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Afghanistan: UN To Sponsor Talks With Northern Alliance

The Northern Alliance has agreed to participate in a UN-sponsored conference of Afghan leaders in Berlin next week to discuss the future of Afghanistan's government. A UN special envoy to Afghanistan announced the agreement today at a news conference in Kabul. Though attendance by the Northern Alliance is seen as crucial for the conference to have any chance of success, formidable challenges still remain.

Prague, 20 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan has been without a central government since the Taliban pulled out of the capital, Kabul, on 13 November. The power vacuum has raised fears the country could again descend into anarchic, factional fighting.

Francesc Vendrell, a deputy to the UN's top envoy for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, said today the opposition Northern Alliance has agreed to talks expected to take place on 26 November in Berlin. The talks are aimed at creating a broad-based interim government in the country.

"The authorities of the United Front [Northern Alliance] have accepted the invitation of the [UN] secretary-general to attend the meeting in Germany that we hope to open next Monday (26 November)."

Vendrell says the acceptance signals the arrival of a new era in Afghanistan.

"The fact that the [Northern Alliance] are willing to travel abroad in these rather challenging circumstances is a signal of flexibility. It's a signal that we are in a completely different era, in a different period. We are very hopeful that this acceptance and that meeting in Germany will be a first but very important step towards achieving the dreams and the hopes of all Afghans -- that is, to have a peaceful, united Afghanistan completely independent, self-governing, with a government that represents the genuine views of the people."

But formidable questions still face the conference, which will likely seek a power-sharing formula that would give appropriate weight to the country's many factions -- Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras from the north and Pashtun groups from the south.

The U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, James Dobbins, says alliance leaders are committed to forming a multiethnic government in which the Pashtuns would be properly represented.

But Afghanistan's former president said today that key decisions about any future power-sharing government must be made at meetings held inside the country. Burhanuddin Rabbani told CNN today that the talks the UN will convene in Germany next week are only an initial step toward building a government.

Rabbani said the Berlin meeting will mostly be what he called "symbolic." He added that he will "insist" that all crucial decision-making occur inside Afghanistan.

Oliver Roy from the National Center of Scientific Research in Paris says Rabbani is trying to assert himself as the future leader of Afghanistan.

"We are in a beginning situation where everybody is trying to raise the stakes in order to push for a maximum share of power for himself. But the agenda is a coalition government, not the restoration of one leadership in Afghanistan."

There was no word today on the key question of who would represent the country's largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns.

There's a widespread belief that the talks have little chance of succeeding if the Pashtuns, who account for some 40 percent of the country's population, do not take part. Most Taliban leaders and supporters are Pashtuns. The Taliban, which still controls parts of southern Afghanistan, is not expected to be included in the talks.

Roy says that, so far, there is no central figure to represent the Pashtun community.

"Until now, the Pashtuns from Kandahar do not have a real and united representation. Of course, there is Mr. Hamid Karzai, who is playing a big role in defeating the Taliban around Kandahar. But still it has not been transformed into political representation."

Hamid Karzai, a prominent Pashtun tribal leader, has been in southern Afghanistan, trying to rally a Pashtun alternative to the Taliban.

Timothy Garden of the Royal Institute for International Studies in London says that southern Pashtun leaders will have a difficult time negotiating with the Northern Alliance. He adds that there are also divisions within the ethnic groups that make up the Northern Alliance.

"There's obviously quite a push from the Pashtuns in the south that they would like a separate country. So there is a big question about whether we end up with a divided Afghanistan, which would be a big mistake. But there's also a problem of the Hazara being a bit at odds with the leadership that is already in place in Kabul with the Northern Alliance."

Prior to Taliban rule, warlords -- many of whom are now commanders in the Northern Alliance -- engaged in bitter battles over control of Kabul, killing thousands of civilians. But Garden thinks Northern Alliance leaders are unlikely to fight each other for territory now.

"There is a growing awareness from a number of members of the leadership of the Northern Alliance that they will have to come to some accommodation if they want to tap into the wealth of the West to rebuild the country, and if they want the people to support them."

Garden says the best formula for a future Afghan government is one that allows for a loose centralized government based on local, regional rule.

"But if we're not to end up with splits and fights over territory, it's got to be a local regional government that meets together in some way to have an interest in the totality of how Afghanistan is run, and the UN has got to broker that agreement. It will probably take two or three years to get to that stage. In the interim, while all that is being arranged and the process for elections is being agreed, they're going to have to have some form of stabilizing force which stops intergroup conflict getting worse and worse, as it did in the past."

To ensure Afghanistan does not spiral into tribal warfare, Garden says peacekeeping troops must stabilize the country. In particular, he says, Muslim countries like Jordan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia must provide significant numbers of military troops to ensure that a transitional government will be able to take root.