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Soul-searching in Bonn
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 06 - 12 - 2001

The UN-sponsored talks in Bonn are a show of mind over muscle as Afghan leaders try and hash out a deal for a future government, writes Iffat Malik
No one expected it to be an easy task. Getting Afghanistan's disparate and, until recently, inter-fighting groups to agree on a post- Taliban set-up for their country would surely be a difficult undertaking. And so it proved. While all parties at the Afghan conference in Bonn, Germany, agreed at the outset on the lofty goals of peace, stability and a broad-based representative government, major differences emerged when it came down to the details -- the fine print.
The United Nations-sponsored conference to decide Afghanistan's future -- or, at least, make a start in what will inevitably be a long, arduous process -- was set in a hillside hotel overlooking Bonn. Even the venue was problematic. The opposition Northern Alliance (NA), currently in control of around half of Afghanistan, had wanted the meeting to be held in the Afghan capital Kabul, where former president and NA head Burhanuddin Rabbani was in control. The UN, realising that other groups would hardly feel comfortable as guests of the Alliance, insisted on holding it outside the country.
In attendance, aside from UN officials and observers from over 20 countries, including Pakistan, Iran, Russia and the United States, were four Afghan delegations. The biggest of these, with 11 representatives, was that of the Northern Alliance. The NA delegation was headed by its interior minister, Younus Qanooni. Second largest, with eight delegates, was the team of former Afghan king Zaher Shah, which included his grandson and two Afghan women. The smallest delegations both represented exiled Afghan groups other than the king's Rome-based peace process. The so-called Cyprus process, comprised of Afghan intellectuals and named after a series of meetings held there, is seen as close to Iran. The "Peshawar process" is composed of Afghans who have settled in Pakistan's north-west frontier province (NWFP).
The primary aim of the Bonn conference is to fill the political vacuum created by the collapse of the Taliban. The UN wanted a 120-200 member council (a proto-parliament) to be chosen. This would pave the way for a loya jirga, the traditional Afghan council of tribal leaders, to meet in spring of next year, which would in turn usher in a transitional government. According to the UN timetable, the final elected government should be in place within two years of that. The other main aim of the conference was to agree on how to maintain security in Afghanistan -- specifically, whether to have an international peace-keeping force (if so, from where and how big) or an Afghan one.
Bearing in mind Afghanistan's history of constant civil war and in-fighting over the past two decades, particularly since the Soviets' ouster, this agenda was never going to be easy to achieve. The prospects of success were not encouraged by statements by Rabbani, who downplayed the Bonn conference as a "symbolic gathering" and claimed the real decisions would be made inside Afghanistan. Ahmed Fawzi, the UN spokesman at the meeting, gave a pragmatic assessment as it was opening. He defined success as an agreement between delegates to go on talking at some other venue -- which is to say, the prevention of a total collapse of the talks.
The composition of the conference raised problems even before it got under way. The first was over authority: Rabbani, Zaher Shah and all the other main leaders did not attend in person. Would those people representing them have the authority to make important decisions? This question is vital because, of course, if they did not, any agreement reached cannot be implemented.
The second was over full representation. Was the Bonn conference truly representative of Afghan society? Apart from the NA delegation, most of those attending were Afghan exiles. Though all four delegations had Pashtun members, there was no group speaking solely for Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. Indeed, Haji Abdul-Qadir, a rare Pashtun allied with the NA, later walked out of the conference complaining of under-representation for Pashtuns. Ethnic Uzbek and Hazara delegates also thought they should have been given more seats at the table.
Despite these initial reservations, the first day went well, with many expressions of support and friendship, lots of handshakes and embraces. Problems started, though, in the closed sessions, when the delegates got down to the real "nitty-gritty." While all sides agreed on setting up an interim council or parliament, they could not agree to a list of names. Qanooni wanted a 10-day adjournment to allow him to return to Kabul and discuss names with the NA leadership -- a request Lakhdar Brahimi, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative to Afghanistan and chairman of the conference, turned down.
Talks continued, but agreeing on names for a large body proved too difficult, and within four days the UN had to revise its parliament plan to allow for a more modest interim executive, comprising about 20 members. Even with this smaller executive there were problems, especially on the question of who should head it. The name initially being mooted to fill that position -- essentially one of national unifier -- was Zaher Shah. The US is especially supportive of Zaher Shah, but the king's age (87), coupled with the fact that he has not set foot in Afghanistan since he was deposed in 1973, appear to rule him out as a practical option.
The other obvious contender is the man the UN still recognises as president of Afghanistan, Burhanuddin Rabbani. He would dearly love the post, but few other groups have confidence in his leadership. The last time he commanded the country, he obstinately refused to share power. He is also not Pashtun. Even the NA's other leaders, for example, Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, have accepted that Rabbani could not be Afghanistan's next leader. Most talk now is of Hamid Karazai, a pro-Shah, strongly anti-Taliban Pashtun leader.
On the second main agenda item, that of a peace-keeping force, the Northern Alliance delegation opposed the introduction of international troops. In control of the most territory on the ground, the NA would have the most to lose if an outside force came in. But all the other delegations, as well as international aid agencies, argued that security without some sort of neutral force would be impossible. Qanooni eventually bowed to their pressure. There were also differences over where such a force should be deployed: just in Kabul or throughout the country.
A surprising feature of the conference was the Northern Alliance airing its "dirty laundry" in public. There were clear differences between Qanooni and Rabbani. For example, while Qanooni eventually agreed to international peace-keepers, back in Kabul Rabbani said at most 100 troops would be needed. At one point the rift between the two became so great that Qanooni threatened to ignore his leader.
Their differences reflected a generation gap in the NA's leadership. The 61-year-old Rabbani belongs to an older era of Afghan history, when everything was decided by the gun. Younger leaders like Qanooni and Foreign Minister Abdullah are aware that times have changed. In particular, they are aware of the international focus on Afghanistan and the need to show compromise.
International attention was a silent pressure tool very much at play during the conference. All the delegates attending knew that the vast sums ($10 billion-plus) of international aid being promised for reconstruction in Afghanistan will only materialise after a broad-based interim administration is in place. That is a big incentive to compromise and reach agreement.
On day six of the conference, consensus was in delegates' hands with a general agreement covering an interim government to run Afghanistan for six months. This is just the beginning, however. Issues like a future government, its leader, security and all the other myriad details accompanying any new set-up will not be settled here. The UN conference in Bonn is the first of many such meetings to come regarding post-Taliban Afghanistan. At a time when international attention is so closely focused on their country, Afghans have the best opportunity in years to restore peace and stability there and start the long process of reconstruction. Let us hope they do not waste it.
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