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Afghanistan: Peace -- Many Difficulties Lie Ahead

Prague, 15 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The acting head of the United Nations Special Mission for Afghanistan, Andrew Tesoriere, gave the surprising news from the Afghan peace talks in Ashgabat:

"Both sides agreed to form a shared executive, a shared legislature, and a shared judiciary."

Tesoriere's announcement in the Turkmen capital on Sunday appears to mean that after years of bitter conflict, a few days of direct talks between Afghanistan's Taliban militia and the northern opposition alliance have succeeded beyond anyone's wildest hopes.

Apart from power sharing, the UN official said, the two sides have also agreed to arrange an initial prisoner exchange, and to hold a fresh round of peace talks in two weeks.

So is peace breaking out in Afghanistan? Regional experts caution that the difficulties are just starting, rather than ending.

RFE/RL's Afghan specialist Bruce Pannier notes that after the bloodshed and atrocities of recent years, even those with short memories will find such a sudden reconciliation difficult. Pannier recalls that between 2,000 and 3,000 Taliban militiamen were slaughtered in 1997 when the northern opposition forces trapped them in Mazar-i-Sharif. In turn, the following year when the Taliban re-entered that city, there were gruesome tales of retaliation.

Another Afghan analyst, Tony Davis, who writes for Jane's military publishing organization, told RFE/RL the Ashgabat accord appears to contradict the essential direction of Taliban policy until the present.

"It is highly significant that both parties have made an agreement in principle to share power because, up until now, from the inception of the Taliban movement in late 1994 they have maintained without equivocation that they have a right and a duty, indeed a religious and moral duty, to unify Afghanistan under their own rule. So now they are for the first time entertaining the idea of power sharing."

Considering that the Taliban control some 90 percent of Afghan territory, the question is whether they will seriously want to share major positions of power, from state president through prime minister on downwards, with a former opponent who control only 10 percent.

And Davis cautions that many basic questions still have to be resolved, presumably at subsequent rounds of peace talks. Not the least of these is the type of state Afghanistan should be in the future. Should it be a centralized state, as in the past, or -- as has been suggested during the war -- would it work better with a quasi-federal system, which would allow the parties to retain their very different visions of society?

As for the northern alliance, a key figure in that coalition is Afghan President Burhannudin Rabbani, who was ousted by the Taliban but is still recognized as Afghan head of state by most of the world community. Pannier points out, however, that there are some doubts about exactly how much influence he had within the opposition delegation in Asgabat.

"It seems the delegation consisted of representatives of Ahmad Shah Masoud, Rabbani's defense minister. Rabbani has spent much of his time outside Afghanistan since he fled Kabul in 1997. By contrast Masoud, a very skilled military commander, has hardly left the country in that time and has waged the most effective resistance to the Taliban forces."

Has the opposition coalition, therefore, in fact become a vehicle for Masoud, the only remaining opposition figure presenting a significant military obstacle to the Taliban?

Despite looming difficulties, the outcome of the Ashgabat talks represent some hope for the people of Afghanistan after nearly two decades of fighting among various factions in their country.