QUETTA, Pakistan -- Among the turbaned men sitting cross-legged on a red carpet and fingering prayer beads, the consensus was evident Monday: the only hope for their shattered nation was their exiled 86-year-old king.
In Rome since a cousin dethroned him in 1973, Mohammad Zahir Shah kindles memories among these southern Afghan tribesmen of a peaceful past, before the country descended into two decades of war.
"During his time as king, we had peace. We know he is the only person who can unite our country," said Ghulam Mohammed, one of the 50 or so men who journeyed across the border into Pakistan to gather in the home of a tribal leader.
Restoring the Afghan monarchy is an old idea, rejuvenated by fears of U.S. military retaliation for the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. The special U.N. envoy for Afghanistan, Fransesc Vendrell, met Sunday with the former king in Rome.
The former king has long dreamed of convening a grand national assembly of tribal elders, clerics, intellectuals and landowners, and his supporters say the time is riper than ever.
Zahir has no ambitions to return to his homeland as monarch, but "could play an important role in the future of Afghanistan," Vendrell said after the meeting.
The Afghan tribal leaders also insist they are not looking to restore the former king as a ruler, but as a figurehead around which Afghanistan's quarrelsome tribes can rally.
In a country that is ruled as a police state by the Islamic Taliban militia, the barefoot men who gathered here Monday were the nearest thing to an expression of Afghan public opinion.
They consisted of men from the dominant Pashtu ethnic population as well as from the Hazara group.
United, they could put up stiff resistance to the Taliban fighters and their foreign Muslim recruits, and they also say they have been in contact with the northern alliance that still controls a corner of northeast Afghanistan.
The northern alliance, also called the United Front, is made up of mostly minority ethnic and religious groups who fought bitterly against each other when they ruled Kabul between 1992 and 1996 but joined forces after being driven from power by the Taliban. The alliance is the only armed group fighting the Taliban, although many tribal groups have their differences with the hardline Islamic rulers.
The prime suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Osama bin Laden, has been living in Afghanistan since 1996 and propping up the Taliban regime. The prospect of his ouster has fired the imagination of thousands of Afghans living in exile in neighboring Pakistan.
Afghan tribesmen routinely make the bone-jarring trip across rocket-ruined roads to Quetta, in Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province, to meet fellow tribesmen.
Their gatherings are raucous. Everyone talks at once, shouting and gesticulating. They say they can't gather in Afghanistan for fear of Taliban retribution.
Instead they meet in the home of Hamid Karzai, the chief of southern Afghanistan's Popolzai tribe.
A former deputy foreign minister in Afghanistan's government-in-exile, Karzai is a moderate Muslim, equally comfortable in New York and in Quetta. He has addressed the United Nations and talks to Islamic and other governments the world over.
His warning has been constant: The Taliban are pawns of militant Muslims and Pakistan's secret service.
"We have been shouting very, very loud, telling the world that Afghanistan has lost its sovereignty, its independence, to interventionists from outside. The world cannot say we didn't tell them what was going on in Afghanistan," Karzai said.
"I told them five years ago about the presence of terrorists in Afghanistan, but they didn't care because it was Afghans who were being hurt," he said. Now, Westerners stand to suffer from Afghanistan's chaos, he said.
A military strike alone will only temporarily disable bin Laden's network, said Karzai. More important, he believes, is a longer-term solution, starting with the convening of a "loya jirga," or grand council.
The loya jirga is how tribesmen found consensus before it was debased by Afghanistan's former communist regime and the factional fighting that came after the Soviet army left Afghanistan.
The only way to restore its credibility is under someone who straddles the ethnic and religious divides, and that man is Zahir, the tribesmen say.
"The king is the symbol of unity for all Afghans," said Jamil Karzai, a clansman of Hamid Karzai. "We need the king to bring us together, not to rule, but to bring everyone together in our country,"