UN may choose Kabul for talks on power-sharing

War on Terrorism: Political Settlement
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The United Nations is considering calling leaders of Afghanistan's main tribal factions to Kabul, the capital city, early next week for the first conference on the creation of a new unity government.

King Zahir Shah, who has been in exile in Rome for the past 30 years, would not attend in person, but would send a senior representative.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN's special envoy on Afghanistan, made clear early this week that he wanted urgently to convene a meeting to begin the search for a political settlement in the country.

The meeting would probably take place outside Afghanistan, and possibly in the United Arab Emirates. But sources at the UN's headquarters in New York confirmed last night that while the UAE had been a strong option, Mr Brahimi was now looking at Kabul as a more appropriate venue. "[Kabul] remains a fairly small possibility, but one with growing popularity," one source said.

A final decision rests on several factors. The UN will want to ensure first that Francesc Vendrell, the UN deputy envoy to Afghanistan, arrives safely in Kabul, planned for today, and establishes some kind of office there. UN officials also want to see a greater presence in the next days of foreign forces in and around the capital. British troops, for instance, could play an crucial role in securing the city's airport.

Several players in this highly complicated game are likely to welcome Kabul as the venue because it would reinforce the message to the Northern Alliance that it does not have carte blanche to take control of the city – or, indeed, of the country – even though Alliance forces were responsible for liberating the capital this week.

That would be especially true of Pakistan. Aziz Ahmed Khan, a spokesman for its Foreign Ministry, said yesterday: "The movement of the Northern Alliance into Kabul is not the final step. The decision [on who will govern the country] has to be made by the international community." Moreover, it may not be easy to persuade leading political and military figures to leave Afghanistan when the scramble for power has already begun. To some extent, the process envisaged by Mr Brahimi and the UN Security Council has already started, with different bands of warlords and tribal leaders meeting around the country and carving up power.

The king in exile told Mr Brahimi that he would not attend the first round of the political conferences but would rather stay out of the initial fray. He would, however, send a delegation to represent him. The king would expect to attend subsequent conferences and, in particular, the traditional loya jirga, or grand conference, that would finally agree on a constitution and a transitional government.

Mr Brahimi is searching for a national figure who could command the respect of all the factions – or as many as possible – in the political process. He has been very careful not to identify who that person might be, although the 87-year-old former king remains an obvious candidate.

A useful, short-term role for the king looked more likely last night after several important factions from the Pashtun tribe – the largest in Afghanistan, from which the Taliban also drew most of its support – spoke out for him. "This is good news," one diplomat said. "We want the king to be a figure of national unity, and there had been some concern that he had been too warm to the Northern Alliance."

Meanwhile, diplomats in New York are watching closely the movements of the former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who is also the leader of the Northern Alliance. There were conflicting indications yesterday as to whether he was planning to make a symbolic return to Kabul, or would remain outside its limits.

Ravan Farhadi, an envoy for the Afghan opposition, told the UN General Assembly on Wednesday that his coalition had no intention of monopolising power. "All ethnic groups must be equally represented and given a voice," said Mr Farhadi, who represents the deposed government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, which is still recognised by the United Nations.

Conflicting messages continued to emerge from the Rabbani circle, however. A Northern Alliance spokesman, General Baryalai, told the Reuters news agency that Mr Rabbani was planning to return to Kabul soon.

"He will announce his decision about the current situation, transfer of the cabinet and his government once he arrives there," the spokesman said.

James Dobbins, who has been appointed by President George Bush as his envoy to the anti-Taliban forces, arrived in Islamabad on Wednesday night. He held talks with Pakistan's Foreign Secretary, Inamul Haq, at the start of a tour aimed at cobbling together a broad-based government to take over in Afghanistan.