ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Efforts to build a political alternative to Afghanistan”s ruling Taliban movement are in disarray, crippled by clashing egos and agendas, factional infighting and the competing interests of foreign countries, according to officials involved in the efforts.

Paul Wong
Plumes of smoke from an explosion rise yesterday in front of the village of Sarghich, a Taliban controlled area 12 miles north of Kabul. <br><br>AP PHOTO

At least six rival processes to frame a post-Taliban government are now underway from Rome to Cyprus to Peshawar in northeastern Pakistan. In several cases, the participating monarchists, current and former warlords, tribal and ethnic leaders, and officials from more than a dozen countries are refusing to meet with one another, insisting on their own programs instead of negotiating.

Any resolve to overcome these rivalries has been diminished by the apparent failure so far of U.S.-led military operations to visibly weaken the Taliban”s hold over more than 90 percent of Afghanistan, analysts here said. The bombing has also divided some potential members of a common alliance against the Taliban.

“It”s a disaster,” said a Western diplomat involved in the efforts to fashion a future government. Other officials warn that the process could take months or years.

U.S. officials have sought to accelerate the collapse of the Taliban by creating a viable government to replace the radical Islamic movement. Forming a united opposition would also guard against a power vacuum and a return to widespread civil war among factions backed by rival regional powers.

A major obstacle to this balance, according to officials involved in the efforts, is that no powerful leader has emerged to unify Afghanistan”s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, which dominates the leadership of the Taliban. Most potential opposition Pashtun leaders are considered tainted by association with the Taliban, long periods in exile or ties to foreign powers. Because Afghan society is generally organized around religious, ethnic and tribal ties that stretch back for centuries, and Pashtun support considered is vital to the long-term stability of any government in Afghanistan.

In addition, officials say that rifts are developing in a recent partnership between the Northern Alliance, which is the main military opposition to the Taliban, and Afghanistan”s former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who is still popular at home after 28 years in exile and who analysts say could help unify Afghanistan”s factions.

Finally, competing interests among Afghanistan”s neighbors, particularly Iran and Pakistan, also are complicating efforts to build an international consensus for power sharing among various religious, tribal and ethnic groups. A variety of countries, including the United States, is seeking to have a hand in shaping a new Afghan government observers said.

The United States is backing the so-called Rome process, which centers on the elevated role of the former king. But Iran, which overthrew its own monarch 22 years ago, does not favor a role for Zahir Shah. Instead, it supports a process based in Cyprus that has attracted Afghans concerned that the Rome group was dominated by monarchists, gave short shrift to Islamic interests and moved too slowly.

Pakistan, meanwhile, backs a political initiative organized by exiled Afghan Pashtuns who met last week in Peshawar.

Three other groups have advanced plans of their own: a “working group” of the United States, Italy, Iran and Germany that has been meeting in Geneva, the so-called Afghan Support Group comprising mostly European and Western-leaning states, and the 6-plus-2 group of the six states bordering Afghanistan plus the United States and Russia. These groups have met intermittently for several years trying to devise a long-term plan to end Afghanistan”s 23 years of strife.

“The key factor is the Pashtuns, but the other thing that is really fractured is the whole regional rivalry” over the makeup of Afghanistan”s next government, said Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani political analyst who has written a best-selling book on the rise of the Taliban.

Often, the exile groups cannot agree to meet among themselves, let alone advance a unified plan. For instance, the Cyprus group _ which some see as a vehicle for the Pashtun ex-warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar _ met about three weeks ago and was scheduled to fly to Rome to merge with that process. But it was rebuffed by the ex-king”s group. And Hekmatyar recently has aligned himself with the Taliban, accusing all the other groups of being puppets for foreign interests.

The Rome group, meanwhile, refused to send representatives to last week”s meeting of Pashtuns, even though it was organized largely by a supporter of the former king, who is himself a Pashtun. Critics said that the Peshawar meeting was hijacked by Pakistan, which reportedly fears losing influence with its northern neighbor. And a long-awaited meeting in Turkey involving the Rome group and the Northern Alliance has been derailed in part because the alliance”s political leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was ousted as Afghan president by the Taliban in 1996, balked at joining forces with Zahir Shah.

In an interview, the Northern Alliance official in charge of foreign affairs, Abdullah, said that some in the alliance were concerned by the presumption of Zahir Shah”s backers that he would he would be chosen leader of the reconciliation process. Others in the alliance, particularly Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf, a prominent Pashtun leader of the Ittihad-i-Islami party, reject a prominent role for the ex-monarch on the grounds that he presided over the beginning of Afghanistan”s disintegration before he was deposed in 1973.

Zahir Shah has numerous other detractors. Many Pashtuns describe his inner circle as little more than a group of elitist exiles, while others accuse him of being a U.S. puppet. Some also fear that his relatives may have designs on restoring a monarchy in Afghanistan, even though the he has said he has no intention doing so.

Pashtuns, in particular, say the former monarch”s impartiality was thrown into question when he agreed to work with the Northern Alliance. The alliance is a loose coalition of Afghan factions _ some of whose leaders are not even on speaking terms with each other _ that fought among themselves during the collapse of the Afghan coalition government they formed in 1992.

Most of the Northern Alliance”s major players are ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. Afghan Tajiks and Uzbeks have a close affinity with their kinsmen in the Central Asian states of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Hazaras, because they are Shiite Muslims, are closely affiliated with Iran.

Those allegiances and interests place these countries directly at odds with Pakistan, which strongly opposed any solution to the Afghan political question that would give the Northern Alliance a dominant role. Pakistan funded and nurtured the Taliban in the 1990s as a reaction to the chaos that seized Afghanistan under the rule of by the factions that now make up the Northern Alliance.

Pakistan”s leaders want what they describe as moderate members of the Taliban to be included in Afghanistan”s next government. The issue is especially important to Pakistan”s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who wants to placate Islamic militants in Pakistan _ particularly Pakistani Pashtuns _ who are angry at his decision last month to withdraw support for the Taliban.

The United States, which is concerned that domestic unrest could destabilize Musharraf”s government with cataclysmic repercussions across the region, supports Musarraf”s demand.

But many of the region”s countries are fearful of role of that the Taliban and alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden have played in exporting extremism. Because Russia, Iran, India and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia all are concerned about the spread of radical Islam, most of their leaders have said that they do not favor allowing former members of the Taliban to join any future Afghan government.

Adding to these problems, according to Western diplomats and others in the region, is the perception that the U.S. government is floundering in shaping its own political agenda for a post-Taliban Afghanistan.

“There is a lack of any kind of policy in Washington,” said one Western diplomat monitoring the process, adding that the Bush administration previously had largely ignored Afghanistan as a political issue. “Before Sept. 11, the idea of a regime change in Afghanistan was something people in Washington didn”t want to get involved in.”

The U.N. special representative for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, is in Pakistan and will travel to Tehran this week in an effort to get the two countries to settle their disagreements over Afghanistan. Officials said that until that barrier is cleared, the job of crafting a comprehensive solution to the crisis will be stalled.

“Brahimi”s job is to resolve the chaos,” said a diplomat. An associate of Brahimi characterized his trip as “the start of a very long and hard journey.”

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