PESHAWAR, Pakistan A meeting of 1,500 former Afghan leaders yesterday, billed as an effort to promote peace and unity in the besieged and divided country, was snubbed by key figures and undercut by criticism that it was being promoted by Pakistan to exercise undue influence on Afghanistan”s political future.

Paul Wong
Pir Sayed Ahmed Gillani, head of the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan, pauses at the start of a Shura, or meeting, in Peshawar, Pakinstan, yesterday. <br><br>AP PHOTO

On the surface, the gathering seemed impressive, attended by Afghan tribal elders, religious figures and former anti-Soviet resistance commanders dressed in elaborate turbans and robes. It was presided over by Pir Sayed Ahmed Gailani, a religious leader who sat in a throne-like chair adorned with a wooden eagle.

In his welcoming speech, Gailani called for an interim government to be established under former King Mohammed Zahir Shah, with a U.N. security force from Islamic countries maintaining order. He said an Islamic constitution should be drafted and national elections ultimately held.

“Dear countrymen! In this situation we need tolerance, understanding and political insight,” Gailani said. “We should join hands to work together, with complete harmony and sincerity and without any sort of discrimination, for the construction of a united and great Afghanistan.”

But the 86-year-old king, who lives in exile in Rome, did not accept an invitation to send representatives to Peshawar yesterday, and some of his key supporters harshly criticized the meeting as a ploy by Pakistan and leaders of former Islamic militias to take over the process of constructing a new Afghan government.

Mustapha Zahir, the king”s grandson, said by telephone from Rome that Zahir Shah had “not officially sanctioned any meeting.” A key supporter in the Pakistani city of Quetta, Gul Agha Shirzai, said the meeting was full of “fundamentalists and terrorists” and that Gailani was “using the king” for his own ends.

For the past two weeks, Afghanistan has been under intense military bombardment by U.S. forces, aimed at destroying the Islamic Taliban movement and a terrorist network operated by Osama bin Laden, the Saudi fugitive who lives in Afghanistan and is the prime U.S. suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

It is widely assumed here that the Taliban will eventually collapse under the attack, and frantic but confused efforts are being undertaken by numerous groups, including Pakistani intelligence agencies and an array of former Afghan leaders, to prepare for a new government that will replace it.

The principal problem with these efforts is that none of the groups involved trust each other. Afghans from the Pashtun majority do not trust Islamic and ethnic minority militia leaders who engaged in a vicious factional war in the 1990s, backed by Pakistan, Iran and the Soviet Union.

The former king, who U.S. officials and many Afghans hope can serve as a unifying, symbolic figure for a political transition, has lost considerable credibility since he recently announced a pact with the Northern Alliance, the domestic anti-Taliban insurgents who are hated by Pakistan and mistrusted by many Afghans for their excesses during the civil war.

At the meeting yesterday, a number of speakers from former Islamic resistance groups appealed to participants to put aside their past rivalries and unite to rebuild their country. They criticized the Taliban as a failed government and said it was urgent to preempt a dangerous political void if the Taliban collapses.

“We are all Muslims, and we all struggled against the Soviet communists,” said Qazi Amin Waqad, a former leader of the Islamic militia controlled by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. “There were faults, and the Taliban emerged. But they captured the government for themselves only, and they have lost the people”s trust. Now it is our responsibility to bring everyone together for peace.”

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