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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Afghanistan Gears Up to Choose a New Leader

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Like the Great and Powerful Oz, former Afghanistan President Burhanuddin Rabbani exudes fiery rhetoric and delusions of grandeur as he insists from his elegant villa that he remains head of state and the best promise of unifying this fractured country.

Two blocks away, deposed monarch Mohammad Zaher Shah makes a more subtle case for resuming power. Each day, the 87-year-old former king holds court in his landscaped garden for hundreds of supplicants who come to praise his return after 30 years in exile and urge him to serve once again as father of the nation.

And on the grounds of the nearby Presidential Palace, in a guesthouse that miraculously survived 23 years of civil war, provisional leader Hamid Karzai is waging his own bid to become ruler by marshaling international aid, keeping a lid on ethnic tensions and appeasing rival warlords.

The three men are jockeying for position in the weeks before a June 10-16 loya jirga, the convention of national elders that will choose a new leader for a country that for centuries has defied all attempts to be governed.

Of the three would-be kings, the international community's money and muscle are clearly on Karzai, 44, who has rocketed to widespread respect and renown for holding together his battered homeland through a United Nations-brokered transition.

But Afghans are famous for resisting outside pressures and influences, leaving many here skeptical of what they see as a Western plot to empower Karzai and engendering hopes among his political, ethnic and military opponents that the loya jirga can be manipulated to fulfill their own ambitions.

"There's no official campaigning, but unofficially everyone is trying to get something in motion," said Sadaq Mudaber of the 21-member Special Independent Commission for Preparation of the loya jirga.

Few will hazard a prediction on the likely outcome of the loya jirga. While Afghanistan was sealed off from the civilized world for more than five years by the fanatic Taliban, all institutions for gauging public opinion collapsed. There are no polls measuring political leanings among people who have not seen a free election in two generations, and the mostly illiterate population has little exposure to newspapers or only recently restored television broadcasts.

The 1,501 loya jirga delegates -- including a certain proportion of women, in accordance with a UN-brokered agreement -- are being chosen by vastly differing procedures in the country's 415 districts, feeding fears among observers here that more clout is being bestowed on representatives of the unruly hinterlands than on urban intellectuals who can be counted on to act in the country's best interests. One of the most difficult-to-measure elements is the potential support for Rabbani. A 62-year-old Tajik from the backward northern Badakhshan province, the Cairo, Egypt-educated cleric rose to national prominence in the late 1960s by organizing armed resistance, at first against the secular drift of Zaher Shah's regime, and then against the godless communism imposed after the Soviets' 1979 invasion.

Backed by mujahedin rebels who used U.S. arms and support to harass the Soviet occupiers, Rabbani was appointed president after the fighters led by the late Ahmad Shah Massood toppled the last communist government in 1992. But vicious infighting among the rival Northern Alliance militias inflicted such bloodshed, chaos and atrocities on the population that many welcomed the fundamentalist Taliban when it seized power four years later, sending Rabbani into exile. He returned to Kabul after U.S. bombing and a Northern Alliance advance drove out the extremists in November, imperiously occupying the Presidential Palace and proclaiming himself rightful Afghan ruler.

Even after a power-sharing accord was reached in Bonn, Germany, ushering in the Karzai government in December, it took UN authorities two months to persuade Rabbani to leave the bombed-out palace -- and only after he was provided the plush villa in the Wazir Akbar Khan district where the former king is now a neighbor.

In an interview in the living room of his villa, Rabbani made clear that he still harbors presidential ambitions and resents the West's overt support for Karzai.

"We shouldn't allow foreign intervention into Afghan affairs anymore," the white-bearded cleric insisted.

Although Rabbani's relations with the younger generation of Northern Alliance figures are thought to be looser than during the early 1990s when Massood was the guarantor of his power, he retains considerable influence over the military and police forces through his allies running the defense and interior ministries.

And although he has assured UN and foreign officials organizing the loya jirga that he will accept whatever decisions are taken, he also has close ties with several Tajik and Uzbek regional warlords in the north who have little regard for Karzai or his fellow Pashtuns from Afghanistan's southern regions.

By contrast, Zaher Shah, also a Pashtun and a distant relative of Karzai, presents the interim prime minister as a skilled administrator and valued ally. The former king's ambitious relatives and friends from three decades of Italian exile say he would seek a power-sharing arrangement with Karzai if the long-ago monarch is named head of state.

"The people will decide, not me," Zaher Shah replied with practiced humility when asked if he would be lobbying for the leadership when the loya jirga tackles its first order of business.

Stooped and shuffling, the visibly frail Zaher Shah deflected questions about his personal ambitions with the often-repeated reply that it is "improper" to speculate about the will of the people. But his hovering supporters were quick to suggest that an alliance of the former king as ceremonial head of state and Karzai as chief executive would combine the unifying powers of the deposed monarch with the considerable diplomatic and administrative skills of the interim leader.

Western diplomats -- newcomers themselves to this shattered capital and often influenced by wishful thinking -- nevertheless predict that Karzai will be chosen as head of state.

"The vast majority of Afghans see the interim authority in a very positive way. That's not to say they don't see that it's Western supported, but they don't necessarily see that as a bad thing," one Western diplomat said. "Karzai has done a much better job than many people thought in becoming a national figure."

Whatever the outcome of the presidential contest, diplomats note, some accommodation of northerners will be needed to provide ethnic and political balance if the two Pashtuns, Zaher Shah and Karzai, hold the main levers of power. Foreign Minister Abdullah, a Tajik whose command of English and soft-spoken manner have won over some Western allies, is seen as likely to be returned to his post by the loya jirga.

And if for no other reason than to prevent his becoming a problem, Rabbani is expected to be assigned some prestigious role in the next government.

"Karzai is the only real head-of-state figure," insisted one diplomat. "The king's 40-year reign wasn't really that distinguished, and Rabbani's rule was a disaster. The choice seems obvious to us outsiders, but that doesn't mean much. There are still a lot of hurdles."