UN conference on Afghanistan may be held this week

War on Terrorism: Diplomacy
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The Independent Online

Hopes rose on Monday night that a United Nations-sponsored conference could be held this week, bringing together all parties interested in forming an interim administration in Afghanistan. A venue has not been finalised, but the Northern Alliance has dropped its insistence that the meeting be held in Kabul, and the likely option is now Berlin.

The UN had been trying to organise the conference before Kabul fell to forces from the Northern Alliance. But events on the ground moved faster than the diplomacy in New York, and the UN has faced criticism for its slow response.

Yesterday, when the British envoy Stephen Evans arrived in Kabul, Britain, Russia, Iran and the United Nations all had diplomats in Afghanistan. Mr Evans is charged with reopening the British embassy, which has had no ambassador since the Soviet invasion in 1979. He landed at Bagram airport, which is guarded by the British Special Boat Service.

A 12-member Russian team arrived in Kabul at the weekend, also with the stated intention of reopening their embassy and "assisting with the political process". The Russians were the first foreign delegation in Kabul after it fell to the Northern Alliance. Iran, which has already reopened its consulate in the western city of Herat, is planning to station diplomats in Kabul.

The UN special envoy to Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, held a series of meetings in Kabul yesterday with the former president, Burhanuddin Rabbani. He said afterwards that he was hopeful an interim government could be formed, with the prospect of elections in three years' time. Mr Rabbani returned to the city on Saturday, five years after being ousted by the Taliban.

There had been concern that the Northern Alliance would refuse to send a delegation to UN-brokered talks outside Afghanistan, but its foreign affairs spokesman, Abdullah Abdullah, lifted his objections after a meeting in Uzbekistan with the US envoy, James Dobbins.

While it now appears that the multi-party, multi-ethnic forum is on the cards, the scramble of foreign diplomats to reach Kabul indicates that no one wants to be caught unawares. Most of Afghanistan is now in the hands of Northern Alliance forces, under different regional commands. Only Kunduz in the north and Kandahar in the south were still in Taliban hands yesterday, with Kunduz said to be on the verge of falling.

Of the countries with a direct interest in the future shape of an Afghan government, only Pakistan and India have sent no diplomats. Pakistan insists that elements of the Taliban should be represented in any new government – a demand rejected by Russia.

The US has taken a back seat in the diplomatic effort since it started bombing, but it is not without a presence at the centre of the action. The Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said last week that US special forces had been in the Afghan capital a full week before it fell.