Talks between delegates representing four Afghan factions on how to share power and secure peace in their country got off to a fast start today at a U.N.-sponsored conference in Germany. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos reports from Bonn.
Bonn, 27 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Delegates from the Northern Alliance, a group of exiles backing former the king, Zahir Shah, and two other smaller exile groups (the Cyprus delegation and the Peshawar delegation) began meeting today at a secluded luxury hotel overlooking the Rhine River in Petersberg, Germany -- near Bonn.
The delegates face the difficult task of overcoming ethnic divides and constructing a broad-based transitional government that will stabilize the country after the fall of the Taliban.
"So far, so good," says UN spokesman Ahmad Fawzi, who spoke with reporters today in broad terms about developments at the closed talks. Fawzi says the leaders of the four delegations spoke of the meeting as the beginning of a new era and described their thirst for peace in Afghanistan which has been besieged by war for more than 20 years.
Fawzi said he has already seen delegates from different factions meeting together for smaller talks.
Fawzi said a phone call this morning from Pashtun leader Sayed Hamid Karzai in southern Afghanistan reflects that Afghan leaders view the conference as a chance to work together to overcome old hostilities.
"He [Karzai] said we are one nation, one culture. We are united, not divided. We all believe in Islam. But we believe in Islam that is a religion of tolerance. We have been made extremely poor and vulnerable, he said, but we are a strong people who would like to assert our will and our sense of self-determination, so that we can really live in an environment of brotherhood and mutual respect. This meeting, he said, is the path towards salvation. All the people I've talked to in Afghanistan believe in a Loya Jirga as the vehicle for bringing in a legitimate government. The interim authority is a means to getting to a Loya Jirga."
The delegates are meeting for an estimated three to five days with the goal of deciding on an interim administration that will govern Afghanistan for a period of three to six months. They are also deciding on an interim council, which will lead to the formation of a Loya Jirga. The Loya Jirga will then create a two-year transitional government, which will decide on a constitution for the country. Fawzi says:
"Democracy is, indeed, a very important component for the future of Afghanistan, and I'll tell you how it's going to work. There's an interim phase and then there's a transitional phase. What we're talking about here today is an interim phase -- getting these two bodies together. During the transitional phase after the Loya Jirga, which will last up to two years, the transitional authority in power and the transitional national council will work on a constitution -- a constitution that protects human rights, that establishes a democratic system of government, that ensures equal rights of all, that ensures good relations with its neighbors, that ensures education for girls, that combats terrorism wherever it is."
There is no exact method for the delegates to decide on the formation of the interim council and the administration. Fawzi said the delegates will discuss the bodies during small working groups. He said the UN is not insisting on a timetable for when the talks should end, but he emphasized that officials hope decisions will be made sooner rather than later.
"Time is of the essence. Speed is very important in concluding a deal. We don't want to rush them, but the situation on the ground is changing so rapidly that we have to bear that in mind. The land needs to be ruled. It needs an authority. It needs an administration, and we need to put that in place as soon as possible. And the people who have come to Bonn have said more or less the same: 'We are eager to move ahead to rebuild our institutions and our economies.' "
Northern Alliance Interior Minister Younus Qanooni addressed the opening session, along with leaders of the other delegations. He said the Northern Alliance is ready to cooperate with the other Afghan factions and is seeking a "power-sharing" government.
"We want national unity and the formation of a system in which all different ethnic groups, including women and men, could participate in the political life of Afghanistan in a just manner."
Qanooni said the Northern Alliance has come "wholeheartedly" to Bonn and will support any initiative or proposal that will lead Afghanistan toward reconciliation.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer opened the talks this morning, calling them a "historic moment" for Afghanistan.
"Afghanistan has a great opportunity now to win peace and reconstruction in a united, independent Afghanistan. Now, a future where terrorism and violence will have no place is at hand."
Fischer said the United Nations, the European Union, and Germany -- home to some 90,000 Afghans -- is ready to aid the country in its pursuit of peace. Germany has already pledged close to $80 million in reconstruction aid to Afghanistan. Joschka said the money will be used to restore education, particularly to women and girls, and in developing the country's infrastructure.
Western nations have linked the prospect of billion of dollars in reconstruction aid to the creation of a broad-based interim administration and to respect for human rights by Afghanistan's new rulers.