Old guard crafts new Afghan rule

As US planes target front lines around Kabul, exiles start talks.

Some are men of peace. Others simply want a piece of the action.

Together, they are an odd mix of Afghan intellectuals and warlords, poets and smugglers, royalists and democrats, with little in common except the goal of bringing peace and an interim government to Afghanistan.

At marathon talks in Peshawar, starting today, this band of Afghan exiles will meet to create a political solution to the war in Afghanistan, and their own place in it.

In advance of the talks, the US gave the strongest sign yet of support for the Northern Alliance, a separate group opposed to the ruling Taliban. US jets yesterday staged limited airstrikes on front-line Taliban positions near the capital, Kabul, and the key northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Secretary of State Colin Powell repeated that the US would like to see the alliance take Mazar-e-Sharif. But he said reservations remained as to whether it would be "the best thing" for Kabul to fall.

The US has been waiting for key Afghan political players to gather here and make headway, say analysts, before giving military support to

a Northern Alliance march on Kabul. The alliance is a coalition of minority ethnic groups, mainly Tajiks and Uzbeks, and does not have the support of Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group.

In the rose gardens of newly acquired homes, with armed guards serving tea, the mainly Pashtun Afghan exiles in Peshawar say they are united in the face of a common enemy: the Taliban.

Each knows from past experience that today's ally can become tomorrow's foe. But for now, at least, there's no way to win the game unless you play.

There is reason both for caution and for hope, says Rasul Amin, a professor of literature at the University of Peshawar and a representative of former King Mohammad Zahir Shah in the negotiations. That reason is fatigue. "The people are fed up, both with foreign interference from outside Afghanistan and infighting in Afghanistan," he says.

"In these 23 years of war, we have experienced leftist ideology with the Soviets, mujahideen ideology, Taliban ideology, and they didn't deliver the goods. What the people want now is the right of self-determination, and then we can build a lasting peace."

Like the intellectuals and landed gentry who drafted the US Constitution, the Afghan exiles meeting in Peshawar have a lot riding on their shoulders. Their words drip with the honey of good intentions, promising peace, prosperity, inclusiveness, freedom of expression. But with a history of blood feuds, power grabs, corruption, and betrayal - and substantially different plans to achieve peace - these leaders have much work to do.

"We need to end the monopoly of the fighting club over Afghan politics," says Afrasiab Khattak, a Pakistani intellectual from the Pashtun ethnic group. "Some of these warlords are very shrewd people. They take on new identities. But unfortunately, the warlord culture is so deep, it's left no space for civil society in Afghanistan."

If Afghans express skepticism about today's peacemakers, it may be due to the uncanny resemblance between them and previous powerbrokers active in the waning days of the Soviet occupation. In February 1989, Afghan exiles called a shura, or council of elders, to form an interim government to replace Soviet-backed President Mohammad Najibullah. The resulting government was so unrepresentative that not even Pakistan recognized it, and it quickly dissolved.

Mujahideen commanders then mounted an assault on Jalalabad, a crucial trading center midway between Peshawar and Kabul.

After the commanders took Kabul in 1992, betrayal and internal strife characterized four years of mujahideen rule under President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Rival commanders pummeled each other's positions, killing tens of thousands of civilians, until ousted by the radical Islamist Taliban militia in 1996.

In Peshawar, a rough-and-tumble border city, many of the old players are returning from Europe and Australia, and the aroma of intrigue hangs heavy in the air. It was here that CIA-backed armies of mujahideen, or holy warriors, mounted their guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

And it is here that mujahideen commanders are planning their part in what President Bush called the first war of the 21st century.

One of the bigger players is Qazi Amin Wiqad, founder of the Islamist Hizb-i-Islami party and former minister for communication in the Rabbani government. Mr. Wiqad spent the past several months meeting separately with Taliban officials, the Northern Alliance, and with the Pakistani government. Unfortunately, he says, last month's assassination of Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Masood, coupled with the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, "demolished" his peace plans.

"Now I'm working not for Hizb-i-Islami, not for the Northern Alliance, not for Pashtuns. I'm working for all Afghanistan," says Wiqad. He says the first step will be to hold a loya jirga, or supreme council, to select an interim government. "We will not allow the government to be based on politics, but on ability and on personality. The mujahideen government that I was part of was based on politics, and you know the result."

Another player is Haji Zaman Ghamsharik. During the mujahideen period, he was a top commander in southeastern Afghanistan. "The situation compels us to take an interest in each other, so we should trust each other," says Mr. Ghamsharik.

He does not extend that trust to the Taliban. "We can't tolerate those groups that tolerate terrorism, who don't want peace in Afghanistan," he says.

Shamsul Huda Shams, leader of the Afghan Social Democratic Party, once the second-largest party in Afghanistan, has his own list of Afghans to be excluded from the next government. "Communists should not be allowed, because we are Muslims and we don't allow them," says Mr. Shams.

"We also don't accept fundamentalists. Some of the Taliban can take part, but some of the Taliban are not acceptable to the people of Afghanistan."

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