The United Nations announced yesterday that the Northern Alliance has agreed to participate in a conference of tribal leaders to be held next week in Berlin. Talking from Kabul during a telephone roundtable discussion organized by RFE/RL's Persian Service, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani confirmed that he will send a representative to the German capital and detailed his views on Afghanistan's political future.
Prague, 21 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani entered Kabul on 17 November, five years after being ousted by the Taliban regime, he promised not to monopolize power and to work toward restoring peace in his war-torn country.
A month ago, few would have bet on Rabbani's political future, despite the fact that the United Nations and most foreign countries were still recognizing him as Afghanistan's legitimate leader.
To most regional experts, the 60-year-old Rabbani is a man whose formal leadership among Afghanistan's opposition has been persistently challenged by the unabated popularity of other Northern Alliance leaders, such as Ahmad Shah Massoud. Massoud, the military commander of the Northern Alliance, was assassinated in his Panjshir stronghold two days before the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States.
Yet today, Rabbani's position looks stronger than ever. After his unexpected return to the Afghan capital under the protection of Northern Alliance forces, the prospect of other anti-Taliban leaders, such as 87-year-old former King Mohammad Zahir Shah, playing a prominent role in Afghan politics is fading away.
Before Northern Alliance forces entered the Afghan capital, the United States had made little secret that it wanted the ex-monarch to be the figurehead in post-Taliban Afghanistan. But now Washington may have to revise its plans.
President George W. Bush urged the Northern Alliance not to enter Kabul. But his call remained unheeded.
Talking from Kabul during a telephone roundtable discussion that included correspondents from RFE/RL's Persian, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek services, Rabbani dismissed suggestions that his decision to enter Kabul immediately after the Taliban had pulled out from the capital was motivated by a thirst for power. He said that only concerns for the safety of Kabul residents prompted the Northern Alliance to ignore Bush's calls: "When the Taliban regime collapsed in Kabul, we did not enter the city for 17 hours. But, during this period, people were killed, some looting took place, and it was feared that the Taliban would attack us again. So, in order to ensure the safety of the Kabul population, we had to enter the city."
Despite Rabbani's claims to the contrary, his surprise return to Kabul has raised suspicions that he will try to cling to power rather than build the broad-based government the UN expects to emerge from the ruins of the Taliban regime.
The international organization is notably calling for the creation of an inclusive government representing all of Afghanistan's ethnic groups, including the predominant Pashtun community from which the Taliban is drawn and which accounts for some 40 percent of the country's 20 million-strong population.
Tribal chiefs representing all ethnic groups -- Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Shi'a Hazaras, and Pashtuns -- are expected to convene soon into a so-called "Loya Jirga" to elect a replacement to the Taliban, which is not foreseen to be included in the talks.
Yet there is growing concern among regional experts that such groups as the Pashtuns or the Hazaras -- who have been periodically at odds with the Northern Alliance despite their strategic alliance against the Taliban -- might be left out.
Rabbani told RFE/RL that all ethnic groups will be represented in the Loya Jirga and in the future government: "Concerning the broad-based government that will be set up through the Loya Jirga, we have a very clear mechanism. The only way to convince [people] that they will have a fair representation is to elect the Loya Jirga members according to the percentage of population represented by each ethnic group. Those percentages in turn should be based on the most recent UN statistics."
But Rabbani also said that, in his view, this system should be altered to allow representatives of the Afghan diaspora into the Loya Jirga. He also hinted that the armed opposition to the Taliban should have a greater say in Afghanistan's domestic affairs: "Afghan specialists and politicians living abroad should be included in the Loya Jirga regardless of these percentages. Our program also says that more rights should be granted to those people who belong to the [anti-Taliban] resistance and to those people who are living in refugee camps and who are going through great sufferings."
Even before the U.S. decided to launch strikes on the Taliban, over 1 million Afghans had left drought-affected areas and regions most affected by the conflict between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Hundreds of thousands more have left the country since the beginning of the U.S.-led military campaign on 7 October to reach makeshift refugee camps outside Afghanistan.
Solving the refugee crisis is one of the most urgent tasks that await the future government of Afghanistan and the international community.
Ensuring that the country does not spiral into clan warfare -- as happened after Soviet troops withdrew from the region in 1989 -- is another major concern.
The Northern Alliance has agreed to participate in a UN-sponsored conference of Afghan leaders that is scheduled to take place next week in the German capital, Berlin.
Rabbani told RFE/RL that he does not expect any breakthrough at the upcoming meeting, which he said will be a mere forum to discuss some broad issues. He also said that all decision-making pertaining to the country's political future should take place inside Afghanistan.
The UN is also considering dispatching an international peacekeeping force to Afghanistan to help prevent ethnic unrest. A number of countries -- including Germany, France, Turkey, and Jordan -- have already expressed their readiness to participate in such a force.
Rabbani did not mention a possible UN peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan. But he reiterated that the Northern Alliance would welcome only a limited foreign military force in the country: "In principle, we do not agree with the presence of foreign troops inside Afghanistan. But we do not object to a limited number of troops performing humanitarian and logistical duties."
Tensions have simmered over Britain's deployment of 100 elite soldiers north of Kabul, with Northern Alliance military commander Mohammad Qasim Fahim claiming that the operation was decided without his consent. Other anti-Taliban leaders later said any large-scale military deployment would have to be discussed with the UN.
(Aris Azizpoor of the Turkmen service contributed to this report.)