, Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf recently invited the king to send envoys to Pakistan to discuss Afghanistan's political future.

In a televised speech to the nation yesterday, Musharraf showed that the official attitude in Islamabad toward Zahir Shah is changing. But Musharraf also had harsh words for the Northern Alliance and warned that it must not be allowed to take advantage of the present situation.

"Environments are never constant. If 30 years back, King Zahir Shah was doing something that Pakistan was against, Pakistan was rightly against him because of certain reasons -- he was doing maybe something against Pakistan's interests. But now the environment is totally different. We shouldn't have fixated ideas. The environment is totally different. Here there is a vacuum that is going to be created within Afghanistan, maybe in a short while. There is going to be a leadership vacuum in 90 percent of Afghanistan. How can this vacuum be filled? Should this vacuum be filled by the Northern Alliance coming in? No, that is not the way of filling this vacuum because they represent only 10 percent or 15 percent of Afghanistan."

Musharraf continued, acknowledging that it may be time for Pakistan to re-evaluate its attitudes toward Zahir Shah:

"In that vacuum, maybe Zahir Shah has a role to play. We need to analyze and crystallize our views for all the options that are possible. If he has to play a role, if he can play a role to fill the vacuum, why should Pakistan hesitate by saying that 'Thirty-five years back, you were doing this, therefore I'm not going to talk to you?'"

Pakistan in recent weeks has been encouraging a political and military council composed of 40 different Afghan groups, which it had previously opposed, as an alternative to the Northern Alliance.

The group -- called the National Solidarity Movement of Afghanistan -- has ethnic Pashtun, Uzbek, and Tajik representatives, and says it wants to install a democratic government in Kabul. Its spokesman, Mohammad Yasin Kasib, says the group also has female representatives and wants to restore the rights of women, which have been severely restricted by the Taliban regime.

Kasib said that, prior to the 11 September terror attacks against America, the group had been planning to organize an uprising in Afghanistan against both the Taliban and Northern Alliance forces.

Pakistan, until recently the Taliban's foremost backer, had hindered the group's plans and had even arrested one of its military commanders. Kasib said that the U.S. terrorist attacks have changed the situation dramatically. He said the arrested commander has been released and that the movement is looking for international support.

Kasib says the movement is anxious not to be seen as the puppet of any foreign power, but he agreed that the Pakistani government is now looking favorably on the movement's efforts. He said that, most crucially, the movement is seeking international -- mainly Western -- recognition, and financial and military aid.

Kasib said many in the movement are skeptical about any possible role in a future government for Zahir Shah. But he said they are willing to talk with him.

"When Zahir Shah was ruling Afghanistan at that time, he did not give freedom to the people. There was no democratic institution. We have advised Zahir Shah that if he comes to Afghanistan, he should not be imposed upon the people. He is an Afghan, and if people want him as their ruler then we would accept that, but any attempt by an outside power to impose him will not meet with success."

The movement claims to have the secret support of many Taliban members, who it says will switch allegiances in massive numbers if the movement is seen to have powerful backing. Kasib says a peaceful transition of power can happen if the movement's followers first take control of a major Afghan city. They say they believe others will then defect.

A man claiming to be a Taliban commander, who asked to remain anonymous, told our correspondent in Pakistan that he had secretly crossed the border from Afghanistan for negotiations with the National Solidarity Movement. He says the situation on the ground is changing rapidly and that he speaks for 2,000 Taliban members who are willing to defect.

He says he is confident that what he called a "silent majority" in Afghanistan is against the Taliban. But he warned that the Taliban would try to use the U.S.-led attacks against Afghanistan to rally patriotic support. He said most Afghans are against terrorism and suspect that Osama bin Laden was, indeed, involved in last month's attacks against America. Most Afghans, he says, want bin Laden and his extremist supporters to leave the country.

He said Afghans might be accepting of carefully targeted attacks against bin Laden and those suspected of being terrorists, but he warned that the antiterrorism coalition must be careful not to appear to be seen as striking against the Afghan people.

"Most of the people who are educated and love their country naturally have a desire to bring about a change and their natural desire is for freedom. They would prefer to join the ranks of such parties as Yasin Kasib's party, but now they are forced to work with the Taliban. At the moment they have no other choice, but once such a choice emerges, they will definitely join such groups."

Kasib says the Northern Alliance has made overtures toward the National Solidarity Movement, but that so far the movement has refused any talks.

However, Zahir Shah has said he intends to soon convene a traditional Afghan supreme council, called a loya jirga, of all sections of Afghan society to elect a transitional government to replace the Taliban.

Kasib said his movement would attend such a meeting, even if the Northern Alliance were present.