As the United States continues to press Afghanistan's Taleban government to turn over suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden, officials have also been examining what might come next if the Taleban loses power. The focus of the effort shifted in recent days to Rome, where King Zahir Shah lives in exile. The former King and other anti-Taleban groups have agreed to convene a grand assembly of Afghan elders to decide the political future of the war-shattered country. The Taleban government is coming under increasing pressure.
Anti-Taleban groups meeting in Rome on Monday (October 1) announced plans to try to overthrow the Taleban rulers by rallying Afghans behind the 86-year old ex-king, Zahir Shah. Under the terms of the agreement, the two sides plan to convene a Loya Jirga, or grand assembly, of Afghan elders to decide the political future of war-shattered Afghanistan.
Hamid Karzai is an aid to the former Afghan king. He says the Loya Jirga is the only option for bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan once the Taleban is removed from power. "We want the world to empower Afghanistan again, which is very clearly defined in Afghan traditions by way of the Loya Jirga," he explained. "That institution can take Afghanistan from this present state of incapacitation to a state of empowerment, where the Afghan people will regain their sovereignty and the right to exercise their power. And that is the situation that can also bring an end to the presence of terrorism in Afghanistan and that is the stage where Afghans and also the rest of the world and specially our neighbors will live in peace."
Mr. Karzai says that the Taleban has failed to bring peace or reconstruct the country since gaining control of most of the territory five years ago. He says that by giving protection to suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden, the Taleban has even undermined the "sovereignty" of the Afghan nation. "It was during the Taleban rule that we lost our historical monuments," he said. "It was during their rule that Afghans began to suffer in an extremely humiliating manner, and that Afghanistan was delivered to foreigners and completely taken out of the hands of Afghans. At this point now, we very much want the scene to change in Afghanistan. We want Afghanistan to be given back, returned to the hands of the Afghan people."
Members of the Taleban are mainly Pashtun, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. The group controls most of the country, but it has failed to dislodge an opposition Northern Alliance of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, which controls less then 10 percent of the Afghan territory.
The Taleban is known for practicing its own strict version of Islamic law. Women are banned from working and most girls from receiving an education. Men are forced to grow beards while music and other light entertainment are declared illegal practices in the Taleban-ruled areas. Early this year, the Islamic movement ordered the destruction of pre-Islamic statues, mainly Buddhist statues, across Afghanistan, condemning them offensive to Islam.
Taleban ambassador to neighboring Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, defends Taleban polices, saying they have helped established peace in war-torn Afghanistan. Mr. Zaeef said he believes that any effort to dislodge the Taleban and bring a new government in Kabul will be doomed to fail. "All the problems that we have in Afghanistan are the result of Zahir Shah's misguided policies when he was the king in Afghanistan," he said through a translator. "He gave rise to the communist parties in Afghanistan and had brought in Western and Kafir (infidel's) culture to our country. And therefore, our people will not support him. If [the king] is brought in by force, will give him the same lesson that we gave to other communists in the past."
Neighboring Pakistan is the only country that still recognizes the Taleban government. But analysts like Talat Hussein believe Islamabad is on the verge of cutting its ties with the Taleban, a move that will bring additional pressure and could tip the balance in the long-running battle with the opposition Northern Alliance. "When [the Taleban] held up against the Northern Alliance, they were able to do it because Pakistan was backing them forcefully," he said. "With that tap of support being turned off, with the entire international communit ganging up against them and with the Northern Alliance being supported and armed to teeth by the international community, it's fair to assume that they may not be able to survive as a structure inside Afghanistan."
The harsh policies of the Taleban and its refusal to surrender suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden, have also increased pressure on Pakistan to support international efforts to establish a new government in Kabul. However, analysts say Islamabad will push for a major role for Pashtoon representatives in any future political set up in Kabul. World leaders, such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair say any future government will have to be broad based. "It is absolutely clear that if the current Taleban regime does fall, then it is important that any successor regime is broad based, involves all ethnic groupings, obviously has to include, Pashtoon, which is very important indeed," said Mr. Blair. "And has to take account of the fact that Pakistan has a valid interest in close involvement with arrangements of any such successor regime."
Despite its previous support for the Taleban, Pakistan has has now promised to provide full support for U.S. anti-terrorist policies and the hunt for terror suspect Osama bin Laden. Earlier this week, Pakistan became the only Islamic country that has publicly said that evidence collected by U.S. officials does link the terror suspect to last month's deadly attacks on New York and Washington.