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Thursday, 11 October, 2001, 17:09 GMT 18:09 UK
Mapping Afghanistan's political future
Taleban ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Salam Zaeef
There is no obvious successor to the Taleban
By BBC diplomatic correspondent Barnaby Mason

The United States, the United Nations and other leading powers are working intensively to develop a political strategy for the future of Afghanistan.

If the Northern Alliance were to take over Kabul again as a result of American military action, the result could be a bloodbath and renewed civil war

If military strikes succeed in toppling the Taleban, many are saying there must be a broad-based government not dominated by particular ethnic groups to replace the hardline militia.

The job of bringing that about is going to be difficult.

The four days of air strikes so far are weakening the Taleban and have set in train what one senior British official called a dynamic process - political as well as military.

Not even the United States, he said, could determine exactly what was going to happen.

Vague strategy

That explains a certain vagueness about what the political strategy is.

The aim is clear enough: a broad-based Afghan government neither dominated - as the Taleban are - by the Pashtuns who make up about half the population, nor by the Northern Alliance of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.

Northern Alliance fighters at prayer
Some fear a Northern Alliance takeover would only lead to further bloodshed
The difficulty lies in how to arrive at such an administration.

If the Northern Alliance were to take over Kabul again as a result of American military action, the result could be a bloodbath and renewed civil war.

Many western officials are now worrying that military events could outrun any political process.

That - combined with pressure from Pakistan - is probably why the US air force has not yet bombed Taleban defensive lines just north of Kabul.

British officials set out one hoped-for scenario: the Taleban would fragment, with the defection of Pashtun tribal leaders, but the Northern Alliance would not take over very much more territory than it holds now.

The United States and Pakistan are reported to be co-operating to identify likely Pashtun defectors.

Many are calling for the reinstatement of the exiled former king, Zahir Shah.

The former monarch has lasting appeal to many Pashtun tribesmen who live along both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border.

United Nations role

Whatever the different scenarios, the role of the UN is still under discussion.

Officials say the newly appointed special representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, would help put together a framework for a more stable government, to be approved perhaps by a loya jirga, a traditional Afghan assembly.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan
The UN could help put together a framework for a more stable government
Another part of his job is to encourage the regional powers to pull together rather than sponsoring rival factions.

One encouraging sign is that Afghanistan's six neighbours are beginning to say the same thing about the kind of government that is needed.

If so, there may be a constructive role for the existing diplomatic group of those six countries plus the United States and Russia.

British officials say it could be extended to include others, for example India and Japan.

The BBC's Tim Whewell with the Northern Alliance
"They're not going to trust the West until they're sure what it's really up to in Afghanistan"
Journalist Ahmed Rashid
"The Americans don't want the Northern Alliance to take Kabul in a hurry"
See also:

07 Oct 01 | South Asia
Rally for the return of Afghan king
01 Oct 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan's king in exile
09 Oct 01 | Americas
America on high alert
10 Oct 01 | South Asia
US claims air supremacy
07 Oct 01 | South Asia
Bin Laden defiant
18 Sep 01 | South Asia
Who is Osama Bin Laden?
10 Oct 01 | Americas
Anthrax scare shakes US
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