Former Afghan king tells U.S. delegation he's by America's side in fight against terrorism
Sunday, September 30th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
ROME (AP) _ The former king of Afghanistan told a U.S. congressional delegation Sunday that he was by America's side in the fight against terrorism and would back a U.S.-led liberation force to oust the hard-line Taliban.
The delegation, headed by Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican, visited King Mohammad Zahir Shah at his villa in a luxurious gated community on the outskirts of Rome. Weldon said Zahir, who ruled for 40 peaceful years, is a ``critical'' figure who ``can rally those against the Taliban.''
The Taliban have protected terror suspect Osama bin Laden and are under threat of U.S. retaliation for the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
``We have a common struggle against terrorism,'' Zahir said.
Weldon told reporters that Zahir, 86, spoke of his desire for a return to democracy in Afghanistan. The former king, who introduced a constitutional monarchy, has lived in Rome since his 1973 ouster opened the way for decades of conflict in Afghanistan.
``All of America is looking to the king to play a key role here and help us coalesce those who oppose the Taliban and those who oppose Osama bin Laden's presence in their country,'' Weldon said.
Weldon said the king spoke of a two-year transition to democracy with an interim leader and does not envision a long-term presence for foreign troops.
``His wish is that the U.N. play a role. But he did not dismiss the notion that if the U.N. could not agree, that a U.S.-led force of allies would in fact liberate his country and allow this process to go forward,'' Weldon said.
Zahir also stressed the importance of humanitarian aid for Afghanistan, where winter is approaching.
The meeting came a day after the delegation held talks with members of Afghanistan's anti-Taliban forces, who gathered in Rome to plot strategy for unifying the fight against the hard-line Islamic militia. A few members of the anti-Taliban forces joined the Sunday session with the congressional delegation at Zahir's villa.
At least four guards in bulletproof vests with machine guns watched over the meeting.
The field commanders also met Saturday with delegation member Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who said afterward that Afghans could count on a ``major aid package'' to rebuild their war-shattered nation if they overthrew the Taliban and helped root out bin Laden.
``This is Afghanistan's best shot, the best shot they've had in the last 10 or 15 years,'' said Rohrabacher, a California Republican and a senior member of the House International Relations Committee.
The former king has hosted several commanders from various Afghan groups this week at his villa in Rome, a bid to rally them together. The king's office said they had agreed to create a new military council, made up of commanders, tribal elders and former army officers.
Zahir's overthrow led to the eventual arrival of a pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan and the 1979 Soviet invasion. Soviet troops withdrew in defeat in 1989, and the Taliban seized power in 1996 after devastating fighting between rival groups. The alliance still controls less than 10 percent of northern Afghanistan.