Will Afghan peace have muscle?

Talks, in their third day, make progress on a political accord, but little on enforcing it.

With the fast pace of events on the ground in Afghanistan, and millions at stake in an aid donors' conference next Wednesday in Berlin, participants at United Nations-sponsored talks on Afghanistan are under high pressure to reach an agreement.

While the first priority at the talks, in their third day, is clearly on forming an interim Afghan administration, experts say any political settlement may hinge on enforcing security in the war-ravaged Central Asian nation.

"It's only a strong hand ... a kind of warning from an upper hand, that will make [the warlords who now control most of the country] back up and let the other Afghans get together and determine their future," says Abdul Raheem Yaseer, with the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. Many Afghans "know the warlords will not let the nation enjoy and benefit from any kind of broad-based government," Mr. Raheem says. Their previous regime of the early 1990s was marked by feuding and lawlessness that set the stage for the Taliban, with its radical interpretation of Islam, to take power in 1996.

Yet the thorny question of a security force - possibly multinational - remains wide open. Francesc Vendrell, UN special envoy for Afghanistan, appeared to downplay expectations yesterday. "This issue is a very important one in these talks, but ... we shouldn't expect an immediate agreement on this matter."

Three of the four Afghan delegations at this remote hotel near Bonn, Germany, represent Afghan exile groups, with considerable support inside the country but little military clout on the ground. The fourth is from the Northern Alliance, which has taken over the capital, Kabul, and about half of the country, following the collapse of Taliban rule. The Taliban were excluded from the talks.

Even if delegates reach a political accord, it's unclear how far the alliance would go on an impartial security force - some diplomats avoid the term "peacekeeper" because it implies a UN force. "As we have made clear in the past, we prefer that security is looked after by Afghan forces themselves," Yunis Qanooni, head of the alliance delegation, said yesterday.

Earlier this month, Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special representative for Afghanistan, presented three possible models. The first, and Mr. Brahimi's preference, would be an all-Afghan force. It would be formed by integrating anti-Taliban ethnic Pashtun forces in the south with the Northern Alliance, or an entirely new force that would eventually lead to a national army and police. Pashtuns are Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, and dominate the Taliban. The Northern Alliance is made up mainly of minority Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras.

The second option would be a multinational force, a so-called "coalition of the willing." The last option would be a UN peacekeeping force - the classic "blue helmet" mission.

Because an all-Afghan force would be difficult to establish quickly, Brahimi has said that "serious consideration will need to be given to the deployment of an international security presence" for the cities, and to "preserve the political space" for later negotiations on Afghanistan's future.

Brahimi considers a traditional UN force the least desirable, as it would take too long to assemble and deploy, and because blue helmets "have been most successful when supporting an existing political settlement among willing parties - not to serve as a substitute for one." Senior US officials say Washington has not yet decided on its preference.

One US official at the talks, who requested anonymity, says an agreement on security can come only after a settlement on an interim administration. While no troop numbers have been mentioned, he says, it would "probably be a force confined to Kabul, not 30,000 troops combing the countryside."

"I think it is necessary for an international force to protect the transitional government in Kabul," says Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi, a member of the Peshawar group delegation, a Pakistan-based exile group. Dr. Ahadi, too, rejects the idea of troops elsewhere in the country.

The Rome group, representing former King Mohammad Zahir Shah, likewise has indicated willingness to accept international peacekeepers. While some Afghans prefer forces from Muslim countries that do not border Afghanistan, others say that an end to the violence is more important than the faith of multinational troops.

Aid groups trying to cope with Afghanistan's overwhelming humanitarian needs are concerned with deteriorating roads. In a statement before the conference, Oxfam made the "immediate deployment" of a UN-mandated security force its top recommendation.

With diplomats upbeat about some sort of political agreement emerging in Germany, the pressure may be too high for hard-line elements in the Northern Alliance to reject relinquishing their grip on Kabul to a multinational force. There are known splits among the alliance's many factions. One European diplomatic observer here says positions are fluid.

Another US official says there are "elements in the Northern Alliance who have carried the day and recognize that if they only sit on their gains, they will only see a repetition of the last decade."

All the warlords feel pressure, says Yaseer. "They know they cannot do what they want to do.... Now, people know they are not capable of anything except for their own interests. So they will not be accepted."

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