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Thursday, 15 November, 2001, 12:13 GMT
Race to prevent Afghan disintegration
Northern Alliance fighter looks at the bodies of dead Taleban
The UN hopes that the Northern Alliance will cooperate
Barnaby Mason

Senior United Nations envoy Francesc Vendrell is to go to Kabul shortly as efforts intensify to form an interim broad-based Afghan government.

Francesc Vendrell
Vendrell: Knows how easily the country could fall apart
The UN Security Council has endorsed a plan that includes convening a meeting of the various Afghan political and ethnic factions, probably in Europe or the Middle East.

In the meantime, the Northern Alliance of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras is in control of the whole of northern Afghanistan.

But some areas in the east and the south have been seized by local Pashtun leaders.

The pressure is now on to form an administration to replace the Taleban before the country breaks up.

Bargaining positions

Mr Vendrell, deputy UN special representative for Afghanistan, will have to assess how far the Northern Alliance is going to co-operate with the UN plan.

Northern Alliance fighters
The situation is fast-moving and unpredictable
The Alliance says it will, but it is also issuing its own invitations to representatives of Afghan groups to come to Kabul.

That is unlikely to be acceptable to Pashtun delegates, who represent the country's largest ethnic group.

Alliance leaders want to make the most of the bargaining position they have acquired from the possession of territory, including the capital.

But they are restrained by the international scrutiny trained on them through the world's media, and they are susceptible to US pressure.

There are signs of factional rivalries re-asserting themselves within the Alliance.

That is even more true in the south and east of the country, where tribal leaders have re-emerged to seize control of many areas from the demoralised Taleban.

Dangers and opportunities

This fluid and entirely unclear situation has led some observers to fear that Afghanistan is disintegrating.

But it also represents an opportunity, since no party is overwhelmingly dominant, provided the UN and outside powers can get their act together quickly enough.

Children fight for a blanket after looting a warehouse in Kabul
Kabul may have been liberated, but people are still hungry
A US envoy is exerting pressure in talks in Islamabad with the Pakistan government and with Afghan opposition figures.

The big powers are also considering whether they need troops on the ground to stabilise the situation.

The Security Council resolution passed on Wednesday encourages member states to help ensure security in areas no longer controlled by the Taleban.

That is vague, but it may enable the Americans, the British and perhaps others to establish a presence in Kabul.

The British government is also talking about using troops to help get aid more quickly into Afghanistan from the north.

There are many different strands and somehow they have to be woven together at speed.

See also:

15 Nov 01 | South Asia
Interview with Mullah Omar - transcript
14 Nov 01 | South Asia
Bin Laden 'safe inside Afghanistan'
15 Nov 01 | South Asia
Western aid workers released
14 Nov 01 | South Asia
Tense tales of Kandahar power struggle
14 Nov 01 | UK
British troops on standby
15 Nov 01 | UK Politics
Doubts cast on UK troops role
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