Afghans to talk power-sharing

Afghan leaders will discuss a multi-party government Monday in Germany, the UN envoy announced yesterday.

Defying more than two decades of "might makes right" rule, the victorious rebel Northern Alliance will now explore a power-sharing deal designed to bring stability to Afghanistan.

After two days of intensive talks aimed at bringing all Afghan ethnic groups to the negotiating table, United Nations envoy Francesc Vendrell announced here yesterday that a UN-sponsored all-party meeting will convene in Germany on Monday.

The diplomatic fire drill is a bid to stave off infighting and shape an enduring post-Taliban government. Last week, the Northern Alliance marched into the Afghan capital, filling the power vacuum created by the swift collapse of the radical Islamic Taliban militia.

This is the first step, Mr. Vendrell says, in bringing rule in Afghanistan back to its traditional, representative roots. The loya jirga, or grand assembly, is to be the model - not rule by the gun.

"The fact that [alliance leaders] are willing to travel abroad in these challenging circumstances is a signal of flexibility," Vendrell said. "It's a signal that we are in a completely different era."

Alliance forces - representing minority Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara groups - seized control of Kabul and much of the country a week ago, after several weeks of American air strikes against Taliban targets. The Taliban - dominated by Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, and bolstered by thousands of Arab and Pakistani militants - are now concentrated around just two cities.

UN officials rule out the presence at the conference of the Taliban, a movement that Vendrell says "is on the verge of collapse" and does not represent the Pashtun.

Pashtuns will be represented by delegates of former King Mohammad Zahir Shah - now in his 80s and living in exile in Rome - a man some suggest might play a bridging role, but of whom alliance leaders are suspicious.

Two other Pashtun groups - one of intellectuals, called the Cyprus Process, and another of Pashtun leaders called the Peshawar Assembly for Peace, which called for a loya jirga a month ago - will also take part.

"We are very aware that convening these groups will not mean that every single Afghan will feel totally happy and fully represented, but this is a first step," Vendrell said. "It is a disservice to the Pashtun to say that they are somehow represented by the Taliban.

The meeting in Berlin is expected to produce a provisional national council under the auspices of the former king. The council could then act as a caretaker administration, with the recognition of the international community, and lead further discussions on the makeup of an interim government, which would stay in place until a constitution is drafted and elections are held.

Pleased as Afghans are to shake off the Taliban, skepticism runs deep in Kabul, where factions that today make up the alliance waged a bloody fight in the early 1990s that left tens of thousands dead and turned entire districts of the capital to ruins.

Recognizing the risk of a repeat, the US was at first reluctant to back the Northern Alliance as a proxy force. But several weeks into the bombing campaign - amid criticism that Washington was not achieving enough on the ground in its declared war on terrorism - overt and covert US military support blossomed.

The result has been a swifter-than-expected advance by alliance forces, which has transformed the political situation overnight, and now requires deft emergency diplomacy. "There is really a hunger for peace," said James Dobbins, American envoy to the alliance, after meeting the US-backed rebel leaders north of Kabul. "There's a willingness to compromise. There's a recognition that the international situation is transformed."

Prior to their offensive, alliance leaders said publicly that they would accommodate all Afghan groups if they took power. To reassure doubtful Afghans, President Burhanuddin Rabbani - who has held Afghanistan's seat at the UN throughout Taliban rule - spoke this week in inclusive terms.

"Choosing a leader is the right of the Afghan people," Mr. Rabbani said. "I do not want to use tanks and arms to impose on them. The presence of the mujahideen [alliance troops] in Kabul reflects the realities. It doesn't mean anything else.

"We will try to prepare the ground ... for a broad-based government, and the future government will be more inclusive," Rabbani said.

Yesterday, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the alliance foreign minister, said he was "grateful" for the UN effort. He said it was "unlikely" that the issue of UN peacekeeping troops of a multi-national force would come up during the talks, though hundreds of American and British special forces are already here.

Some 6,000 more British troops are on standby, and Turkey has been mooted as a potential leader of a mostly-Islamic force. But alliance chiefs are reluctant to have foreign forces in Afghanistan, whatever their avowed intentions.

The arrival last weekend of 100 British troops alone sparked alliance claims that they were not consulted, and that only 15 British commandos were needed for their declared humanitarian mission.

Among the Afghan groups, too, are serious differences that will almost certainly emerge during the meeting, at least behind closed doors. Pashtuns - who have led Afghanistan for most of the last 300 years - are capable of scuppering any deal if they don't feel sufficiently represented.

Likewise, alliance leaders worry about support by third parties, such as the US, for former King Shah, who ruled for four decades.

"Zahir Shah is an old man, who needs help to stand up from his seat. How can we expect him to lead others?" says Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, a Pashtun and deputy head of the Northern Alliance Leadership Council.

"Zahir Shah is away from Afghanistan for 27 years, and when he was ruling, one soldier with his belt was able to control all the people," Mr. Sayyaf says. "Today Afghanistan is like a boxing ring. If you bring an old farmer, he will be floored with one hit. To have control of the ring, you should put in a man stronger than his opponent."

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