US congressmen support return of 86-year-old king

War on Terrorism: Afghan Opposition
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The exiled former king of Afghanistan won a pledge of support from members of the US Congress yesterday as part of his attempts to forge a broad coalition that could replace the Taliban regime in Kabul.

The upbeat US congressmen told journalists after the talks at his Rome residence that they are convinced that Mohammed Zahir Shah, 86, has a role to play in a new Afghanistan. The delegation's leader, Curt Weldon, said the ailing ex-king had told them he wanted any action to free Afghanistan to be organised through the United Nations, but if this were not possible he would not oppose a US-led operation.

The congressmen also met senior members of the Northern Alliance and other Afghan commanders, including the brother of Ahmed Shah Masood, who was assassinated just before the 11 September attacks on the US.

These anti-Taliban forces have been meeting the king and his counsellors over the weekend to forge a broad alliance under the auspices of the former monarch that could step in to prevent a power vacuum if the Taliban are overthrown as a direct, or indirect, result of US military action against Afghanistan.

Although Washington officially denies aiming to topple the Taliban, the White House chief of staff, Andrew Card, said on the Fox News television channel that "they should be out of power" if they continued to harbour terrorists such as the prime suspect in the attacks, Osama bin Laden.

The ex-king's involvement in political talks on the country's future, including with a UN envoy, has failed to attract support from many Afghan factions, however. The former monarch, who has lived in exile with his family since his overthrow in 1973, has called for the convening of a Loya Jirga, or grand assembly of elders, to try to galvanise the warring Afghan factions behind a single government of national unity.

In the Panjshir Valley, the headquarters of the Northern Alliance, the opposition's foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, said he was astonished by reports that opposition to the Taliban was beginning to focus on the former king.

A delegation from the Alliance, the only opposition group to control territory, has only just reached Rome for discussions with the former king, he said. It was not the king but "the people of Afghanistan who would decide who would lead the country," he said.

Plainly upset by the apparent demarche by the king, Dr Abdullah agreed that there were Afghans who associated the monarchy with a period of peace before the wars which have ravaged the country for over a quarter of a century. But most Afghans had been born after the fall of the last king.

The leaders of an anti-Taliban group of mujahedin in control of a small segment of western Afghanistan, close to the Iranian border, also warned of the danger of returning the ex-king under US auspices.

Sardar Abdul Rahman Gorgaj, the head of a Baluch family which fought against the Soviet Union, said at his home in Zahedan, an Iranian provincial capital, that any action should be taken under the auspices of the UN.

Part of the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan, his group favours the return of the former king, possibly as president. "The people love the king. But it will be no good if he is just returned by the Americans," he said. One of the mujahedin's military commanders, Mohammed Nahir, also said he did not want US help if they were acting without UN backing.

Most, if not all, anti-Taliban Afghans are fearful that identifiably US-led large-scale bombing could perform the seemingly impossible feat of strengthening popular support for the Taliban.