- The Washington Times - Monday, October 8, 2001

BAGRAM, Afghanistan Afghanistan's fractious tribal and monarchist opposition leaders plan to hold a summit of chieftains and commanders within 10 days to draw up a strategy for a post-Taliban government.
Zahir Shah, the 86-year-old deposed king now based in Rome, and the Northern Alliance of ethnic Tajik and Uzbek fighters will each send 60 delegates to the so-called Supreme Council.
The meeting comes as several warlords have already opened new fronts, raising fears that the country will slide back into civil war if U.S.-led attacks force the Taliban regime's collapse.
The prospects of a Taliban implosion increased after several senior figures in the regime fled across the border to Pakistan. The commanders, mostly former anti-Soviet mujahideen who initially joined the mullahs either out of expediency or because they were bought off, have been crossing the mountainous frontier with their families.
"Many of these commanders are colleagues from the war against the Russians. They know us and feel comfortable working with us," said Abdul Haq, a former mujahideen commander who is in Peshawar to promote the king's Loya Jirga, or grand gathering of tribesmen.
Britain and the United States are hoping to topple the Taliban regime through diplomatic pressure and replace it with a broad-based government taking in the country's many opposing factions. A whirlwind tour of the region by British Prime Minister Tony Blair that ended in India Saturday was partly dedicated to gathering support for a replacement to the Taliban.
The opposition Northern Alliance, which holds northeastern Afghanistan, is a ragtag assortment of local tribal chiefs united by their opposition to the Taliban. However, the recent assassination of their leader, Ahmed Shah Masood, has raised doubts about whether their fragile unity will hold.
Elsewhere, a complex cast of assorted warlords with checkered pasts, backed either by the United States or Afghanistan's neighbors, is already fighting for a share of the spoils.
Gen. Rashid Dostum is a perfidious bear-like Uzbek who regularly switches sides and in the past ran his own airline, visited Scotland to cut a deal with whisky distillers and punished disobedient soldiers at home by running over them with tanks.
The general recently launched a fresh offensive to recapture his old northern stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif. But he acknowledged last week that his men had suffered heavy losses after the Taliban sent reinforcements to the north to counter possible U.S. attacks.
There is also fighting around the western city of Herat, where Ismael Khan, a wily former mujahideen commander who escaped from prison in Kandahar two years ago, is attempting to surround the Taliban forces.
A third front opened in the snow-capped central Hindu Kush mountains where Karim Khalili, the leader of the Hazara tribes, is marshalling his fighters against the Taliban.
Even Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the notorious "spoiler" of Afghan power struggles best known for throwing acid in the faces of unveiled female students while at university, announced his likely return from exile in Tehran.
The regional candidate most strongly promoted by Britain and the United States is Mr. Haq, who laid down his arms after Moscow's pull-out in 1989.
Mr. Haq is the only Afghan power broker to have remained aloof from the country's internecine wars. Unlike the tribal opposition in the north, he could command the support of his fellow Pathans, the country's largest ethnic group, and he supports the king's return.
He is bitterly opposed to the Pathan-led Taliban, believed to have sent the assassins who murdered his wife, his 11-year-old son and a bodyguard in Peshawar in 1999.
Mr. Haq, who comes from a powerful landowning family in eastern Afghanistan, moved to Dubai for business, but has now returned to Pakistan and met a stream of turbaned tribesmen and ex-Taliban and mujahideen commanders.
They are offering support for his plan, which mirrors Zahir Shah's, to form an ethnically mixed interim government, restore law and order and bring Taliban leaders to trial.
He is, however, highly critical of the American offensive, which he fears will further destabilize the country. Some Western diplomats in Pakistan also fear that Afghanistan will be left to sink into more bloodshed if the United States achieves its goal of eliminating Osama bin Laden and toppling the Taliban.
"What's important for the U.S.?" asked a Western diplomat. "To get bin Laden and stop terrorism. If there's trouble after that in Afghanistan, it won't stop them sleeping. There are troubles in many places."

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