WAR AND TALKS

Print edition : December 08, 2001

Afghanistan comes to a crossroads as a complex set of factors involving the domestic groups and the international players add new dimensions to the ongoing war.

WITH reconciliation talks having begun in Bonn, Germany, Afghanistan has come to a crossroads as it struggles to forge a post-Taliban administration acceptable to its disparate armed factions and ethnic groups and the international community. It can either take a determined crack at nation-building with international help, or return to tribalism and warlordism.

At the fort-prison near Mazar-e-Sharif, a Northern Alliance soldier walks past bodies of Taliban prisoners, among hundreds killed in the fighting that broke out after a prison revolt.-ANJA NIEDRINGHAUS/AFP EPA

It has been in this position before, most recently when the communist regime was ousted in 1992 by many of the leaders present at the Bonn talks, and in 1996 when their squabbling government was ousted by the Taliban. Both times it took the wrong path - with disastrous results.

"You must not allow the mistakes of the past to be repeated, particularly those of 1992," the United Nations special envoy for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, warned the 28 Afghan delegates as the talks opened on November 27. "To many sceptics, this is what you are about to do. You must prove them wrong."

The delegates represent four key factions with little in common other than their opposition to the Taliban. Still, and in a positive development, there was apparently broad consensus that the 87-year-old former king, Zahir Shah, should act as the figurehead leader of any interim administration. The main problem was expected to be settling on a Prime Minister who will wield real power.

However, the enormous expectations of the United States, Britain and the U.N. Security Council for the meeting to produce firm agreement on a new transitional government appeared over-optimistic. In part this is because it was not fully representative of the country's major ethnic group - the Pashtun. But the meeting could nonetheless mark an important step forward. Many senior figures - including Burhanuddin Rabbani, who is still recognised as President by the U.N. - advocate another meeting in Kabul later this year.

EVEN as the talks got under way, the situation in Afghanistan provided an indication of some of the problems a new administration will have to tackle. The Taliban was still holding on to parts of three southern provinces - its ethnic Pashtun heartland - including the city of Kandahar, having been ejected from its northern stronghold of Kunduz on November 25 by troops of the United Front (as the Northern Alliance is now called), which groups the Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara minorities.

But the fall of Kunduz was followed by the killing of hundreds of pro-Taliban foreign fighters during an alleged jail-break, while troops under the Uzbek general Rashid Dostum are accused of killing some 600 Taliban fighters after taking Mazar-e-Sharif on November 9. Such acts do not bode well for reconciliation.

At Mazar-e-Sharif, a shell slams into the ground next to a tank of the Northern Alliance during fighting between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban.-ANJA NIEDRINGHAUS/AFP EPA

In the south, rival Pashtun warlords are scrapping for towns no longer under Taliban control. The northerners do not dare trespass in the south and the U.S. sent hundreds of marines to an air base near Kandahar on the night of November 25-26, apparently to speed up the Taliban's collapse. In the vacuum, no clear Pashtun leadership has emerged that could have given the talks in Germany more authority. "This is a critical moment in Afghanistan's history," the United Front Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said on the eve of the meeting. He is regarded as one of the Front's moderate leaders, alongside Interior Minister Younis Qanuni, Defence Minister Gen. Mohammed Fahim and Hazara military chief Gen. Syed Husain Anwari.

Abdullah added: "Either we slip back into darkness and civil war or we move forward and become a part of the modern world by forming a transitional government that includes all ethnic groups. To do that we need leaders with a national, not a regional or parochial, vision."

The Front is torn between the re-emergence of warlords unable or unwilling to articulate a national vision, and polished politicians with broader vision. The former include Ismail Khan in western Afghanistan and the brutal Dostum who have been leading the ground fight against the Taliban. The politicians are those such as Abdullah and Qanuni, who headed the United Front's delegation in Bonn. These leaders want to reach out to Pashtun groups in the south who share their vision of a modern, united Afghanistan. "We have no partners in the south. We need bridges between us and the Pashtuns and we are looking for partners, but so far we see only one or two individuals who can play that role," says Abdullah. Such leaders are slowly emerging in the south, including former Deputy Foreign Minister Hamid Karzai, who has wrested control of southern Urzoghan province from the Taliban, and Abdul Khaliq Noorzai, a key commander in the Kandahar region. Both are prominent tribal chiefs and are loyal to Zahir Shah. But they are educated, worldly and want to reunite the Pashtuns with the north. "We have a common vision with the modern leaders of the United Front, we need each other and we have to put the past behind us," said Karzai. But neither he nor Noorzai went to Bonn.

THE U.N. envoy Brahimi, meanwhile, says the meeting was aimed to build such bridges. It gathered representatives of the United Front, Pashtun members of religious leader Pir Sayed Gailani's Pakistan-backed Peshawar process, Afghan emigres behind the Iranian-backed Cyprus process and supporters of Zahir Shah and his call for a loya jirga, or traditional council, to approve a new government. At least two women, both emigres, were included in the delegations - a major step forward in bringing Afghan women back into the political mainstream. Some warlords, like Dostum, sent representatives.

But owing to the chaos in the Pashtun belt, there were onlytwo Pashtuns from inside Afghanistan at the meeting, although emigre Pashtuns were present. The lack of prominent Pashtuns from inside the country has not only limited its goals but angered Pakistan, which is frustrated at Washington's growing dependence on the Front. Some leaders are already looking beyond Bonn. "We want peace and security and a government of national unity in the country, but the Bonn meeting is only the first step and no doubt it is very useful and auspicious, but we hope this will be the last gathering outside the country and the next meeting will be inside the country," says Burhanuddin Rabbani, the nominal head of the United Front. Abdullah, meanwhile, emphasised that the most that could be hoped from Bonn would be a "set of principles that we can all agree to in order to form a transitional government." He added that "the next meeting can take place in a couple of weeks in Kabul." The Bonn meeting was to end before a high-level donors' conference on Afghanistan opened in Berlin on December 6.

Burhanuddin Rabbani, former President of Afghanistan. He has called for elections to choose an interim council.-MARCO DI LAURO/AP

Brahimi says he is keen to move the peace process to Afghanistan, but he must also ensure that a meeting in Kabul will not lead to unofficial recognition of the Front's control of the capital, which other Afghan factions and the international community oppose. Qanuni, who is organising the capital's security, says he will consider proposals on how to ensure Kabul's neutrality, including using security forces from all factions.

The Bonn meeting was also expected to come up with a united Afghan response to the sensitive issue of larger contingents of foreign troops being sent to the country to help reopen airports and provide logistics and protection for international aid deliveries. However, none of the Afghan factions was expected to endorse a large-scale foreign security force for Kabul, although Western military officers could be stationed in major cities to coordinate security by local Afghan forces. U.N. and other international relief agencies are demanding some foreign troop presence so that their expatriate staff can return and resume full relief operations.

All the Afghan groups also want the U.N. to guarantee that there will be no interference from Afghanistan's neighbours - above all Iran, Russia and Pakistan - which has stymied U.N. mediation for the past decade. "The U.N. must play a role and give us guarantees that all interference would be stopped so that we can form a broad-based government without outside influence," says Rabbani. "The U.N. should impose tough sanctions against any country which tried to interfere in Afghanistan's internal affairs."

However, this is problematic for the U.N., which also needs to create a consensus amongst regional states about the future composition of any new government in Kabul. Pakistan is vehemently opposed to domination by the United Front, which is supported by Iran and Russia. Another sensitive issue for the United Front is how, and to whom, their nominal leader Rabbani would hand over his authority once a new transitional government is formed. While other alliance leaders are willing to accept a new head of government, it is clear to many people that Rabbani is trying to cling on to his seat despite his denials.

"As far as my future role is concerned, the people will determine the role of every concerned personality," says Rabbani. "I will accept the decision of the Bonn meeting and let me make it clear that I have no personal ambitions," he adds. However, other United Front leaders claim that Rabbani has been privately assured by Russia and Iran that if the Bonn talks break down, they will recognise him as head of state. At root, while the Bonn meeting is not likely to solve all problems, it could help build vital bridges between the new generation of politicians. Total failure would just prolong Afghanistan's agony.

(By arrangement with Los Angeles Times Syndicate International and Far Eastern Economic Review)

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