In Afghan town, warlords clash over the king's return

Pashtun 'royalists' marched to gates of US base in Khost yesterday.

Thousands of Pashtun tribesmen swept down from the mountains into this city during the past three days to fend off what they claim is a conspiracy to smother Afghanistan's royal revival.

Carrying ancient carbines, ivory-handled daggers, and modern Chinese machine guns, they arrived on bicycles, in tractors, and in cars to fend off a move by the country's Northern Alliance to install a governor who opposes the return of King Mohammad Zahir Shah.

Hundreds of elders and soldiers marched on the US special forces base here early yesterday, carrying with them a request that the Americans remain neutral in a growing power struggle between the forces of the Northern Alliance and Pashtun supporters of the king. The royals fear that the American forces are currently working too closely with their Tajik and Uzbek rivals in the Northern Alliance.

Gold-turbaned Mohamad Shah Zadran, chief of the tribal union of "greater Paktia," led a group of several hundred tribesmen to the gates of the US military base and spoke with US officers there. "We've chosen the royalist party of King Zahir Shah to lead us," he said. "We don't want other armed opposition parties who are making our people live in fear."

The American officers asked the tribal leader to try to remain calm in advance of a final decision from Kabul on the structure and authority in the new regional government. After the demonstration in front of the US base, tribesmen met in the city center to beat drums and perform traditional Pashtun dances, which had not been performed in the past six years of Taliban rule. The dances are normally performed before, during, and after a war.

This mounting standoff in eastern Afghanistan - which has all sides filling sandbags, digging trenches, and bolstering their firepower - is seen as a key test of the authority of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun, whose ability to fight for Pashtun rights has been put in doubt by the Tajik and Uzbek-dominated Northern Alliance's grip on the Kabul government.

Zahir Shah, who left Afghanistan in 1973 for Britain for treatment of an eye injured while playing volleyball, was ousted by a coup d'état. Royalists are concerned that Afghanistan's king is still out of the country nearly two months after the collapse of Taliban rule. On Sunday, the king's son, ex-prince Mirwais Shah, said his father, living in Italy, may return to Kabul as soon as March 21, the Afghan New Year.

Flush with newly printed cash from Kabul, the Northern Alliance factions in Khost, outgunned by the royalists - who have fewer tanks but more Kalashnikovs than their rivals - have formed an alliance with former Taliban military officers who have seized the city's two forts. And, a shoot-out was barely averted over this past weekend when supporters of warlord Zakim Khan secretly entered the police station and pulled down the king's flag, replacing it with their own. Twenty-five rebels were tackled, arrested, and jailed by royalists.

The Pashtun warlord, Zakim Khan, hand-picked by Kabul's intelligence and security chiefs to oversee the region's political and military affairs, fought with the Northern Alliance during the Taliban rule. He has formed an alliance with Commander Malim Jan, a former Taliban commander, who was given authority in Khost by the city's most powerful Islamic fundamentalist, Jalaluddin Haqqani, before he became a fugitive from US forces.

Zakim Khan and Malim Jan agree on one thing. The king is too weak to assume his rule in Afghanistan. "The king is too old," says Zakim Khan in an interview. "We don't want an old man trying to steer a dangerous country."

Khost, a sprawling city of mud brick homes and turbaned warriors, does not appear, on the surface, to be a likely place to lead Afghanistan's royalist revival. And it is not clear what his supporters here think the octogenarian king can do to rebuild this shattered nation. Nonetheless, he remains a powerful symbol to many Pashtuns. "We don't want him to work in the fields, we just want him to sit in a chair. How difficult can that be?" says Mohamad Khan, a local farmer.

The tribesmen of Khost and Paktia are famous for having used remote mountain roads to spirit two Afghan kings - including Zahir Shah's own father, Nadir Shah - back from exile. For their loyalty, the Pashtuns of eastern Afghanistan earned the sobriquet, "the kingmakers."

Balancing royalism with the region's often virulent strain of Islamic fundamentalism won't be easy. The giant, blue-domed mosque in the centre of Khost was started by the region's most dominant strongman, Jalaluddin Haqqani, who has had a long friendship with Osama bin Laden.

Afghan military and intelligence sources say that Mr. Haqqani is now in hiding just across the border in Pakistan, but scheming to return to his old fiefdom, particularly if he suspects that King Zahir won't ever come back to Afghanistan.

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