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Exiled Afghani King Agrees To Join in New Government

By Richard Boudreaux

and John Daniszewski

Counting on a collapse of the militant Islamist Taliban regime, Afghanistan’s main opposition force and the country’s 86-year-old exiled king agreed here Monday to join in forming a broad-based government open to cooperation with the West.

Under the U.S.-backed accord, the opposition Northern Alliance and the former monarch will name a 120-member Supreme Council for National Unity representing all Afghan tribes and ethnic groups, and call it into session in Rome by the end of the month.

The council will then convene a larger assembly on Afghan soil with a mandate to form a provisional government to run the country for two years and restore a constitutional democracy after more than two decades of war.

Monday’s pact was a breakthrough in international efforts to build an alternative to the Taliban, which is harboring Osama bin Laden, the Muslim fundamentalist viewed by the United States as the prime suspect in Sept. 11 attacks in New York and near Washington.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf declared Monday that the Taliban’s days appeared to be numbered because of its refusal to hand over bin Laden to the United States.

A senior Pakistani diplomat said his country, the only one that still recognizes the Taliban government, is quietly working with the Bush administration to identify moderate Taliban figures who might be willing to join the new opposition council. He said he did not expect the current Afghan leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, to remain in power.

“The fall will come from within,” predicted the diplomat, who requested anonymity. “Many Taliban are questioning the wisdom of letting one man endanger the whole movement.”

The new council’s main task will be to convene a “loya jirga,” a centuries-old form of national assembly involving hundreds or even thousands of people who ratify constitutions or elect rulers. Such an assembly was last convened in 1963.

Opposition leaders said that if the Taliban keeps control of the capital, Kabul, in coming weeks, the assembly would be held on secure ground inside Afghanistan. Northern Alliance troops hold nearly 10 percent of the country.

If that option proves impossible, the council could act as a provisional government in exile, opposition leaders said.

“We must be ready, if there are drastic changes in Afghanistan’s political scene, to resolve our problems and fill the power vacuum,” one of the former king’s aides, Abdul Sattar Sirat, told reporters.

Monday’s accord grew from more than two weeks of negotiations in which a stream of diplomats, Afghan resistance fighters and exiles called on Mohammad Zahir Shah, Afghanistan’s last monarch, at the gated suburban villa north of Rome where he has lived most of his 28 years in reclusive exile.

The Northern Alliance has been fighting to regain power since the Taliban ousted its government, led by President Burhanuddin Rabbani, in 1996. The alliance and its armed units, dominated by ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks minorities in the north, are hated by many Pushtuns, the dominant ethnic group and chief source of the Taliban’s support, and by the minority Turkmen and Baluchi tribes in the south.