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Wednesday, 21 November, 2001, 17:20 GMT
US hopeful before Afghan talks
Northern Alliance tank in Kabul
The Northern Alliance will have to share power in Kabul
Barnaby Mason
As preparations are made for next week's crucial conference in Bonn on the future of Afghanistan, a senior United States official says he is now considerably more optimistic about the prospects for establishing a broad-based government representing the various political and ethnic factions.

US special envoy James Dobbins had several days of talks in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries.

He met representatives of the Pashtuns - the largest ethnic group - as well as the leaders of the Northern Alliance which includes the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.

People in Herat celebrate the liberation of their city
After the celebrations, difficult negotiations lie ahead
Speaking in London on his way home, he said there was more common ground than he had anticipated.

In particular, the Northern Alliance had made it clear they were not looking to marginalise the Pashtuns and were ready in due course to share responsibility for the capital, Kabul.

Mr Dobbins also emphasised that the Northern Alliance was ready to discuss the question of international peacekeepers being deployed in Afghanistan, an idea it has been very discouraging about in public.

The participation of Pashtun leaders in the Bonn conference - to be chaired by the United Nations - will be crucial.

Taleban not invited

It has been the most difficult to organise, given the fragmentation of southern Afghanistan and the continued fighting.

The mainly Pashtun Taleban have been forced back to the Kandahar region and have not been invited to Bonn.

Senior American officials say there will be four delegations: the Northern Alliance, also known as the United Front; and three smaller ones, mainly Pashtun.

Former Afghan king Mohammad Zahir Shah
The role of the former king has yet to be decided

These represent Afghan exiles in three different centres, though some have now returned home.

The Rome group has coalesced around the old king deposed nearly 30 years ago, Mohammad Zahir Shah; the Cyprus Process or group includes Hazara Shias supported by Iran; and the Peshawar Assembly for Peace has Pakistani backing.

There has been an argument about the relative size of the delegations but it seems likely that the Pashtun delegates combined will be in the majority.

Pashtuns divided

There must still be a question-mark over how representative the Bonn meeting will be.

The American officials said leaders still involved in fighting might not be able to travel to Bonn and would send spokesmen.

The present fluid situation puts the Pashtuns at a disadvantage.

Market in Jalalabad
Life is still hard for many Afghans

Unlike the northerners, they do not have a common leadership.

They are worried about their disunity, and fear that with the Northern Alliance in control of Kabul they may not have a proper role in the new system.

Setting out their aims for the Bonn conference, the US officials said they wanted it to be more than a symbolic meeting.


Two outcomes would constitute success.

Either the conference could agree to set up a kind of legislative council of about one 150 which would then choose a much smaller executive with, say, 15 members.

Alternatively, the conference might set up the executive council which would subsequently choose the legislative body.

Both of these would be interim institutions; the UN plan also provides for the convening of a larger traditional assembly - a "Loya Jirga" - to launch a two-year process of drafting an Afghan constitution.

US envoy James Dobbins
James Dobbins hopes to bring together the different factions

The role of the former king still has to be decided but Mr Dobbins said he had found a universal belief that he could act as a focal point for loyalty and a rallying point for the nation.

The Americans are making the point that he is unlikely to seek executive leadership - and that is why he is broadly acceptable.

A controversial point that may come up at the conference is the potentially divisive question of deploying a peacekeeping force.

US officials say there is a strong desire for one among the Pashtuns of the south. Unsurprisingly the Northern Alliance are less keen, since they hold the advantage on the ground.

Persistent pressure

Their leaders told Mr Dobbins that international forces sent in to help with the distribution of aid were welcome, provided the Northern Alliance was consulted.

As for a wider security or peacekeeping role, they were not persuaded it was necessary but were prepared to talk about it.

The United States, the other big powers and the UN will need to exert persistent heavy pressure to get an agreement in Bonn.

Their main lever on all the factions is that Afghanistan will get no aid for reconstruction until a broad-based government is in place.

See also:

20 Nov 01 | South Asia
Foreign powers move back to Kabul
16 Nov 01 | South Asia
UN warns former Afghan leader
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