Once (and future?) Afghan king

The exiled king of Afghanistan, Mohammed Zahir Shah, met with a US delegation yesterday.

From dusty refugee camps in Pakistan, to Taliban-controlled villages of Afghanistan, to the White House, the name of an elderly Afghan monarch is suddenly on everyone's lips.

Russian, US, and European leaders are now supporting an attempt to build a coalition around the popular, 86-year-old King Mohammad Zahir Shah.

It's not "nation building." At least, not yet. But the king is seen by his backers as the best way to form a successful post-Taliban government in Afghanistan - although officials in Pakistan, a key ally in any coalition, voice deep skepticism about the king.

"All of America is looking to the king to play a key role here and help us coalesce those who oppose the Taliban," Rep. Curt Weldon (R) of Pennsylvania told reporters yesterday after a group of US lawmakers met with the king at his villa in Rome.

This weekend, King Zahir - deposed in 1973 - met with several commanders of anti-Taliban groups to discuss a two-year transition to democracy, enforced temporarily by the presence of United Nations - or US - troops.

It was reported that the king has created a military council made up of Northern Alliance commanders, tribal elders, and former Afghan army officers.

There is no question that the king is a popular figure. "He is the one person for Afghanistan, and he can help us fairly rule this country, says Naimai Hamidullah, a teacher at a mosque in Iskan, an opposition-controlled village in northern Afghanistan.

On Saturday night, according to sources in Peshawar, Afghans distributed pamphlets in the cities of Gardez and Khost in Afghanistan inciting the public against the Taliban. On the pamphlets were scrawled slogans in support of King Zahir. The Taliban have arrested six people on charges of distributing the pamphlets.

Tribal elders in three provinces of Afghanistan held a meeting in Khost Sunday, and decided that anyone supporting a "puppet government [of King Zahir]" in Afghanistan would have their house set on fire and would be fined 200,000 Pakistani rupees.

A meeting today of Afghan elders, known as the Loya Jirga, in Peshawar, Pakistan, could bolster the king's role as a unifier of Afghanistan, and add to recent dissenters from the Taliban regime.

"This is a very significant development," says Ahmed Rashid, author of "Taliban," a current best-seller. "Only the King has the legal authority to legitimize the next government. It is critical that he has a broad-based alliance that has a common front against the Taliban."

The Loya Jirga or Grand Council is a consultative system used by Afghans for over 1,000 years to settle affairs. The 600-member group of Afghan nationals - representing different schools of thoughts and interests, including mujihadeen, Taliban, and tribal elders - are expected to convene to discuss the future of Afghanistan, according to sources in Peshawar.

Some analysts here - as well as ordinary Pakistanis - are dubious about the success of this effort to replace the Taliban with Afghanistan's king in exile. Indeed the state of unity among Indeed, the state of unity among Taliban commanders and rank and file, while often described in recent reports as fracturing, is not truly known.

Moreover, experts point out, the Afghan capital Kabul was torched and devastated far more under Northern Alliance commanders - than it ever was by Soviet troops.

"This looks like a clever move that is not so clever," says one european diplomat. "It looks like an effort to come up with some leader, any leader, and it may make things more divisive."

In addition, Pakistan, which has long backed the Taliban, and is distrustful of the Northern Alliance, is not likely to jump on this bandwagon.

To many ordinary Pakistanis, and in a part of the world that instinctively resists easy solutions, particularly those provided by the West, the idea seems slightly incredible if not farcical. Many Pashtuns see the king as representing a "puppet government," as one Peshawar-based source says.

"There is no doubt there will be a new government in Afghanistan sooner or later," says Shahid ur Rehman, a Pakistani journalist and author of books on the Pakistani elite, and the Pakistani nuclear program. "The Taliban may collapse, Kabul may fall. The best bet for that is a peaceful change within the Talibs. But Zahir Shah is being patterend as a candidate by the West," which Rehman describes as a distasteful imposition.

Analysts like Rehman say the king's strong point is his Pashtun ethnic heritage. The Pashtun peoples are the majority in Afghanistan, highly influential, and make up the bulk of the Taliban. The king's base of support, moreover, is in the southern city of Kandahar - current home of Taliban supreme overlord, Mullah Muhammad Omar.

"If there is a split in the Taliban," says Mr. Rehman, [the king] is a good man to speak to all sides. But my hunch is that the commanders in the field will not support him. They are not in favor of a man of this type. I don't see any possibility of it [a successful return of the king]," he adds.

The Northern Alliance controls about 10 percent of Afghanistan. And its role is considered vital to any effort by the king to return, because it contains large numbers of ethnic minorities, such as Tajiks and Uzbeks. Two Northern Alliance figures, Yunis Qanuni and Aref Khan Nurzai met with the king in Rome this weekend. But a Northern Alliance spokesman in Islamabad warned that Western nations' support for the king's return was "unacceptable."

Nonetheless, among some ordinary Afghans, the prospect of King Zahir Shah's return is a hopeful one. Omara Khan, an Afghan national who shuttles between Jalalabad and Peshawar working with Afghan landmine victims, says the people are "ready for a change."

"The Taliban, they have support of the people against the Northern Alliance, and the foreign invaders," says Mr. Khan, sipping cardamom-scented green tea in a hotel cafe. "But people are tired of fighting. If a third party or an Afghan leader, for example Zahir Shah, who is able to give stability, and get some peace, I'm sure the people will support him. What the Taliban is doing the people don't like. They don't like their policies. They don't like what they are doing, how they treat the people."

"Now the people will be able to support the king. He is a symbol of national unity," he adds, hopefully.

Scott Peterson in northern Afghanistan contributed to this report.

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