The United Nations talks on Afghanistan struck their first big obstacle yesterday, when the leader of the Northern Alliance delegation ruled out an immediate need for an outside force to keep order in the country.
Yunis Qanuni also rejected any role for the so-called "moderate Taliban" and called for all agreements on the country's future to be made "in the historic city of Kabul".
Mr Qanuni threw down his gauntlet at a hastily convened news conference on a riverboat moored at Koenigswinter that is serving as the media centre for the conference. He had descended from the hill-top fortress of Petersberg during an afternoon break in the talks.
While rumours had circulated about Northern Alliance intransigence since early in the morning, so early a move by one party to speak directly to the media was unexpected.
While none of Mr Qanuni's positions was new, conciliatory statements by senior Northern Alliance figures in advance of the talks had suggested flexibility and a readiness to share at least some of the power that United States' military force had helped the Alliance to win.
But although he stopped short of threatening an outright veto on a multinational force, Mr Qanuni rejected the idea no fewer than three times. "We believe and prefer that security be looked after by Afghans," he said. "We don't feel the need for an outside peace-keeping force. If extra security is needed, we can have [it] provided by other forces inside Afghanistan."
Of all the strictures voiced by Mr Qanuni, the objection to outside forces is the most serious. The United Nations and potential aid donors have made known that without such a force to keep order, at least in Kabul, the billions of dollars promised in foreign aid will not be forthcoming.
But agreement to such a force would also have a political function: it would reassure other groups, such as the Pashtuns of southern Afghanistan and the exiled groups represented in Bonn, that they will have a real voice in any interim administration.
Without that guarantee, they might simply not sign up, dooming the Bonn talks to failure on that crucial point as well. The link between the provision of aid and an agreement – if not at Bonn, then at an urgent follow-up meeting elsewhere – is hammered home by UN officials and foreign observers at every opportunity. In fact, it is the only real leverage the outsiders have, once US military operations are at an end, and it might not be enough.
The first hints of discord came on a day when UN officials chairing the talks adopted a far more cautious tone than the unalloyed optimism of the previous day. The UN spokesman quoted one delegate as saying: "These talks are not going to be easy; one grain of sand can stop the machine."
Francesc Vendrell, the deputy chairman of the talks, warned that, while the atmosphere was very good, "that doesn't mean that it will stay very good". He stressed the need to have an interim administration in place as soon as possible "so that Afghans know who is in charge" and stressed "the need to get away from these de facto situations that have been disturbing the Afghan scene since 1973".
Mr Vendrell said there was unlikely to be immediate agreement on a multilateral force, but pushed the idea of the exiled king Mohammed Zahir Shah, returning at least as a figurehead because of the "almost unanimous support he enjoys among all Afghans".
It is increasingly clear, however, that the devil is in the detail. There may be agreement in principle that the former king should have some role, but how much power should he wield? What title should he have? And who should decide: an as yet unselected provisional administration, a bigger provisional council, or a full tribal assembly (loya jirga) held on an emergency basis? Dozens of questions are arising in Bonn, and agreement on the answers could take a long time.Reuse content