Fighting Taliban is an inside job, Afghans warn US

Tribal elders met yesterday in Pakistan to begin setting up a government in exile.

With America's war on terrorism fast evolving into a possible military search-and-seize operation, Afghan opposition leaders in Pakistan are urging the US to back their own efforts to capture suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

Instead of US military action, they want support for efforts to form a new government and topple the Taliban regime that harbors Mr. bin Laden.

Opposition leaders in this bustling Pakistan border city of 2 million cautioned that only a war fought by Afghans against the Taliban would lead to the capture of bin Laden and to the eradication his alleged terrorist bases inside their country.

Pir Sayed Ishaq Gailani, lead speaker at an assembly of several thousand Afghan leaders in Peshawar, says: "If the Americans want to solve the crisis in Afghanistan, they need to help out with the peace process and get the foreigners [Arab non-Afghans] out of the country.

"An attempted US-led invasion," he adds, "would be greeted with glee by the Arabs inside the country screaming for a chance to fight a jihad [holy war] on their own soil. If there is a war with the US, the Afghans will also likely fight on the side of these Arabs."

Mounting Afghan opposition to US military action, both within Afghanistan and beyond its borders, does not bode well for Washington's interest in quickly bringing bin Laden and his associates to justice. Nor do the calls for international help in forming an alternative government jibe with President Bush's stated aversion to "nation building."

"The international community is already getting bogged down by Afghanistan's internal politics as it tries to prosecute its war on terrorism," observes one US diplomat based in the Middle East.

But with winter looming, and reports that tens of thousands of displaced people inside Afghanistan are already starving, time weighs heavy on US interests.

The overwhelming consensus among Afghans who convened in Peshawar was that the US government's problems can be solved only after the creation of a government in exile. Between 2,000 and 3,000 tribal elders, intellectuals, poets, and singers met in an attempt to gain consensus to hold a Loya Jirga, or Grand Council. Many - but by no means all - of those who spoke favored a return of Afghanistan's former King Mohammed Zahir Shah, exiled in 1973.

The effort got a boost yesterday, when the king's representatives in Rome announced an agreement to hold a Loya Jirga after he met with Afghan opposition leaders and military commanders.

The Taliban, meanwhile, has warned opposition groups not to try to reinstall the king. Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar said over the weekend: "The government may collapse, but it will be the same as during the time of the jihad [war against the Soviet Union]. It is very easy to bring anarchy, but establishing law and order is a very different task."

The Bush administration's priority is the hunt for bin Laden, whom US officials hold responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. To that end, diplomatic and political backing is being offered to groups opposed to the ruling Taliban regime. America's war on terrorism is fast evolving, however. Bush administration officials have indicated that US and British Special Forces are already engaged in "scouting missions."

Afghan refugees and opposition officials at the meeting said that bin Laden's Al Qaeda network is based mostly in the south of the country, in and around the provinces of Khost, Kandahar, and Helmand.

Haji Jussef, a tribal leader from Khost who has been involved in efforts to expel what he terms "Arab foreigners and their base camps," says: "They will be asked to leave.... Many of them built beautiful homes in Khost, but we are now saying that they are persona non grata." Afghan sources in Peshawar said that leaders from the Tanie tribal area, near Khost, had already expelled "unwanted foreigners."

After the meeting, leaders and speakers said the US needed to use peaceful means to help Afghanistan. "The Afghan people can solve this problem on their own," says Azizullah Salik, one of the speakers. "The Afghan tribes themselves can help stop the Taliban and fight against Osama bin Laden. When we capture him, we will turn him over to the US."

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