Fractious groups to meet at U.N.-sponsored talks

Fractious groups to meet at U.N.-sponsored talks

Monumental task to develop Afghan government (Analysis)
By Fariba Nawa
November 25, 2001
The San Francisco Chronicle

On Tuesday, behind closed doors, representatives of tribal and ethnic groups who are used to waging war will gather at a U.N.-sponsored conference near Bonn, Germany, to begin the task of reconstructing a country mired in two decades of war, terrorism, drought and poverty.

If successful, Afghanistan may be on the road to a functioning government, the first since the ruling Taliban fled the capital of Kabul two weeks ago, with factions formerly locked in murderous rivalry finding a mutually acceptable way forward. The stakes could hardly be higher for Afghanistan, even as America’s “war on terrorism” appears to be drawing to a close there.

“If the U.N. really has the intention of forming a broad-based government, then this is an opportunity,” said Sayed Ishaq Gailani, a member of an Iran-supported team going to the conference, from the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. “But if this is another picnic for people to get together, it will spell disaster all over for Afghanistan.”

The conference’s main objective is relatively modest: the establishment of a 15-member council, drawn from the various factions, as a precursor of a broad-based interim government, which in turn would draft a new written constitution before giving way to a full-fledged democratic, multiethnic government.

“The perfect success would be that we come out of Bonn with an agreement on an executive council,” said Hans-Joachim Daerr, Germany’s special envoy to Afghanistan, who is accompanying the delegation of the Northern Alliance, the most influential of the four Afghan groups involved in the talks.

However, Daerr acknowledged, “It’s only the first step, and many more will have to follow.”


The U.N. conference, at a mountaintop hotel, takes place while American warplanes continue to drop bombs around the Afghan cities of Kunduz and Kandahar, where Taliban soldiers, and “Afghan Arab” fighters loyal to suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden continue to hold out against opposition forces. The Taliban — even so-called “moderate” representatives — have not been invited to the conference and the movement is not expected to have any role in a future government.

“There is absolutely no room for the Taliban,” Daerr said, echoing the position of the United Nations and the Afghan groups taking part in the conference — to the great displeasure of neighboring Pakistan.

Expected to attend the conference are up to 70 representatives from four Afghan groups in addition to envoys from the United States, Britain, Russia and Pakistan.

The Afghan groups include delegates loyal to the exiled king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, currently living in Rome; the Northern Alliance, already acting very much like a government in Kabul, which is headed by its interior minister, Yunus Qanooni; a group of Western exiles backed by Iran that recently surfaced and met in Cyprus; and the Peshawar-based United National Front, made up mostly of Pashtuns and backed by Pakistan. Some of the groups are sending women as part of their delegations.

Although getting Afghanistan’s various ethnic groups together in one room is itself a singular achievement, Western officials remain cautious about the conference’s prospects.

“I don’t want to raise expectations too high,” British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told a news conference in London. “It will take some time before a full-fledged government, equivalent to that of a normal nation state, can be established . . . The signs are, however, more hopeful than they were.”


On the surface, the task shouldn’t be so difficult because there is a general consensus on the setup of an interim government. All the groups say they want the traditional loya jirga, or grand assembly, convened to help in its establishment, the return of the 86-year-old king, Zahir Shah, and as little foreign interference as possible. The long-term goal, they say, is to pave the way for elections and democracy in Afghanistan.

“Our intention is for a representative government that all Afghans can feel a part of and one that will harbor peace,” said Ahmad Wali Karzai from his family home in the western Pakistani city of Quetta. Karzai’s brother Hamid would be leading the United National Front delegation in Bonn if he were not fighting the Taliban in Uruzgan.

But schisms among the groups that led to the destruction of Kabul in the early 1990s and the emergence of the fundamentalist Taliban militia, remain not far below the surface.

The United National Front wants the king returned as the temporary head of state, while leaders of the Northern Alliance — a loose network of Uzbeks, Tajiks and other mostly minority Afghans — only want him back as a figurehead. A rival commander, Ismail Khan, who recently re-established his rule over the western city of Herat after driving out the Taliban, forcefully broke up a pro- Zahir Shah demonstration last week, declaring the king was just an ordinary citizen.

“The people of Afghanistan should elect their leader,” Khan told the media.


Another dispute centers around Afghan exiles, with the Northern Alliance, which has done most of the recent fighting in Afghanistan, complaining that groups like the so-called “Cyprus” team, made up mostly of ethnic Hazara activists who settled in the West, should not have been given such a prominent seat at the U.N. table in Bonn. Gailani, who is the nephew of the Pir Sayed Ahmed Gailani, the Pakistan-backed Pashtun leader, dismissed the criticism, saying exiled educated Afghans are needed to assist in the country’s reconstruction.

The conflicts go beyond the internal bickering. The Northern Alliance, which ignored U.S. pressure to stay out of Kabul two weeks ago, is upset that British troops landed in Bagram air base in northern Afghanistan, supposedly to assist in humanitarian relief, and has refused to allow U.N. peacekeeping troops to enter Afghanistan. It also won’t deal with Pakistan, which it blames for harboring and funding its Taliban enemy.

Pakistan, meanwhile, sees the Bonn meeting as an opportunity to reassert its interests and those of the majority Pashtuns, both of which have been badly damaged by the rapidity of the Northern Alliance advances on the ground in Afghanistan.

“I don’t think Pakistan is losing out because at the end of all this, the Pashtuns will support us and we will support them,” said Kamal Matinuddin, a Pakistani retired army general who has authored four books on Pakistani foreign policy.

One hope universally shared is that the same mistakes won’t be made as those following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Observers pray that the United States will not abandon reconstruction efforts and that the Northern Alliance will not kill civilians in a bid for power.

“We’re all watching to see what will happen,” said veteran Afghan journalist Ali Seena, based in Peshawar.

“There are a lot of expectations from this conference. If they come out with passive resolutions, the little hope that has come about with recent events will vanish.”

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