Afghan talks off to a rosy start

Afghan talks off to a rosy start

Factions OK role for ex-king, lean toward peacekeeping troops
By Fariba Nawa
November 28, 2001
The San Francisco Chronicle

Bonn, Germany — Meeting under United Nations auspices, delegates from four Afghan factions got off to a surprisingly promising start yesterday, agreeing to give former King Mohammad Zahir Shah a role in a new government and leaning toward a multinational peacekeeping force for their war-ravaged country.

Under international pressure to act quickly to fill the leadership vacuum in their homeland, the delegates have been charged with completing plans for an interim government in less than a week.

The four factions — which included 11 delegates from the Northern Alliance, 11 from the so-called “Rome Group” representing Zahir Shah, and three each from Afghan exile groups in Cyprus and Peshawar, Pakistan — pledged to set aside their differences and set up a broad-based government during the meeting, held under tight security at Bonn’s historic Petersberg Hotel.

The goal of the conference is to appoint an interim council that would be in charge in Kabul until this spring, when a loya jirga, or Afghan assembly of elders and intellectuals, would choose a transitional government.

The transitional administration would be in power for two years and would draft a constitution, which must be approved by the assembly. The approval of the constitution would set the stage for a permanent democratic system for Afghanistan, a best-case scenario for a nation in which tribal feuding has been the prevalent political behavior.

For such a disparate delegation to build a government is a daunting task, especially in the three to five days the United Nations wants it done. But the participants seemed hopeful.

In a briefing prior to the conference, Yunus Qanuni, the Northern Alliance’s interior minister and head of its delegation, set a conciliatory tone. “We are in a new era, and we have the chance to become the champions of peace,” Qanuni said. “It is not our intention to monopolize power.

“It will be our pride to work for a broad-based government based on the will of the people of Afghanistan. We want a system in which all Afghans — including women — participate in an equal manner in the structures of power.” Qanuni is an ethnic Tajik, the primary group in the seat of power in Kabul since the Taliban abandoned the capital.

The Northern Alliance is made up mostly of minority factions — Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, along with some majority Pashtuns. In an effort to drum up more Pashtun support, the alliance brought two Pashtun members to Bonn as part of their delegation.

Hamid Karzai, one of the main Pashtun leaders invited with the king’s group, could not make the conference because he is fighting the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. But he expressed high hopes for the outcome of the talks in a telephone message relayed by U.N. spokesman Ahmad Fawzi.

“We have been made extremely poor and vulnerable, but we are a strong people who would like to assert our will and our sense of self-determination,” Karzai said. “This meeting is the path toward salvation.”


The future role of the former king was much discussed, though by the end of the day it was not clear what role he might be asked to play.

The 87-year-old Zahir Shah, who was deposed in 1973 and lives in Rome, is widely popular among Afghans and is seen as a unifying force. He is also a Pashtun, which would help rally 40 percent of the population behind the new government.

Northern Alliance political leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was Afghanistan’s president in 1992-1996, strongly opposes making Zahir Shah head of state. But U.S. special envoy James Dobbins said the alliance indicated yesterday that it would accept him in a symbolic post.

“Everybody sees the ex-king as a rallying point and hopes that he will be willing and able to play that role as they elaborate a new structure,” Dobbins said. The issue of a multinational peacekeeping force is a divisive one, since most Afghans dislike the idea of foreign troops in their country. The Northern Alliance fiercely opposes the idea.

But other delegates said the alliance was under strong international pressure to change its stance.

Both the Rome and Peshawar delegations said they supported a peacekeeping force, and delegates from both groups said the Cyprus faction was leaning toward the idea. Delegates are expected to take up the issue today.


Mixed with the positive developments were warnings from the United Nations that there can be no repeat of the disastrous outcome that occurred in 1992 after the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Northern Alliance factions that are now united against the Taliban fought each other then, laying waste to Kabul and other cities, and losing civilians’ trust and respect.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the delegation: “You must not allow the mistakes of the past to be repeated, particularly those of 1992. To many skeptics, it appears that it is precisely what you are about to do. You must prove them wrong and show that you can choose the path of compromise over conflict.” The conference drew about 200 to 300 demonstrators, who gathered on the highway leading up to the cloud-shrouded mountaintop hotel.

Shivering in the cold fall day, they were an odd mix — royalists supporting Zahir Shah, exiles opposed to the entire exercise and Iranian communists objecting to any Islamic government in Afghanistan.

To cheers and chants of “Zahir Shah, Zahir Shah,” the king’s grandson, Mustapha Zahir, a 37-year-old Western-educated delegate to the convention, told his supporters: “Peace will come soon to Afghanistan, and we can all go home.” Two of the most persecuted groups under the Taliban — Shiite Muslims and women — were represented at the conference, though many observers consider them to be tokens. There are three women participants, and two are advisers.

But Seddiqa Balkhi, an adviser in the Cyprus team and head of two Afghan orphanages and a cultural center in Iran, said women were treated equally.

“Our role is active, not symbolic,” she said. “The men here are not ruling us out. They’re listening to what we’re saying.”

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