Peace in Afghanistan at stake as factions open difficult talks in Germany

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The Independent Online

With regional stability and billions in international aid at stake, Afghan factions opened talks on how to share power and secure peace once the Taliban are defeated.

Three Afghan exile groups and the US–backed northern alliance that now controls much of the country faced huge international pressure to make the U.N.–sponsored talks in Germany a success.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer opened the conference at a luxury hotel overlooking the Rhine River with an appeal to the delegates to reach consensus that will deliver peace and stability to the Afghan people.

"I urge you all to forge a truly historic compromise that holds out a better future for your torn country and its people," Fischer said. "The international community is prepared to make this great effort."

Fischer said the world had "clear expectations." The delegates must agree on binding rules and respect for human rights, for all Afghans, men and women.

Leaders of each of the four delegations gathered around the 36–seat table gave opening remarks, before the delegations were to break up into a shifting series of groups.

"Today our people want a role in the future of the government to guarantee national unity, peace and stability," the leader of the northern alliance delegation Younus Qanooni. "We must now focus on rebuilding Afghanistan."

Before the conference opened, Ahmad Fawzi, the U.N. spokesman for Afghanistan, said that the Afghan groups must decide on an interim authority in less than a week.

"We have no illusions that we'll resolve the problems of Afghanistan in three days. We are looking at a timeframe of three to five days for the Afghan groups to decide on an interim authority," Fawzi said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

"Before, we had said we would be here as long as it takes. But now, we see the need for the Afghan groups to agree as soon as possible," Fawzi said.

He said the mood before the talks was "workmanlike, serious and committed."

Leaders of the various factions have sent their deputies and the groups involved represent only the key combatants and prominent exile groups.

But the talks at a secluded luxury hotel above Bonn, Germany, are seen as a historic opportunity to stabilize Afghanistan and avert a repeat of fighting between rival warlords after they drove out Soviet occupiers in 1989.

"Afghanistan is a very big, fractured country at the moment," Fawzi said Monday. "We're very lucky we've got the four groups together.

"It's the best we can do at this stage," he said. "It's only the first step along a very long road."

Diplomats from the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom and neighbors such as Pakistan and Iran will be exerting influence in the corridors, though they won't sit at the negotiating table.

Many countries, including the United States, see exiled former King Mohammad Zaher Shah as a strong, symbolically powerful candidate for heading an interim administration.

As a Pashtun, he represents the largest Afghan group but he has been in exile in Rome since being ousted in a 1973 coup.

"The king's role is that of a father figure," said his grandson Mostapha Zaher, who is attending the talks. "He has remained neutral and not taken sides."

The other leading figure is Burhanuddin Rabbani, a Tajik, who heads the northern alliance, has retaken the capital, Kabul, and is recognized as Afghan president by the United Nations.

Western nations have linked the prospect of billions in reconstruction aid to the creation of an interim administration and respect to human rights by Afghanistan's new rulers.

"Until there is a government that is broadly representative and recognized by us, there's not going to be any reconstruction assistance," a senior US official close to the talks said on condition of anonymity.

U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi also hopes to prod the reluctant Afghans toward accepting an international security force, in part to provide security for aid transports.

"It's their choice," Fawzi said. "They know what the international community has to offer."

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