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Taliban Opposition Plans Action Rebel Commanders Gather To Overthrow Taliban Government

By Rone Tempest

In a heavily guarded, walled compound here, Haji Mohammed Zaman presided Thursday over a war council of 100 black-bearded Pashtun commanders who may hold the key to the future of Afghanistan.

Expelled from his Pakistani base in 1997 because of his activities against Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, Zaman has spent the past four years as a political refugee in France. On Thursday, Zaman was back in Peshawar at the invitation of the same Pakistani government that kicked him out.

As armed sentries patrolled the ramparts, Zaman instructed his commanders to go to Afghanistan and persuade Taliban fighters to give up their posts or face the wrath of a renewed and re-armed opposition backed by U.S. firepower.

“We will ask the Taliban to surrender political power;If they don’t, we will go after them,” Zaman said.

His commanders made a wish list of what they wanted for the job: rocket launchers, surface-to-surface missiles, long-range cannons, crates of assault rifles and lots of cash.

The extraordinary meeting Thursday morning in this dusty frontier city represented an early milestone in the U.S.-backed attempt to construct a viable alternative to the Taliban in the important Pashtun-dominated borderland, where the fundamentalist regime still enjoys its strongest support.

As the Northern Alliance and Iranian-backed fighting units converge on Kabul, the Afghan capital, from the north and west, the Taliban still has space for strategic retreat to the south unless a Pashtun resistance force can be raised to meet it.

The local commanders at the meeting Thursday were from two eastern Afghan provinces, Nangarhar and Konar, but more such meetings of commanders from other provinces are expected in coming days as opposition leaders rush to assemble a post-Taliban ruling council under the banner of exiled 87-year-old Afghan monarch Mohammad Zaher Shah.

Key to the success of the effort is the recruitment of anti-Taliban and moderate Taliban Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. The task is complicated by a four-year Pakistani policy supporting the Taliban that was reversed under U.S. pressure after the Sept. 11 attacks on America.