Representatives of Afghani-stan's hard-line Muslim Taliban regime and its main opponents, the Northern Alliance, met yesterday in a crucial effort to restore peace to the war-ravaged Central Asian country.
The first-ever meeting, held in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, is backed by the United States, United Nations, and Saudi Arabia-based Organization of Islamic Conference. The Taliban, which controls almost 90 percent of Afghan territory, has been urged by those promoting the talks to consider widening the scope of its government to include its opponents in the ruling structure.
But even before the negotiations began in Islamabad, guns blazed some 15 miles outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, in the latest military encounter between the two sides. The peace initiative is therefore viewed with skepticism by many analysts.
"It's hard to say anything with certainty. Afghanistan has too many players," says Pakistan's former ambassador to the United States, Maleeha Lodhi. She says despite US involvement, which is considered to be the strongest push for the Afghan peace process in many years, "much still depends on how far the US interest can be sustained."
Other observers, such as Rashed Rehman, a columnist for the Pakistani newspaper The Nation, also points out that there's slim hope for progress "unless the protagonists agree that they have to find a solution peacefully rather than on the battlefield."
Reloading for war
In recent months, UN officials have said the opposing camps have received new arms supplies, suggesting that they could be gearing up for an offensive. Spring and summer are considered the best time to settle scores in Afghanistan, where freezing temperatures in parts of the country and snow-capped mountains make transportation difficult during the winter.
Last month, the UN secretary-general's special envoy for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, warned against a new arms buildup. Without naming any specific countries, Mr. Brahimi said that unless the countries surrounding Afghanistan enforced an embargo, their calls for an end to weapon supplies would be "no more than a slogan."
In the past, Iran and Pakistan have accused each other of supplying arms to Afghanistan's rival factions, in an effort to increase their influence in the country.
The Islamabad talks, expected to last three to five days, were made possible by the intervention of the Clinton administration. Earlier this month, US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson got guarantees for the meetings to begin by today, an auspicious day in Afghanistan's recent history.
Two decades of conflict
Exactly 20 years ago this day, Afghanistan's first Communist ruler, backed by the former Soviet Union, took power in a coup that toppled the country's ruling monarchy. Since then, the country has gone from one war to another. Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan a year later to support the visibly weak Communist regime against the country's traditional Muslim tribal leaders. The Soviet Union withdrew 10 years later when former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev announced that he had decided to try healing the "bleeding wound" of Afghanistan. Since then, Islamic factions that fought the Soviet troops have battled with each other for power.
The Taliban, which invaded Kabul more than two years ago, has conquered most of the country with the exception of a strip of land in the north that remains under the control of local tribal leaders. The two sides have failed to settle their differences in part because the Taliban represents the country's Pushto-speaking majority. The Northern alliance consists of non-Pushto-speaking groups whose ethnicity is the same as that of former Soviet central Asian states such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
The Taliban's strict brand of Islamic rule has brought criticism from many countries and senior UN officials. The Taliban restricts women's rights to work. The only exceptions are a small group of hospital workers and teachers in girls' schools.
The UN and the European Community have expressed frustration with the restrictions, which have created obstacles for female aid workers doing much-needed development work.
Large parts of Afghanistan have been devastated by fighting, while most of the country's younger generation have no jobs or skills, except for firing a weapon.