Musharraf backs king as option to Taliban
By Arnaud de Borchgrave - THE WASHINGTON TIMES
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan ó President Pervez Musharraf backed a plan yesterday to invite Afghanistan's exiled king to move to Pakistan and convene a tribal council as an alternative to Taliban rule, a former Pakistani president said yesterday.
Farooq Leghari, who served as Pakistan's president from 1993 to 1997, said he presented the plan to Gen. Musharraf, who "enthusiastically endorsed" it.
"The president told me he would give instructions immediately that it be explained to the United States as a matter requiring urgent consideration," Mr. Leghari told The Washington Times.
The former president spoke just hours after exiled King Mohammad Zahir Shah and representatives of the opposition Northern Alliance agreed to a framework for a new government that would take control of Kabul if the Taliban was ousted.
The agreement, reached at the king's villa outside Rome, by the end of October would convene a "loya jirga," or traditional council of 120 senior Muslim clerics, tribal leaders and elders to elect a transitional government.
At the time of the announcement, it was assumed such a meeting would take place in Rome, with no apparent thought given to the council taking place in Pakistan.
The United States wants Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia to hand over exiled Saudi militant Osama bin Laden, who repeatedly has been named as the prime suspect in the hunt for the terrorist mastermind behind the airline hijackings and attacks on New York and Washington last month.
U.S. officials lately have warmed to the idea of King Zahir Shah ó a constitutional monarch ousted in a 1973 coup ó as a unifying figure in a post-Taliban government.
"The loya jirga is fine, and we would certainly support it if that's what the Afghan factions decide they want to do," a senior Bush administration official told reporters on the condition of anonymity.
The comments also appear to reflect a growing view within the administration that the Taliban has to go if it continues to shelter bin Laden.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who had said the ouster of the Taliban was not a U.S. objective, told CBS yesterday: "If the Taliban doesn't realize [protecting bin Laden] could cause a great deal of difficulty, that might lead to their own demise."
Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar repeatedly has snubbed U.S. demands for bin Laden, who has lived in Afghanistan since 1996 as a "guest."
On Sunday, Mullah Omar said the United States lacked the courage to attack, even as tens of thousands of American troops deployed in the region as part of an effort to capture or kill bin Laden.
Yesterday, Mullah Omar derided efforts to bring the former king into an alliance with opposition forces.
"They want to impose the Zahir Shah regime on us," Mullah Omar said in a broadcast on Taliban-run Kabul radio and monitored in the Pakistani capital.
"God willing, I'm sure America cannot do that."
The White House issued a statement yesterday saying it "is not going to get in the business of choosing who rules Afghanistan," but it "will assist those who are seeking a peaceful and economically developed Afghanistan that does not engage in terrorism."
Mr. Leghari, the former Pakistani president who now heads a small, nonreligious political party, told The Times that the plan to invite the king to Pakistan would "obviate the U.S. urge to put its diplomatic chips on the Northern Alliance to the exclusion of other political forces."
"The plan would include some anti-Mullah Omar Taliban personalities," Mr. Leghari said.
Step one, he explained, would be to invite the king to take up residence less than four miles from the Afghan border in Wazirstan, a part of Pakistan that is populated by a major Pashtun tribe that straddles the mountainous border between the two countries.
There, the king could convene the loya jirga, which would include Pashtun chiefs from both sides of the border.
Such a move, said Mr. Leghari, would enable Gen. Musharraf to sever long-standing ties between Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and the Taliban.
Members of the Taliban militia are drawn from Afghanistan's Pashtun ethnic group, which makes upabout 38 percent of the population.
The Northern Alliance ó still the officially recognized government of the country ó is made up mainly of Tajiks, the nation's second largest ethnic group representing a quarter of Afghanistan's population of about 25 million.
The presence of the king, who is a Pashtun, would broaden the appeal of a post-Taliban government to Pashtuns and other minorities.
Gen. Musharraf has been loath to concede that Pakistan's policy toward the Taliban is in tatters. His ISI helped establish the Taliban as the rulers of the country but was unable to persuade it to hand over bin Laden.
Mr. Leghari said his plan would allow Gen. Musharraf to formally ditch the Taliban and set a new course designed to align Pakistan to the United States "without any unspoken reservations."
The tribal grand council, said Mr. Leghari, would strengthen the king and give legitimacy to an interim government.
* Distributed by United Press International, for whom Arnaud de Borchgrave is an editor at large. Nicholas Kralev contributed to this report from Washington. Special correspondent Eric J. Lyman contributed to this report from Rome.
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