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Afghanistan: Meeting To Resolve Conflict Makes Slight Progress

  • Bruce Pannier

A two-day meeting on Afghanistan concluded yesterday in the Uzbek capital. Talks were attended by representatives of Afghanistan's two warring sides and by diplomats from six neighboring states plus the U.S. and Russia -- the so-called Six Plus Two group. RFE/RL Central Asia correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that the mediators often seemed distracted from the stated aim of the talks -- ending years of fighting.

Prague, 21 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The latest round of talks between representatives from Afghanistan's Taliban movement and the opposition northern alliance have ended in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, seemingly without much result.

There was some reason for optimism prior to the meeting. The Taliban movement -- which controls some 90 percent of Afghanistan -- originally refused to come to Tashkent unless it was recognized by the Six Plus Two group as the legitimate government of the country. But the Taliban leadership decided to send representatives on the eve of the meeting's opening, despite the lack of such recognition from all attendees except Pakistan.

The talks also marked the first time the rival Afghan factions had met along with representatives of the six countries that border Afghanistan -- Iran, Pakistan, China, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- and those of Russia and the U.S.

Lakhdar Brahimi is the UN's representative for Afghanistan. He expressed hope before the opening of talks that representatives from the Six Plus Two group would be united in offering the Afghan factions clear advice on achieving peace.

"Let's hope that the Afghan parties will listen and that the eight countries will cooperate and speak in one voice."

But despite the opportunity presented by the meeting, it appears the mediators often lost sight of the goal -- peace in Afghanistan -- and focused instead on their own specific concerns.

The leader of the country hosting the talks, Uzbek President Islam Karimov, set the tone for the meeting on Monday:

"The world community cannot help but be worried about what is happening today in Afghanistan ... and the problem of international terrorism, extremism, the problem of narcotics trafficking, arms dealing and the radicalization process of Islam, turning it into a negative form."

The representative from the United States, Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth, raised the question of Saudi terrorist Usama bin Laden, currently a guest of the Taliban. Iran's representative raised the issue of the investigation into the killings of several Iranians caught when the Taliban overran the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif last August.

There was some degree of consensus among the would-be mediators. Going into the meeting, the Six Plus Two group agreed that there is no military resolution to the problems in Afghanistan. And following Mondays talks, a declaration -- signed by all participants but Turkmenistan -- was released. It mentioned a plan for progress toward peace to be conducted under the UN's aegis.

The governments called for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire, followed by negotiations between the Afghan factions. These negotiations would lead toward an exchange of prisoners and other confidence-building measures. The plan said talks would then begin on a unified government, including representatives from all of Afghanistan's political, religious and ethnic groups.

The representatives from the seven countries -- again, not including Turkmenistan -- also agreed that none of their countries would provide military support to the Afghan factions. However, there is sufficient evidence from the last few years to suggest that nearly all the countries in the Six Plus Two group are sending arms to factions inside Afghanistan.

Other parts of the declaration had little to do with establishing peace in Afghanistan. The group criticized the Taliban's treatment of women, the presence of alleged terrorists in Taliban-controlled territory, and the narcotics business that emanates from Afghanistan. By addressing these concerns, rather than the central issue as stressed by Brahimi, the purpose of the meeting was obscured.

Concerning peace, the representatives of the Afghan factions did say yesterday that there will be another meeting, though they did not say when. Both sides said the meeting in Tashkent was useful. The northern alliance's chief negotiator, known as Abdullah, gave his impression of the Tashkent meeting. He spoke today with RFE/RL:

"We hope that this should be a first step and a positive step forward, a way to establish peace and stability in Afghanistan and normalize the situation in Afghanistan, which people believe is very important to the region and the world."

The Taliban's chief negotiator, Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi, told RFE/RL that he also considers the meeting positive. He said the talks had raised new hopes. But Muttaqi claimed that the Taliban had not been responsible for any of the earlier breakdowns in the peace process and said the Six Plus Two nations should direct such complaints elsewhere.

Before the meeting even started on Monday, the UN's Brahimi noted that both Afghan factions are preparing for summer military offensives, which Brahimi termed "rituals." And clashes are expected to resume.

But as many have noted whenever the two sides meet, just being at the same table is a step in the right direction.

The Six Plus Two group promised substantial aid to Afghanistan should peace finally be established. Such promises may one day help the warring factions in Afghanistan decide that a generation of killing is enough and switch their efforts to rebuilding the country.

If nothing else, it reconfirmed to the people of Afghanistan that their suffering has not gone unnoticed by the world.

(Yaqub Turan and Zamira Echanova of the Uzbek Service and Iskander Aliyev of the Tajik Service contributed to this feature.)