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Afghanistan: Foreign Minister Acknowledges Scale Of Task Ahead

In Afghanistan, the euphoria that followed the defeat of the Taliban and the installation of an interim government is gradually giving way to the realization that the road to stability and reconstruction will not be so smooth, even with most of the world supporting these efforts. The foreign minister of Afghanistan's interim government met with a small group of journalists this week in the capital, Kabul, and spoke about the country's future, the UN-brokered Bonn accords and the volatile security situation in the country.

Kabul, 17 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The problems in Afghanistan are so numerous that the foreign minister of the interim government says it is difficult to know where to begin.

Abdullah Abdullah agreed to meet with a small group of journalists at the Foreign Ministry in Kabul recently to discuss some of the many issues the government is facing and how plans for the impoverished country made at the Afghan conference in Bonn, Germany, in early December can be realized.

Among Abdullah's most interesting comments were those concerning the loya jirga, the grand council given the task of preparing a constitution for Afghanistan. The loya jirga process -- due to take place within the next six months -- is expected to lead to the establishment of a national parliament and government through elections in two years.

The exiled former Afghan king, Zahir Shah, is tasked with overseeing the loya jirga. Abdullah pointed out that the tradition of the loya jirga belongs to the Pashtun community of Afghanistan, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. But Abdullah noted that the world community is urging the formation of an elected government in which all the country's ethnic and religious groups will be represented.

So Abdullah said the loya jirga overseen by the former king will be a variation -- "the essence, the spirit" -- of the traditional council of Afghan elders. He said representatives from different parts of Afghanistan will be coming together to make decisions about the country's destiny.

"That's the important issue," Abdullah said, "not copying the versions of 18th or 19th or 20th century loya jirgas. That's not the need."

Abdullah also commented favorably on the UN-brokered agreement reached in Bonn in early December. He acknowledged the accord's flaws, but said it was a good compromise under the circumstances.

"But I think nobody should deny it is the best, the utmost, which could have been achieved after 23 years of war between various groups, different political entities in different regions of this country supported by different countries," Abdullah said. "And this is the first significant step toward giving the people of the Afghanistan the right to self-determination."

The security situation in Afghanistan is a major cause for concern. While the capital, Kabul, is relatively safe, there are conflicting reports about security in other major Afghan cities and along the roads connecting them.

Abdullah estimates that there are some 600,000 to 700,000 armed people still roaming the country. Afghans traditionally carry weapons, but Abdullah was speaking specifically about former combatants and the forces of the country's many warlords.

Afghan Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim has indicated he wants only a minimal foreign troop presence in Afghanistan, and that such troops should be deployed only in Kabul.

But Abdullah said that until the country creates its own national security force, the presence of soldiers from the International Security Assistance Force is crucial and that these soldiers also will need to be placed in cities other than Kabul. He explained why this has not already happened: "Since there is no agreement at this stage about positioning multinational forces in different parts of the country, this has not taken place. But there is the need for positioning multinational forces in different parts of the country -- east and south."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in Kabul earlier today and promised that the U.S. will make a significant contribution to Afghanistan's reconstruction needs at a donor's conference in Tokyo on 21-22 January.

Though the Afghan government expects the going to be difficult, judging from Abdullah's comments, it is just now sinking in how hard it will be to return the country to stability after 23 years of war.