Moves to convene a conference in Europe to form a broad-based Afghan government appeared close to success yesterday when the Northern Alliance caved in to American and UN pressure and dropped its demands for a meeting in Kabul.
The UN had earlier accused the Alliance of obstructing the talks by insisting that the capital was the only possible venue. The Northern Alliance agreed to a neutral venue after its arm was twisted by the United Nations deputy envoy Francesc Vendrell, and James Dobbins, the US representative.
"It will be outside Afghanistan," the Northern Alliance Foreign Minister, Abdullah Abdullah, said in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, after talks with Mr Dobbins. "It could be this week. There is no obstacle as far as timing is concerned."
Mr Abdullah said the summit could take place in Germany, Switzerland or Austria. The Swiss Foreign Ministry said it was ready to host the conference. Geneva is a likely setting.
The UN wants an all-party Afghan conference under the chairmanship of Mohammed Zahir Shah, 87, partly because the deposed king enjoys support among his fellow Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan and the powerbase of the Taliban.
The US and other coalition countries are concerned that the Northern Alliance is assembling a government in Kabul that will exclude the dominant Pashtun ethnic group and rekindle internal strife.
In Rome, the ex-monarch said he welcomed signs of an imminent agreement. "With God's help, a political structure based on the free will of the Afghan people will materialise soon," he said.
Northern Alliance members and the former monarch, who was dethroned in a 1973 coup, had agreed on 1 October to form a unity council that would convene a loya jirga, a meeting of tribal elders, to select a new, broad-based government.
Mr Vendrell had a 45-minute meeting yesterday with Burhanuddin Rabbani – the Northern Alliance leader who has declared himself president of Afghanistan – during a hectic round of meetings with different factional leaders in Kabul to discuss the plan for a peace conference proposed by Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN's special envoy to Afghanistan.
Mr Vendrell was "confident" that the response to the conference proposal would be positive, said Eric Falt, a UN spokesman. Mr Falt would not be drawn on the UN's possible connection to the British troops at Bagram airfield, north of Kabul. Mr Vendrell had more meetings scheduled for last night, including "discussions with representatives of shura [councils] from Pashtun areas of south Afghanistan," Mr Falt said. "Lakhdar Brahimi wants to organise the conference as quickly as possible," he said. "Everyone is trying to find some common ground."
The Northern Alliance, which mainly represents the country's minority Tajiks and Uzbeks, is less keen than the US on the ex-king taking centre stage. Mr Rabbani, a Tajik, has said he is welcome to attend the conference but only as an ordinary citizen. Mr Rabbani has declared there must be no role for any former Taliban leaders in a new government, leaving a question mark over which Pashtun representatives would be included in the new regime.
Mr Dobbins said Washington was pressing for a quick meeting to form a new government. "Our view is that it should occur this week," he said.
The last time Mr Rabbani ruled Kabul, the groups that make up his alliance reduced large parts of the capital to rubble through factional fighting, killing thousands of people, most of them civilians.
Mr Vendrell said he was not surprised that the Northern Alliance had entered Kabul in defiance of appeals from the US and others to stay out.
"Kabul was there for the taking," he said. "For the moment, they have come here on a provisional basis."
While the UN and US keep up the pressure on the Afghan factions to agree on a post-Taliban administration that will avoid the errors of the previous Northern Alliance regime in the early 1990s, the UN has sent teams to Afghanistan to try to determine what it will take to reconstruct the nation, battered by six weeks of US bombing and two decades of civil war.
"The task is to rebuild the country," said Nitin Desai, a UN undersecretary-general for economic and social affairs, at a meeting of the world's finance ministers in Ottawa, Canada.
UN agencies, including the UN Development Program, are in talks with the World Bank and other institutions to study how to rebuild the country. UN officials will discuss the effort at meetings tomorrow in Washington co-hosted by the US and Japan, with other potential donors taking part.
While UN officials declined to estimate the cost, Joel Charny, the vice-president of Refugees International, a Washington-based group, estimated that "at least $1bn [£700m] would be needed for basic reconstruction, rehabilitating roads and irrigation networks, de-mining the country and putting in a workable telecommunications system."
Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, said in Ottawa that reconstruction is "going to be a long effort that will require sustained political will and the resources required to make it effective."
Even before the war, the US was the largest aid donor to Afghanistan, providing $175m last year. President George Bush added $320m to that on 4 October. Other nations, including Russia, have offered to help the country of about 26 million people, where one in four is at risk of starvation.