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Afghanistan: Exiled Pashtuns Trying To Forge Southern Afghan Coalition

As U.S.-led strikes target Taliban forces in Afghanistan, exiled Pashtun leaders in Pakistan are working to put together a coalition to secure their role in any post-crisis Afghan government. Their efforts to build a southern coalition in the name of Afghanistan's majority Pashtun are in support of former Afghan King Zahir Shah, who has promised a broad-based interim administration should he return to Kabul.

Peshawar, Pakistan; 5 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In recent weeks, two powerful exiled Pashtun leaders have returned from Pakistan to southern Afghanistan -- the stronghold of the country's majority Pashtun population.

Both sought to rally support among their kindred tribesmen for an uprising against the ruling Taliban militia, which also draws its support from Afghanistan's Pashtun.

And both initiatives ended in disaster.

One of the leaders, Abdul Haq, was captured in Logar province and executed by the Taliban on 26 October. He was one of the most famous mujahedin commanders of the Soviet-Afghan war and belonged to one of the largest Pashtun tribes, the Ahmedzai.

The second returning exile leader, Hamid Karzai, was more recently routed by the Taliban from a base he was setting up in the province of Uruzgan. He escaped unhurt amid claims by the Taliban that they captured 25 of his men.

Karzai, a former Afghan deputy foreign minister, was trying to organize an uprising among his own Populzai tribe. That tribe is a subgroup of the Durrani, the largest and most influential Afghan Pashtun tribe and the one to which former King Zahir Shah also belongs.

The missions by the two men are part of the growing intrigue over who will govern Afghanistan should the U.S.-led military strikes weaken the Taliban sufficiently to oust it from power. The pace of the U.S. strikes has picked up in recent days, with U.S. officials saying 80 percent of the operations are now focused on hitting the militia's positions and forces.

Here in Pakistan, exiled Pashtun leaders are determined not to be left behind at the risk of losing power to Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, the loose union of northern anti-Taliban leaders who are mostly from Afghanistan's ethnic minority Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara groups.

Several key exiled Pashtun leaders have formed a southern coalition to rally Pashtun support to the king and carve out their own place in a power-sharing deal cut by the former monarch with the Northern Alliance in Rome in October.

That deal -- intended to lay the groundwork for a broad-based interim government -- gives the Northern Alliance and the king's camp each 50 seats in a 120-member Supreme Council for the National Unity of Afghanistan, with the 20 remaining seats to be filled jointly.

The council, whose members have yet to be finally agreed upon by both sides, will have the task of convening a traditional national assembly -- a Loya Jirga -- of representatives of Afghanistan's ethnic and tribal groupings. The assembly is to elect an interim government from among the council's members to prepare for national elections.

The most visible exiled political leader seeking to rally Pashtun support around the king is Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani, head of one of the seven main mujahedin groups that fought against the Soviets. He comes from a family that has long played an influential religious and spiritual role in the eastern and southern parts of Afghanistan.

In October Gailani, who has shuttled to Rome to meet with the king, organized a meeting of 1,500 former Afghan leaders in Peshawar. During the meeting, Gailani urged visiting tribal and religious leaders to work for a reunited Afghanistan.

Many here say a southern coalition is now gradually taking shape.

One is Qazi Amin Wakat, a Pashtun political leader previously allied with the party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar but now an independent. Unlike Hekmatyar, who lives in Tehran and has rejected Zahir Shah's return as a U.S. expansionist plot, Wakat is actively helping build the Pashtun alliance for the king's return.

Speaking at his headquarters in Peshawar, Wakat tells our correspondent that forming a working coalition quickly is essential. He warns that if the Taliban were to fall before power-sharing agreements are complete, the result could be new rounds of factional fighting.

But Wakat also indicates his group has some key differences with the Western-backed Zahir Shah camp. One is over the U.S.-led air strikes, which he sees as only complicating matters.

Qazi Amin Wakat says: "The U.S. and its allies are attacking Afghanistan and people are dying and their lives are being destroyed. People are leaving Afghanistan because there is no peace. These attacks are creating a lot of problems for people and complicating the situation."

Many Pashtuns here say simply announcing the king's return to Afghanistan would have been enough to weaken support for the Taliban, while the U.S. air strikes risk the opposite.

Wakat also says he sees a role for moderate Taliban leaders in Afghanistan's political future, though this has been ruled out by many around the king as well as leaders in the Northern Alliance. He says his group is in touch with both Taliban and Northern Alliance players on an individual basis: "We have already talked with the Taliban and the Northern Alliance to help us to find a solution. We have already been talking to members of both of them about the situation."

Some political observers here say that as the southern alliance grows, Zahir Shah soon may have to make a formal power-sharing deal with it -- just as he already has with the Northern Alliance. Sayed Fida Yunas is a Pakistani Pashtun who spent 22 years as a Pakistani diplomat in Afghanistan. He says it is likely that Zahir Shah and the Northern Alliance will expand their 120-member Supreme Council for the National Unity of Afghanistan to accommodate Gailani's camp.

Yunas says a power-sharing deal may be necessary because of fears among some of the ex-king's aides that Gailani will demand too much influence. Gailani was a powerful politician during Zahir Shah's reign, which ended in 1973.

Sayed Fida Yunas says: "There are certain people around Zahir Shah who may not like to have Pir Gailani so close to Zahir Shah. Pir Gailani was very close to Zahir Shah during the time when Zahir Shah was in Kabul. Rather, he was known as the prime minister-maker in those days."

As the older generation of exiled Pashtun politicians and commanders jockey for power, younger leaders also want a voice.

One is Abdul Hameed Jawad, president of the Afghanistan Muslim Youths Organization, based in Peshawar. He says his group has 70,000 members among Afghans inside Afghanistan and in Pakistan's refugee camps. The organization sponsors schools, sports clubs and, like any respectable Afghan faction, has its military wing.

Jawad's organization believes the Taliban perverted the original mujahedin vision of an Islamic state. It wants to revive that vision and had been counting on the Taliban inevitably being toppled, with or without the U.S. strikes or the return of Zahir Shah.

Now Jawad, a former teacher in Afghan refugee schools, is standing outside the Zahir process and could be ready to cut a deal. But he says he has received no invitation from the ex-king or Gailani camps to do so. Abdul Hameed Jawad: "About our role in the future, Zahir Shah has not made contact with us. And Pir Gailani didn't come to see us. How can they expect to put a government in Afghanistan [when] we are now 70,000 youths [strong] and they haven't even come to see us?"

The challenge now for the Pashtun leaders -- inside and outside Afghanistan -- is to sort out differences to create a united front of their own behind the only man most people believe can reunite Afghanistan: Zahir Shah.

But whether that will happen before the Taliban collapses may still be too early to predict.