Foreign powers are quiet presence at Afghan talks

US, Russian, and other observers maintain a low profile at talks in Bonn.

The whole world is anxiously watching the United Nations-sponsored talks on Afghanistan here, but a number of countries are especially concerned with the outcome of the negotiations.

From regional powers such as Iran and Pakistan, to global players such as Russia and the US, countries with often conflicting strategic interests have a high stake in peace and stability in Afghanistan.

But among the main factors that made the talks possible, are positive signals coming from key countries for the first time in 20 years, says US special envoy James Dobbins. There is a shared concern about Afghanistan's main exports: drugs, refugees, and terrorism. With stability, economic opportunities beckon in the form of pipelines and roads linking landlocked Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent. In the short term, diplomats want to capitalize on international interest to find donors. Some estimates put rebuilding costs from $6 billion to $20 billion.

While these foreign powers are maintaining a low profile at the talks, which began Tuesday in Germany, events in Afghanistan and the region have led to surprising developments in international relations.

Before the collapse of the Taliban regime two weeks ago, Iran and Pakistan - both home to millions of Afghan refugees - were at loggerheads over their common neighbor. Islamabad was the Taliban's main supporter, while Tehran held close ties to the Hazaras, a Shiite Muslim ethnic group, and backed the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. The alliance currently controls about half the country.

Relations between the two countries have changed dramatically. Earlier this month, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf paid a surprise visit to Tehran, and today, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi is expected for talks in Islamabad.

"The two countries are talking to each other more," says a senior US official, who did not wish to be identified. "If you ask them what kind of Afghanistan they want, their answers would resemble each other more today than they would have two weeks or two years ago."

Having abandoned the Taliban as an ally, Pakistan appears to be adjusting to new realities. On Wednesday, a Pakistan foreign office spokesman told reporters that "if [Northern Alliance political leader] Burhanuddin Rabbani wishes to come to Pakistan, he is most welcome and we will meet him." Only a month ago, the alliance was one of Pakistan's fiercest enemies, blaming Islamabad not only for sponsoring, but for creating, the Taliban.

Moscow, too, appears to be gaining a new foothold in Afghanistan - perhaps in a hurried attempt to establish a presence before the Bonn talks yield results on a transitional administration. On Tuesday, dozens of uniformed Russian personnel entered Kabul in a truck convoy. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov described them as de facto military attachés sent to make contact with Afghan authorities. Russia recognizes Mr. Rabbani as Afghan president - the US has does not - and backed his forces against the Taliban.

But after Moscow's decade-long war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, this new presence is controversial. Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi, a delegate from the Peshawar group of Pakistan-based Afghan exiles, called it "a little bit insensitive."

Although Afghans have a bloody history of foreign intervention, the four Afghan delegations here are keenly aware that they need outside help to jump-start political talks and aid a suffering population. The UN is acting as impartial arbiter, providing a framework for inter-Afghan discussions.

A dozen countries have sent observers, but delegates and diplomats agree they are very much in the background, meeting only at meals, on an informal basis. "There is nothing to impose on us, and nothing we'll accept," says Ahmed Wali Masood, of the Northern Alliance delegation. The senior US official says the delegates "seem quite eager" to share information with observers. "If we have views, we tell them, but any effect on the process is indirect. They're running the process by themselves."

To the US, engaged in combat against the remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the present interest in Afghanistan is overwhelmingly military. American officials, however, have indicated they don't foresee a long-term US military presence if a multinational security force is deployed.

Yet any future Afghan administration will look to Washington as a key partner in rebuilding. The US and Japan convened a donor conference in Washington last week, and more than a dozen major donor nations will meet in Berlin on Wednesday. At a conference in Japan scheduled for January, diplomats expect concrete pledges on a multibillion dollar aid package.

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