In a hilltop, chateau-like hotel in Germany, the first talks to patch together a stable government for Afghanistan will be held this week. If the talks succeed, the world will have one less nation that can serve as a safe haven for terrorists.
That's easier said than done for a land so wrenched by wars and drenched in blood feuds. In addition, the talks are starting when the top leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban are still being hunted down and the Afghan capital is under the control of the minority ethnic groups of the Northern Alliance (courtesy of US bombing).
To have the talks succeed, the US and its allies will need to support the anti-Taliban leaders of the ethnic Pashtuns, who make up 40 percent of Afghans and were the base for the Taliban. That doesn't mean abandoning the Northern Alliance, but it might mean confronting them.
As it is, the talks now have a nonPashtun tilt, with 11 of the 21 seats at the table going to Uzbeks, Tajiks, the former king, and others. The conference was designed to set up an interim government that will then lead to a loya jirga (grand assembly) of tribal groups and factions, which can lead to elections within a few years.
Political tinkering by the Bush team, while once distasteful to an administration that looked down on Clinton-style "nation building," is now a matter of highest national security.
Lessons are quickly being drawn in Washington from recent international attempts to bring order out of chaos in other failed states that have imploded from war, from Mozambique to Kosovo (see related editorial). The lure of billions in aid for Afghanistan will help align the factions in harmony, at least for a while, but it may not alone help bring long-term political balance that only Afghans can create on their own.
Some foreign troops will likely be needed in Afghanistan for a while, despite the country's history of being a black hole for outside powers. Again, finding the right balance of nations to provide troops will rest on the ethnic balance of a new government.
The US will need to show a commitment to the welfare of Afghanistan beyond ridding it of terrorists. That will persuade peoples in other nations that now harbor terrorists that it's worth supporting the US in seeking an end to pro-terrorism regimes.
Civil war need not engulf Afghanistan again as in the past if the US helps it find the right political mix.