When the four Afghan delegations first met in formal session at the Petersberg hotel, near Bonn, 10 days ago, the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, sent a pointed message. He said they had to prove wrong the sceptics who believed they would only "repeat the mistakes of the past".
Yesterday, as the sun shone down for the first time since that opening day, the 28 delegates, shepherded by two of the UN's expert negotiators – Lakhdar Brahimi, an Algerian, and Francesc Vendrell, a Catalan – confounded the sceptics.
One by one, they signed an agreement setting out the steps of a 30-month transition to constitutional government and they surprised even the most optimistic of observers by agreeing a full list of names for an interim government. The British special envoy to the talks, Robert Cooper, a diplomat not given to hyperbole, said the outcome was "miraculous".
They were four very disparate groups – the battle-hardened Northern Alliance, which now wields power in Kabul, the suavely cosmopolitan Royalist supporters based in Rome, and two smaller groups: one representing the mainly ethnic Pashtun Pakistan emigration, and the other the Cyprus-based exiles, who tend to look towards Iran. As Mr Brahimi conceded, they were hardly representative of Afghanistan.
But, as he also said, it was the best that could be done in such extraordinary circumstances. America's "war on terrorism" had toppled Afghanistan's fundamentalist Taliban rulers and threatened a new upsurge in the country's 23-year civil war, as well as widespread famine this winter. The purpose of the talks was to lay the basis for a "broad-based government", ethnic harmony, and the rule of law. But the agreement signed yesterday still holds identifiable risks:
The speed with which the Northern Alliance reached Kabul on the back of American bombing gave them an inbuilt advantage at the Bonn talks but they were, none the less, chivvied into conceding some of their newly won power. Although members dominate the new interim administration, they do not hold the chairmanship, which has gone to Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun with blood ties to the former king.
They retain three of the most important portfolios – interior, defence and foreign affairs – but there are other posts, finance, reconstruction and planning, that they do not hold and which could command significant clout if and when foreign aid starts to flow.
The Rabbani factor
One factor militating against the Northern Alliance making a new grab for power is the split that emerged in its ranks during the Bonn talks. The group's nominal leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who is the last pre-Taliban president of Afghanistan, opposed the installation of any foreign forces in Kabul. He wanted all the leadership posts to be decided at a Kabul meeting and he wanted to keep de facto power in Kabul through the proposed first six-month transitional period. He lost on all counts.
In making the appointments, the main stumbling block was not its choice of chairman, which was unanimously in favour of the Pashtun Mr Karzai but the carve-up of the other posts to ensure a spread of ethnic representation. The 30-strong cabinet will include 11 Pashtuns, eight Tajiks, five from the Shia Hazara population and three Uzbeks – a distribution corresponding approximately to the ethnic composition of the country. Mr Brahimi said no group was satisfied with its allocation, as each believes that it is more numerous than official estimates say, but the fear felt by the Pashtuns has been partially allayed, in that they hold a majority of posts, even though the Northern Alliance, dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks, is the politically dominant group.
Royal supporters would like to see the return of the former king in some capacity. Other groups (the Northern Alliance and pro-Iran group) opposed any more than a symbolic role for him). The king will have a role at the emergency loya jirga but whether he will open it, preside over it or simply be there is not specified.
Women have two posts in the 30-member administration, including one of the vice-chairman posts. That is two more leadership posts than they had under the Taliban but not as many as some hoped. The vice-chairman, Sima Samar, will be minister for women and is a prominent social worker, working among refugees in Peshawar. The second, Suhaila Seddiqi, who will be health minister, is a retired army general and doctor who has remained in Kabul.
A multinational force
The Northern Alliance was reluctant to support the intervention of foreign peace-keepers, while the other three delegations insisted on it as a condition of taking part in a new Kabul government. The accord says the delegates at Bonn have already asked the UN to "consider authorising the early deployment to Afghanistan of a UN mandated force". Such a force would, in the first instance, "assist in the maintenance of security for Kabul and its surrounding areas" but could, "as appropriate, be progressively expanded to other urban centres and other areas".
It says nothing about the make-up of such a force but several groups expressed a preference for Muslim troops. The UN is to consider a resolution on a force for Kabul in the next few days.
Perhaps the greatest threat to any agreement is a force mentioned nowhere in the Bonn agreement: the Taliban. Although they are clearly finished as a military force, the Islamic fundamentalism, perceived incorruptibility and strict approach to laws that appealed to many Pashtuns in the south of the country, still have an appeal. The new – more Westernised and technocratic – administration ignores those sympathies at its peril.