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Afghanistan: Taliban Successor Among Pakistan's Top Concerns In Talks With Powell

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrives in Islamabad today for talks with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. The talks, which come amid growing violence and public protests in a number of Pakistani cities, are expected to address Pakistan's concerns over the possible effects of a drawn-out campaign in Afghanistan by U.S. and British forces. Another important issue on the agenda is who will replace Afghanistan's radical Islamic Taliban government if it falls.

Peshawar, 15 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Securing Pakistan's cooperation in the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism was seen as a vital step for the U.S. and Britain before launching their air campaign against targets in Afghanistan, where the ruling Taliban militia is harboring suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden.

But it was not an easy decision for Pakistan to make. The decision to cooperate with the U.S.-led coalition put the government at risk of raising the ire of Pakistan's many powerful Muslim fundamentalist groups who either support or are directly linked to the Taliban.

In the days since President Musharraf allied his country with the U.S.-led efforts, such groups have organized numerous demonstrations protesting the alliance. Some have been violent -- like yesterday's protest near one of the two air bases Pakistan has offered to the U.S. for use in search-and-rescue missions. Thousands of protesters converged on the base at Jacobobad in southwest Pakistan. Shots were exchanged between demonstrators and police and at least one demonstrator died.

Today, gunmen killed two police officers outside a mosque in Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, where militants clashed with police, blocked roads, and stoned vehicles.

Musharraf's security forces have largely managed to control the protests, which have not grown into the sweeping antigovernment campaign the religious groups had hoped for. But as the U.S.-led air attacks -- now in their second week -- continue, with increasing reports of civilian casualties, emotions in Pakistan are expected to rise.

When the strikes were launched on 7 October, Musharraf said the campaign would be intense but brief. Now, as Washington and London are talking in terms of a prolonged air campaign, Musharraf -- who tonight holds talks with U.S. Secretary of State Powell -- is expected to express his anxieties over the effect a long-term operation will have on his country and ask his coalition partners to set out a timetable for the attacks.

Another point of concern for the Pakistanis is who will replace the Taliban government if it is eradicated. The composition of the Afghan government has been a priority for every Pakistani administration.

Pakistan's concerns are largely territorial. Pakistan shares a volatile 2,500-kilometer border with Afghanistan, drawn up by British imperial rulers in 1893. Millions of Pashtuns -- who make up Afghanistan's dominant tribe and form the core of the Taliban militia -- live on the Pakistani side of the border. Pashtuns on both sides have frequently called for the land to be unified, either as an independent state or as part of Afghanistan.

Pakistan needs either a compliant or a friendly government in Kabul, the Afghan capital, to avoid territorial disputes. A stable Afghanistan would also allow Pakistan to open up trade with the former Soviet Central Asian republics, with the possibility of an oil pipeline from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan and to Pakistan's Arabian Sea coast.

Pakistan played a crucial role in bringing the Taliban to power, and -- until the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York and Washington -- was one of its staunchest allies.

But after the attacks Pakistan was forced to choose between sticking with the Taliban -- and risking further international isolation -- or joining the U.S.-led coalition. Ultimately it abandoned the Taliban, and now wants a role in determining Afghanistan's future rulers.

The group now poised to benefit most from the Taliban's eradication is the Northern Alliance opposition, which has been battling the Taliban since 1996. But Musharraf has condemned the alliance -- which is supported by Pakistan's arch-enemy India, as well as by Russia and Iran, two countries with which Pakistan has uneasy relations -- as unfit to take power. Pakistan was disturbed when the U.S. and Britain pledged support for the Northern Alliance and the United Front it formed recently with former Afghan King Zahir Shah.

Pakistan accuses the Northern Alliance of widespread banditry. It also says the alliance, composed mainly of minority Tajik and Uzbek troops, could not govern because it would be unacceptable to the country's Pashtun majority. Pakistani officials say Musharraf is expected to tell Powell that unfettered Western support for the Northern Alliance would cause a rift between Pakistan and its coalition partners.

The past week has seen a flurry of activity in seeking alternatives to the Northern Alliance. Many Afghan opposition leaders -- most of whom played important military roles during the 1980s Soviet occupation of Afghanistan -- are currently in Pakistan debating how best to bring about change.

One of the most important figures to emerge, with the tacit backing of Pakistan, is veteran Afghan politician Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani. During the Soviet occupation, Gailani led one of the seven main mujahedin (holy warrior) resistance groups.

The group, called the Mahaz-e-Milli, or National Islamic Front of Afghanistan, was loyal to King Zahir Shah, who was overthrown in 1973 and has been living since then in exile in Rome. The National Islamic Front was also the most pro-Western of the mujahedin groups and advocated a secular Islamic state.

While Pakistan's ties to Taliban were strong, Gailani and others who opposed the ruling militia were ordered to keep quiet or leave Pakistan. In a recent appeal to his countrymen, Gailani called for a meeting of representatives from all sections of Afghan society to be held on October 21 in the Pakistan city of Peshawar: "In our opinion, the Afghan problem cannot be solved through limited agreements."

Gailani says he has the support of the man still recognized by the United Nations as Afghanistan's president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who fled Kabul in 1996 when it fell to Taliban fighters.

Another possible member of a future Afghan administration is Abdul Haq. He too came to prominence during the war against the Soviet occupation when he gained a reputation as one of the most able and popular guerrilla commanders.

Haq gave up fighting in 1996 and went to live in the United States. He is widely seen as having U.S. support for a bid to re-emerge on the Afghan political stage. He has met Galiani for talks and some Pakistani political observers have said the two men would be Pakistan's choice for president and prime minister in a future Afghan government.

Scores of former guerrilla commanders from the time of the Soviet occupation have been holding meetings in Peshawar and are lining up behind various contenders for power. While many still command respect and personal loyalties among their tribal clans and former fighters, it is impossible to gauge how many men with guns they could muster.

One such commander, Haji Mohammed Zaman Ghamsharik, who was part of Gailani's guerrilla movement, has been allowed to turn to Pakistan, where he was forced to leave because of his opposition to the Taliban.

During the Soviet occupation, the U.S. gave support to the most fundamentalist of the Islamic resistance groups in the belief they would be the most effective at fighting the communists. That, Ghamsharik said, led to the emergence of the fanatical Islamic groups that spawned the Taliban and figures like bin Laden.

He said if the U.S. enables the Northern Alliance to seize power, it would only lay the foundations for another Afghan civil war and the growth of extremist groups, adding: "If the West does not learn from its experiences in the 1980s and 1990s, then it will create a situation that against leads to the same events as happened [on 11 September] in Washington and New York."

Ghamsharik has been holding meetings with other commanders who served under him and leaders of other groups such as the National Solidarity Movement for Afghanistan, an umbrella group for 40 Afghan political groups, with representatives from all the country's ethnic mix, and women's groups, opposed to Taliban rule.

Its spokesman, Mohammed Yasin Kasib, said that Western recognition for the National Solidarity Movement will encourage essential support from other Afghans -- including disgruntled Taliban members, 2,000 of whom, he said, have already expressed willingness to defect to his group:

"Our goals are to bring peace to Afghanistan and to unite our nation. Our goal is to bring a democratic, legal and elected government to Afghanistan that is based on the wishes of the common Afghan people and has control of all of Afghanistan."

Ghamsharik said the West must show that it is not supporting the Northern Alliance as the only option to fill any power vacuum left behind if Taliban rule crumbles:

"We do not know if [the West] has secret plans, and we do not know what they are. They have told us that they are not imposing any group on Afghanistan. They have said they are looking to end terror in Afghanistan. They have also said they want a government that reflects all the ethnic groupings in Afghanistan. We support those ideas and that sort of government."

The man in charge of military affairs in the National Solidarity Movement's council is a former officer in the Soviet-era Afghan Army, General Sarhadi Sekhi. He says that Western support for alternatives to the Northern Alliance is critical and could even lead to a peaceful transition of power from the Taliban. He says the Taliban is not a monolithic structure and contains moderates as well as hardliners who could split if the time was right, adding: "We have 2,000 people among the Taliban and also all the 40 parties in our movement have their own contacts among the Taliban. If we are supported by foreign powers, we can bring about a revolution in Afghanistan without any fighting."

A Western diplomat, who asked not to be named, said the U.S. and Britain are taking Pakistan's concerns about the future administration in Afghanistan into account.

The pattern of the U.S.-led air attacks seems to corroborate that. Although the attacks have destroyed much of the Taliban air force, as well as many heavy weapons, arms dumps, and training facilities, they have not struck Taliban frontline positions in a way that would allow a swift Northern Alliance advance on Kabul.

During today's discussions with Powell, Musharraf may hope to find out exactly what plans the U.S. does have for Afghanistan's post-Taliban future. The many Afghan veteran political and military commanders now gathered in Pakistan will also be eager to find out what those plans are.