- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2001

From combined dispatches
ROME A bipartisan delegation from Congress will meet former Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shah today to demonstrate Washington's support for efforts to build a post-Taliban government.
The delegation of 11 members includes Reps. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican and vice chairman of the House International Relations Committee's East Asia and Pacific subcommittee; Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the Armed Services military readiness subcommittee; the subcommittee's ranking Democrat, Solomon Ortiz of Texas; Silvestre Reyes, Texas Democrat; and Republicans Nick Smith of Michigan and Roscoe G. Bartlett of Maryland.
"Ultimately our goal is to show support for the unity of the Afghan people. It's not a matter of eliminating [Osama] bin Laden. It's a matter of [eliminating] the whole terrorist network in Afghanistan. And the foundation of that network is the Taliban," said Al Santoli, national security adviser to Congress.
Afghan elders and military commanders met the former king of Afghanistan yesterday.
King Zahir Shah, 86, who has lived in exile in Italy since 1973, has become the focal point of diplomatic activity to find an alternative to the Taliban regime in Kabul following the terrorist attacks on the United States.
The former king wants to convene a grand council of elders, a so-called Loya Jirga, to try to rally Afghanistan's fractious tribes behind a government of national unity.
Yesterday, he met 16 political and military leaders believed to come mainly from Afghanistan's majority Pashtun ethnic group, to discuss how to implement the idea.
His advisers were due to hold crucial talks later this weekend with a delegation from the Northern Alliance, which is locked in battle with the Taliban and whose support will be needed if a grand council is to have genuine significance.
"These talks are extremely delicate and important, but we are confident. We all want to see peace return to our country after 22 years of misery," said the ex-king's grandson and spokesman, Mostapha Zahir.
To get the Taliban's foes to agree first to a Loya Jirga and then to a single government will require supreme diplomatic tact as the various factions nervously jockey for position.
Although he is old and frail, many diplomats believe King Zahir Shah is the only figure with enough prestige to be able to galvanize his warring people behind a new administration.
Western politicians have beaten a path to his door in recent days as the U.S. prepares to punish the Taliban for giving sanctuary to bin Laden the chief suspect behind the Sept. 11 strikes on New York and Washington.
The Northern Alliance, led by deposed Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, has taken umbrage at all the attention, and a spokesman for the group said in Islamabad, Pakistan yesterday that any attempts by Western powers to restore King Zahir Khan to the throne would provoke further turmoil.
"Reports that Afghanistan's Islamic government supports a national unity government led by the former king are false," said a fax message to Agence France-Presse offices in Tehran. "The position of the Islamic government on the former king and other Afghan figures living abroad is clear. We are sending a delegation [to Rome] to offer them a 'national unity,'" the statement said.
Mr. Rabbani was ousted from Kabul in 1996 by the fundamentalist Taliban but is still recognized as the legitimate president by the United Nations and most of the international community.
The former king has constantly stressed that he has no personal ambitions to regain his crown, saying it is up to impoverished Afghanistan to decide what leader it wants.
"We think only the Afghan people in all freedom and without foreign interference must choose their future. This is the basis and the purpose of all the contacts we have made," he told France's Le Monde daily in an interview published yesterday.
The former king's advisers earlier released a statement saying "a number of Afghan political and resistance personalities" had agreed on who should attend the proposed Supreme Council.
It also said they had decided to set up a military structure backed by resistance fighters, elders and professional army officers which would soon begin "activities" inside Afghanistan.
The former king's advisers sought to play down any rift saying they were sure a pact could be reached.
King Zahir Shah ascended to the throne in 1933 after his father was assassinated and oversaw 40 years of stability and cautious modernization before he was ousted in a coup led by his brother-in-law.
The bookish monarch now lives in a remote, leafy villa in the northern outskirts of Rome.
In a sign that support for the Taliban may be starting to erode, 20 elder tribal leaders from southern Afghanistan all allies of the Taliban met Friday in Pakistan at the home of a strong supporter of the former king to discuss the future of the war-torn country.

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