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Sunday, 25 November, 2001, 16:53 GMT
Serene setting for hard Afghan talking
The Hotel Petersberg, near Bonn
The UN sought a secluded venue for the talks
Barnaby Mason

As the war goes on in Afghanistan, about 30 representatives of rival Afghan factions are gathering in Germany for a conference chaired by the United Nations due to open on Tuesday.

The aim is agreement on the formation of a transitional broad-based government after the collapse of the Taleban.


For the Afghan delegates, the peaceful setting amid woodland is a strange, almost unreal contrast with the grim and bloody struggle going on back home

The UN has given a warning against excessive expectations, but the stakes are high - success could map out a path towards peace after more than 20 years of war, ignited by the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

The conference has been organised in a matter of days.

It was originally planned for Berlin, but chairman Lakhdar Brahimi - the UN secretary general's representative - wanted greater privacy.

Contrast

The venue was switched to Petersberg Castle, a luxury government guest-house on a hill overlooking the Rhine, just across the river from Bonn.

For the Afghan delegates, the peaceful setting amid woodland is a strange, almost unreal contrast with the grim and bloody struggle going on back home.

Lakhdar Brahimi
Mr Brahimi is due to kick off the talks with preliminary meetings on Monday

Mr Brahimi's spokesman said the UN believed the more isolated the talks, the better.

Nevertheless, the glare of international publicity will be on the meeting. That offers the best hope of success, combined with pressure from the big powers and the transformed political landscape in Afghanistan.

The UN has tried many times before to promote a political settlement and Mr Brahimi is the seventh envoy in the last decade.

He himself gave up the job in despair a couple of years ago.

By-product

But the task has been handed back to the UN by the Americans as a by-product of their proclaimed war on terrorism.

They are focused on the hunt for those held responsible for the 11 September suicide hijackings.


The UN does not intend to run Afghanistan itself... it is trying to promote a home-grown solution

For them, the search for peace in Afghanistan, however desirable, is secondary.

The plan now on offer contains elements of previous proposals.

It falls into stages, the first of which is the Petersberg talks.

They are designed to produce agreement on a transitional administration, probably a small executive council.

The alternative of first setting up a larger legislative body of about 150 seems now to be less favoured.

In the next stage, an agreement would be taken back to Afghanistan to be approved by a traditional tribal assembly known as a Loya Jirga.

That in turn would launch a two-year process of drafting a new constitution, followed by elections.

The UN does not intend to run Afghanistan itself, as happened in Kosovo and East Timor. It is trying to promote a home-grown solution.

Representative

The weight of any agreement to emerge from the Petersberg talks depends on how representative the conference is considered to be.

In sending out the invitations, the UN has tried to some extent to correct the balance of power on the ground.

The biggest player at the conference is the Northern Alliance, or United Front.

Tables in the Petersberg conference room
A 'surreal contrast' for people more used to the battle-field

Despite its description, it is a loose and sometimes fractious coalition of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.

The Northern Alliance controls a lot of territory and clearly believes it should have the dominant say, despite repeated commitments to the principle of a broad government in which all groups are fairly represented.

The delegation was expected to be led by the alliance's interior minister, Yunis Qanooni.

Pashtun dilemma

In contrast, the Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, are at a disadvantage.

They do not have even a nominally united leadership.

The Taleban, which drew nearly all its support from the Pashtuns, are out of the game. They have not been invited.


Mr Brahimi's deputy, Francesc Vendrell, has admitted the conference will not be perfect but says it is the best they can assemble in the circumstances

The Pashtun representatives at the conference are mostly those who have been in exile and they control no territory.

The strongest faction after the Northern Alliance is the Rome group, as it is called, gathered around the old former monarch, Mohammad Zahir Shah.

The delegation deliberately includes some non-Pashtuns to demonstrate that he does not draw support exclusively from one ethnic group.

It is led by a former Afghan Justice Minister, Abdul Sattar Sirat, and also includes two women, Rona Mansuri and Sima Wali, who are campaigners for women's rights.

The ex-king is not expected to play an executive role. Despite the fact that his support is mainly Pashtun, all factions agree he may be able to act as a rallying point and a focus for loyalty.

Taleban excluded

There are two other delegations representing the Pashtuns.

One is made up of exiles who have held meetings in the Pakistani city of Peshawar under the leadership of Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani.

The other is a group which has met in Cyprus to reflect the interests of some smaller military factions and politicians, and has links with Iran.

Mostapha Zaher arrives at Rome airport
The Afghan ex-monarch is being represented in Bonn by a nephew

The UN's key problem was to find credible Pashtun representatives who were not closely connected to the Taleban.

Mr Brahimi's deputy, Francesc Vendrell, has admitted the conference will not be perfect but says it is the best they can assemble in the circumstances.

Regional powers

Several of the big powers will have officials behind the scenes at the Petersberg talks, as will Pakistan's key neighbours.

Meddling from outside has often made things worse in Afghanistan.

This time, it is hoped, they will all be pushing their former Afghan clients in the same direction.

All the governments involved have subscribed publicly to the aim of a broad-based government - a significant advance. But they do have different aims.

Russian envoy Alexander Oblov meets Burhanuddin Rabbani in Kabul, 19 November
Russia has moved swiftly to make its diplomatic presence felt in Kabul

The Russians sent a high-level delegation into Kabul the same week it fell. They have been the main backers of the Northern Alliance and want to make sure it gets a prominent if not dominant place in the new regime.

They are strongly opposed to the idea of any Taleban figures playing a part and agree with their Afghan allies that the concept of "moderate Taleban" is a contradiction in terms.

On the other hand, the Russians will not push their support for the Northern Alliance too far because they value their new relationship with the United States much more.

The Iranians also back the Northern Alliance, or elements of it. They were quick off the mark too, reopening their embassy in Kabul before anyone else.

But the Iranians have a particular concern - to protect their fellow Shia Muslims, the minority Hazara community who suffered worst of all at the hands of the Taleban.

Pakistan has suffered the biggest reverse as the former sponsor of the Taleban.

It has its own Pashtun community and wants the Pashtuns in Afghanistan to be as influential as possible.

The Pakistanis fear the emergence of a government hostile to them.

They want a stable peace to minimise the danger of Taleban-style militancy making more inroads into Pakistan itself.

Great unknowns

Inside the conference room, old enemies will be sitting across the table from each other, with vivid memories of past betrayals and bloodshed.

These are the people, for the moment competing peacefully for status and influence, who have to make the compromises.


The Taleban are not finished, so any interim settlement may be incomplete

The Pashtuns fear the Northern Alliance will monopolise political power while the alliance no doubt believes that it holds the whip hand.

And the war goes on. The Taleban are not finished, so any interim settlement may be incomplete. The faction that eventually seizes Kandahar, assuming that happens, may not be represented in Germany.

On the other hand, the possible prize is a great one.

Peace should open up reconstruction aid on a huge scale - provided the new government behaves the way the Western powers want.

That means clamping down on opium production and the drugs trade, treating Afghan women better and offering no haven to Islamic extremists of the Osama bin Laden variety.

Peace would enable millions of refugees to go home, to the enormous relief of Pakistan and Iran. And for ordinary Afghans, it would offer at least the hope of a better life.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Paul Adams
"This is the start of a very long process"
The BBC's Owen Bennett-Jones
"People really believe that Afghanistan needs a broad-based government"
See also:

24 Nov 01 | South Asia
Rabbani 'to accept Bonn decision'
24 Nov 01 | South Asia
EU and Pakistan back political process
20 Nov 01 | South Asia
Q&A: What will Afghan talks produce?
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