ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The United States has a "golden opportunity" in the next few weeks to help craft a political solution for Afghanistan and avoid extending the conflict by months or even years, according to a former Pakistani president.
But that window of opportunity is fast approaching with the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, maintains Farooq Leghari, who served as Pakistani president from 1994 to 1997.
"Ramadan offers the perfect chance to set out a path of political progress on the issue of Afghanistan," Leghari said in a wide-ranging interview on Monday with Fox News. "It is a golden opportunity, one we cannot miss."
Ramadan, during which observant Muslims fast daily, begins on Nov. 21 of the Western calendar this year. It is typically a quiet and reflective month in the Islamic world.
Leghari said the failure to cobble together a cogent political plan for Afghanistan before Ramadan could be disastrous for both the people of Afghanistan and the U.S.-led coalition effort to stamp out terrorism. Without a plan for a new government, he argued, the Taliban would likely flee to the hills in large numbers and wage a vicious guerrilla war against Western or opposition Afghan forces.
"They may have lost many of their known assets, or so-called hard targets ... but their capacity and ability to resist foreign troop and foreign invasions is still there," Leghari said. "Their positions may have been hardened, their will to fight might have been hardened. And they will be getting new recruits, both from within and outside the country."
Leghari, who was regarded as pro-American during his presidency, said he feared the Taliban would pick up popular support if the coalition bombing continued into Ramadan without any substantive political progress. He warned he was already getting reports from sources in Afghanistan who said Northern Alliance troops were losing public support in some areas because of the anti-bombing backlash.
"There should have been a political road map for the future explained to the people of Afghanistan and to the entire world," he said. "There's a great deal of stress on the military aspects, on tactics or on the strategy of the military, but there hasn't been a similar effort so far — at least publicly — on the political front."
In the weeks before the U.S. bombing began, Leghari had pushed for a political proposal, dubbed the "Six Plus Two Plus Two Proposal" solution, which would bring together representatives of Afghanistan's six neighbors — Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China — plus the U.S., Russia, the U.N. and the Organization of Islamic Conferences.
Under the plan, the 6-2-2 group would bring together all of Afghanistan's relevant political and military groups, including "whatever Taliban elements would care to attend," he said, to hammer out a workable solution for an interim government.
Leghari announced his plan on Oct. 7, just hours before the American and British airstrikes started.
The former president backs a plan for the United Nations to set up a peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan as soon as progress is made on a political plan of action. He said any peacekeeping troops would have to come from Muslim countries only, a suggestion that has been backed by a number of others here.
Such a plan may already be in place. Reports in Turkey and Pakistan this week said 5,000-7,000 Turkish troops would be sent to Kabul to serve as peacekeepers once the coalition bombing campaign ended and Afghan leaders decided on a tentative transitional government. Turkish officials in Pakistan declined to comment on the reports Monday.
Leghari also favors a plan to try Usama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda cohorts in an international court of justice, under some type of neutral authority. He said bin Laden should give himself up to such a court for trial, or be tried in absentia if he stays in hiding.
That proposal is sure to be rejected by the United States, which has demanded that bin Laden or any other Al Qaeda members be tried in American courts.
Leghari said he has passed his concerns on to President Pervez Musharraf, who he has met with at least twice since the Sept. 11 attacks. Leghari has publicly supported Musharraf's decision to back the U.S war on terror, and is said to have some influence on the current military government.
"Telling the Americans the very first day that we are with them in their war on terror was the right decision," Leghari said. "We have been the victims of terrorism for the last 20 years."
A native of the remote desert province of Baluchistan, Leghari is best known as the president who dismissed the government of Benazir Bhutto on corruption charges in 1996. He was replaced himself the following year.