- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 25, 2001

PESHAWAR, Pakistan Afghan exiles in Pakistan yesterday called on the United States to stop the air strikes and for Afghanistan's exiled king to return a tentative first step toward forming a post-Taliban government.
The exiles filled a downtown auditorium in the first of a two-day event called by Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani, a former mujahideen commander from the war against the Soviets.
"Afghanistan dangles between life and death and Afghans suffer the worst kind of miseries," said Mr. Gailani, whose National Islamic Front of Afghanistan led yesterday's meeting, in his opening speech.
"Efforts should be made to stop the military operation and start work on reconstruction of the country as early as possible," he told about 1,000 exiled religious, tribal and political leaders.
Mr. Gailani called for Mohammed Zahir Shah, 87, the former king of Afghanistan, who has lived in exile in Rome since 1973, to head an interim government that would draft an Islamic constitution for a new Afghanistan. As U.S. jets pound Afghanistan, numerous exile groups in Pakistan have been jockeying for a role to play when the war eventually ends.
A senior State Department official yesterday acknowledged the meeting in Peshawar, but said a meeting soon to take place in Istanbul would be watched more closely.
"The more important meeting is in Istanbul, and we have people following it there," said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"That group includes Pashtuns, representatives of the king and of the Northern Alliance. The group of exiles in Pakistan is important as well, but it's kind of hard to tell at this moment where the locus is" of efforts to form a post-Taliban government.
"The fact that people are meeting is important," he said.
The gathering in Turkey is expected to organize a special meeting next week of all Afghan religious, tribal and ethnic factions, known as a Loya Jirga, which may be called upon to anoint a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan.
Pakistan is known to favor a broad-based, multiethnic government to replace the Taliban, in which the majority Pashtun ethnic group would play a dominant role. Speakers at yesterday's assembly predicted that Pashtun tribal leaders from southern Afghanistan and Taliban members themselves would defect and join their effort.
"I'm optimistic that after this meeting, some of the Taliban will contact us and something positive will happen," said Ata Mohammed Ittah, who fled the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar for Pakistan shortly after the Oct. 7 onset of U.S. bombing.
In contrast to the Pashtuns of southern Afghanistan, the opposition Northern Alliance is dominated by ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks, whose short-lived rule in the early 1990s plunged the country into civil war. Numerous proposals to replace the Taliban center on the frail former king, himself a Pashtun.
Yesterday's assembly marked a tentative attempt by Mr. Gailani's group to position itself as a leading faction lining up behind the plan. But skeptics at the conference dubbed the "Conference of Peace and National Unity" dismissed it as little more than an exercise in wishful thinking.
"It was just a one-party show. These people are lobbying for the king and the king's representative did not even show up," said Zia ul Haq, a reporter for a local English-language newspaper.
The king's envoy, Amin Arsalan, is now in Pakistan conducting behind-the-scenes negotiations of his own. He had earlier indicated that he would attend yesterday's event, and organizers held out hope he would show up yesterday. Both Pakistan and the United States have tentatively backed attempts to involve the former king, if only in a ceremonial role, to form a new administration. Senior State Department official Richard Haass has visited him in his Italian villa.
After yesterday's session ended, Gulo Jan Wahdat Shinwari, a former assemblyman from the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, offered reporters a novel approach for dealing with Osama bin Laden.
"Osama is not part of Afghanistan. He is part of Arabia. It would be easy to send him back to Arabia so he can do his jihad there," Mr. Shinwari said. The Taliban's failure to turn over bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, prompted the U.S. air campaign, now in its third week.

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