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Afghanistan: Ethnic Turkmen Seek Peace-Building Role

Afghanistan's Turkmen community has sought to keep a neutral position amid the civil wars that have engulfed the country in recent years. Now, community leaders are hoping to help build stability in Afghanistan by proposing that Turkmen youths serve as peacekeepers alongside the new International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Kabul. 3 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's ethnic Turkmen community is known for being industrious and peaceful in a country whose recent history has made it difficult to be either.

As factional warfare dominated Afghan life from the end of the Soviet-Afghan war in 1989 to the recent collapse of the Taliban, the country's roughly 2 million ethnic Turkmen raised no significant military force of their own. Living largely in the northeastern areas controlled by ethnic Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum, they instead concentrated on maintaining a livelihood through the traditional pursuits of carpet weaving and agriculture.

Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Turkmen who fled to Pakistan during the 10-year Soviet occupation also survived by carpet weaving, gaining a reputation for self-sufficiency even within the refugee camps.

But the Turkmen community's determination to stay out of the post-Soviet Afghan fighting has come at a high political cost. With no warlords or power brokers to represent them on the national scene, the ethnic Turkmen had no voice in the Bonn peace deal in early December. The deal between four Afghan factions established an interim six-month government whose ministerial posts were shared among the signatory parties -- made up principally of Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks.

Now, in an effort to play more of a role in Afghanistan's nation-building, Turkmen community leaders have formed a "shura," or council, to meet with the interim government's top officials. The council is composed of intellectuals from the Turkmen refugee community in Pakistan and elders and other leaders of the Turkmen population in Afghanistan.

Delegates of the council recently visited Kabul and spoke with interim administration Chairman Hamid Karzai and a number of key ministers. The delegation continues to Mazar-i-Sharif early next week in hopes of also meeting with Dostum, who was recently named the interim administration's deputy defense minister.

One of the delegates, Jamahir Anwari, described the purpose of the visit to our correspondent. Anwari -- who holds a doctorate in biochemistry -- is a member of the Turkmen refugee community in Peshawar, where he is in private business.

Anwari said the council's priority is to convey to the leaders in the interim administration the Turkmen community's readiness to fully participate in rebuilding Afghanistan. He said that includes an offer to raise units of ethnic Turkmen peacekeepers to work alongside the United Nations-mandated ISAF.

"The Turkmen people did not want to take part in the feuding [of recent years]. Now we are ready to announce that we are prepared to play a role as peacekeepers if necessary," Anwari said. "Our young people volunteer to do duty beside the UN peace forces."

Anwari said Turkmen neutrality in the country's recent conflicts would make such peacekeeping units acceptable to all the country's ethnic groups. He said leaders of Afghanistan's other ethnic groups recently confirmed to the Turkmen council that they regard it, and the Turkmen community in general, as a neutral party.

"Our [Turkmen] people have formed a council, and all the other brother peoples of Afghanistan have accepted it as a neutral body. All of them have confirmed its neutrality," Anwari said.

The interim administration so far has made no public response to the Turkmen community's peacekeeping proposal. But the visiting Turkmen delegates say the idea was warmly received in meetings with Karzai and top cabinet members. The proposal has not been conveyed by the Turkmen council to the UN, or to Britain, which will lead the ISAF for its first three months.

The Turkmen council delegates also presented a statement to the interim administration, detailing their hopes for Afghanistan's future. These included establishment of local councils through elections based on a census of Afghanistan's ethnic groups, press freedom, respect for women's rights, public education at the primary level in students' mother tongues, and promotion and protection of all ethnic cultures.

The statement also endorsed the key points of the Bonn accord, including establishment of a loya jirga, or national assembly, to guarantee the participation of all elements of the Afghan population in nation-building. The loya jirga process is to lead to the establishment of a national parliament and government through elections in two years.

The Turkmen council delegation is due to spend next week in Mazar-i-Sharif before members from the refugee community in Pakistan return to Peshawar.