Counting on a collapse of the militantly Islamist Taliban regime, Afghanistan's main opposition force and 86-year-old exiled king agreed here Monday to join in forming a broad-based government open to cooperation with the West.
Under the U.S.-backed accord, the opposition Northern Alliance and the former monarch will name a 120-member Supreme Council for National Unity representing all Afghan tribes and ethnic groups, and call it into session in Rome by the end of the month.
The council will then convene a larger assembly on Afghan soil with a mandate to form a provisional government to run the country for two years and restore a constitutional democracy. The nation has suffered more than two decades of war.
Monday's pact was a breakthrough in international efforts to build an alternative to the Taliban, which is harboring Osama bin Laden, the Muslim fundamentalist viewed by the United States as the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf declared Monday that the Taliban's days appeared to be numbered because of its refusal to hand over Bin Laden to the United States.
A senior Pakistani diplomat said his country, the only one that still recognizes the Taliban government, is quietly working with the Bush administration to identify moderate Taliban figures who might be willing to join the new opposition council. He said he does not expect the current Afghan leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, to remain in power.
"The fall will come from within," predicted the diplomat, who requested anonymity. "Many Taliban are questioning the wisdom of letting one man endanger the whole movement."
Rasul Rais, an academic expert on Afghanistan in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, called the Rome agreement "a rather positive step" toward the creation of a broadly representative government. But he emphasized that, for it to work, some in the Taliban leadership will have to switch sides.
The new council's main task will be to convene a loya jirga, a centuries-old form of national assembly involving hundreds or even thousands of people who ratify constitutions or elect rulers. Such an assembly was last convened in 1963.
Opposition leaders said that if the Taliban keeps control of the capital, Kabul, in coming weeks, they will try to hold the assembly on secure ground elsewhere in Afghanistan. Northern Alliance troops hold nearly 10% of the country and have been chipping away into government-held territory.
If that option proves impossible, the council could act as a provisional government in exile, opposition leaders said.
"We must be ready, if there are drastic changes in Afghanistan's political scene, to resolve our problems and fill the power vacuum," one of the former king's aides, Abdul Sattar Sirat, told reporters.
Monday's accord grew from more than two weeks of negotiations in which a stream of diplomats, Afghan resistance fighters and exiles called on Mohammed Zahir Shah, Afghanistan's last monarch, at the gated suburban villa north of Rome where he has lived most of his 28 years in reclusive exile.
The Northern Alliance has been fighting to regain power since the Taliban ousted its government, led by President Burhanuddin Rabbani, in 1996. The alliance and its armed units, dominated by the ethnic Uzbek and Tajik minorities of the north, are hated by many Pushtuns, the dominant ethnic group and chief source of the Taliban's support, and by the minority Turkmen of the northwest and Baluchis of the south.
Zahir Shah, ousted in 1973, watched from a distance as his country fell under Soviet occupation, tribal warfare and Islamic fundamentalist rule. He has often spoken of calling a loya jirga to unite his countrymen behind a broad-based leadership, but has been dismissed as a marginal player.
His vision came into focus only in recent weeks with the prospect of a U.S. military assault on the Taliban. Diplomats and lawmakers from the United States, Britain, Japan, the European Union and the United Nations met with Zahir Shah last month, aiding his sudden reemergence as a unifying figure.
The former king is Pushtun, but he reigned in peace and relative prosperity over all of fractious Afghanistan for 40 years. Secular Afghans also remember the French-educated monarch with nostalgia for liberal reforms that gave women the right to be educated and employed; under the Taliban, those rights have been taken away.
His detractors say he left the running of the country to uncles and did little to dismantle the feudal power networks that denied a broader distribution of wealth.
In recent weeks, Zahir Shah has made it clear that he is interested in playing only the role of a political figurehead, not in restoring the monarchy.
"I am convinced that the agreement we have reached today will be the start of a new era for Afghanistan," said Younis Qanooni, who represented Rabbani and the Northern Alliance in the talks here.
He said Rabbani would be willing to relinquish his claim to the presidency once a new government was chosen.
The anti-Taliban coalition now must persuade leading representatives of Afghan society to join its national unity council.
"Some elements in the north may oppose this process, because it includes more than the Northern Alliance," said Hedayat Amin Arsala, an advisor to the former king. "On our side, we will have to convince people that we are not trying to help the Northern Alliance return to power."
The Taliban, moving to counter the ex-monarch's initiative, has launched a propaganda campaign depicting him as "the source of all evil in present-day Afghanistan."
On Monday, the Taliban announced a power-sharing deal that will give representatives of minority southern tribes posts in the provincial governments of Paktia and Paktika along the border with Pakistan.
Pakistan's reported involvement in choosing members of the opposition council is another problem for the anti-Taliban leaders. All of them, including the king, view Pakistan as a culprit in the creation of the Taliban regime.
Pakistan, fearing that a post-Taliban government would be hostile to it, is said to want a "seat at the table" when that government is formed.
Qanooni appealed to Pakistan on Monday not to interfere with Afghanistan's internal politics, saying the Afghan people have a right to decide their own fate. "The council we have created does not threaten any country," he said.
Gen. K.M. Arif, a former commander in chief of the Afghan army, warned that Afghans are bound to resist any government that is imposed externally. "They would rather die than surrender their sovereignty," he said.
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the U.S. government "is not going to choose who rules Afghanistan." At the same time, Fleischer said the Bush administration's objective "is to eliminate those who harbor terrorists."
"We will work with a variety of people, all of whom have an interest in establishing an Afghanistan that is peaceful and does not practice terrorism," Fleischer said.
Many Afghans accuse the United States of ignoring their country after helping Afghan rebels force a withdrawal of the Soviet army in 1989. Opposition leaders warned Monday that Afghans would turn against any government installed with U.S. help if Washington failed to deliver massive reconstruction assistance. _ _ _
Boudreaux reported from Rome and Daniszewski from Islamabad. Times staff writers Norman Kempster in Washington and Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.