The former king of Afghanistan has received a strong pledge of support from a U.S. congressional delegation that met with him Sunday at his villa outside Rome. The 86-year-old ex-monarch is offering himself as a neutral figure around whom Afghans can coalesce, if the ruling Taleban should fall.
The 11-man congressional delegation, including seven Republicans and four Democrats, met with ex-king Mohammad Zahir Shah and members of the opposition to the Taleban, including representatives of the Northern Alliance, which has been fighting the Taleban for years.
The congressmen, who say they are not speaking for President Bush, but will report back to him, expressed firm support for the former king's proposal to convene an assembly of tribal chiefs to elect a transitional leader who, after a two-year period, would call elections in Afghanistan.
Republican congressman Curt Weldon, the leader of the delegation, says the former king, who has lived in exile in Rome since 1973, is not seeking to restore the Afghan monarchy but only wants to help his people.
"He's not on some kind of ego trip. He's saying he's available if the people of Afghanistan want him," said Mr. Weldon. "And from what we're hearing, he's perhaps the only person who can bring the Afghan people together in a coordinated way to help us not just solve the problem of Afghanistan but rid the world of Osama Bin laden and his terrorist network."
Osama Bin Laden is the shadowy Islamic militant whom the Bush Administration has called the prime suspect in the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The U.S. government has accused Afghanistan's Taleban government of harboring Mr. Bin Laden and has demanded that it hand him over.
In order to convene a grand assembly of elders, the ex-king needs the support of the Northern Alliance, but the alliance has so far not committed itself to backing a transitional regime, under the former monarch's aegis, to replace the Taleban.
In what could be an attempt to split the Taleban and encourage some of its members to join a united front, Mr. Weldon says the former king even suggests that there might be a role for the Taleban itself in a transitional regime. "He's left the door open at some point in time that even the Taleban, if it had a role to play, could be a part of some eventual coalition government," the congressman said.
Mr. Weldon says that although the former king hopes his countrymen can liberate themselves from the Taleban regime, he has not ruled out asking for foreign intervention to help the Afghan people find peace.