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Afghanistan: British Foreign Secretary Drums Up Pakistani Support For Bonn Talks

  • Jeremy Bransten

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, today for talks with President Pervez Musharraf and Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar. Straw, who arrived from Tehran, is on a tour of the region to shore up support for upcoming UN-sponsored talks in Bonn aimed at forming a broad-based coalition government in Afghanistan.

Islamabad, 23 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw sounded optimistic in a briefing to journalists in Islamabad following talks today with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar. Straw said he believed the UN-sponsored Bonn conference on Afghanistan, which is due to get underway on 26 November, could lead to the formation of a broad-based transitional government: "There is a wide consensus for and a genuine commitment to the political process, which begins in Bonn under UN auspices next week. And I'm confident that there's a real chance of a government of national unity emerging from this process."

But Straw's cheerful tone was dampened by the Pakistani foreign minister, who expressed concern at a joint news conference earlier in the day that not all Afghan factions will be represented at the Bonn talks. Abdul Sattar urged the UN envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, to revise the invitation list to the discussions: "New forces are rising in different parts of [Afghanistan], and we only hope and pray that the choice [of representatives] that [UN envoy to Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi] makes will actually lead to the formation of a broad-based, transitional administration, and maybe there will be time for revision [of those invited]."

Pakistan is worried that a post-Taliban political settlement will marginalize the ethnic Pashtuns, who make up an estimated 40 percent of Afghanistan's population and are a part of Pakistan's own ethnic makeup. If this occurs, Islamabad says, the seeds of continuing conflict in Afghanistan will have been sown. The anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, which now controls Kabul and most of the country, is dominated by ethnic minority Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras.

Sattar drew a parallel with those generals of the Northern Alliance who were once allied with the Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. He said they had been forgiven for their previous allegiances, and this should serve as a precedent for treating former Taliban officials.

But so far, no Taliban envoys have been invited to attend the Bonn conference, and the principal Pashtun representatives expected to attend will be emissaries of exiled former Afghan King Zahir Shah.

Straw, at the briefing, acknowledged Sattar's concern but remained noncommittal. He did acknowledge that a distinction had to be drawn between what he termed Taliban "core fanatics" and those who supported the movement because "the alternative was a bullet in the back." Straw said nominal Taliban supporters who had joined the movement out of necessity could still have a political future in the new Afghan administration.

The UN's deputy envoy to Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, has also worked to temper optimism about the Bonn conference. Vendrell said today in Islamabad, after talks with Straw, that there remains a great deal of mistrust between various Afghan factions, as well as within each faction. Vendrell called for some kind of international security force in Afghanistan and said some Afghans might prefer that option to control by rival groups.

But on this point, Straw told the briefing that such a force could only come after a political agreement by the parties on the ground: "What needs to be borne in mind is that such forces could only come in with the consent of any new civil administration. And so decisions on such forces, unless there was a very urgent need meanwhile, would probably have to wait until there was some conclusion to the Bonn meetings. You can't bring these forces in, in a hostile environment."

So far, the Northern Alliance has been cool to the idea of foreign peacekeepers. Much negotiating on the issue remains to be done. But what is clear is that something will have to be done soon if Afghanistan is not to slip back into a state of anarchy and warfare.

Reports from UN staffers and journalists trickling back into Afghanistan indicate the security situation remains highly unstable. UN personnel are only able to operate freely around the clock within the city limits of the capital, Kabul, and during the day, in limited fashion, in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Rival armed groups clashed as late as yesterday at Maidan Shahr, just 30 kilometers west of Kabul, making a major road into the capital impassable.

Filippo Grandi, regional emergency coordinator for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who just returned from a week in the Afghan capital, told journalists in Islamabad today that security -- or lack of it -- remains the number one concern inside Afghanistan.