Bonn deal hopes rise as talks hang in balance

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The talks in Bonn on the future of Afghanistan hung between modest success and carefully disguised failure last night, as one of the four delegations forecast that an agreement would be announced by the end of today, and the United Nations negotiators warned that much remained to be hammered out.

Both the UN and the delegates, were at pains to play down the significance of the first real drama of the four days of talks: the walk-out of one of the Northern Alliance's 11 delegates, an ethnic Pushtun.

The UN spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, confirmed that Abdul Hadir left the talks late on Thursday after differences with his delegation, but said it was "not a major setback".

According to Mr Fawzi, Mr Hadir was "unhappy with the Pushtun representation" at Bonn. Pushtuns constitute around 40 per cent of Afghanistan's population and, while there are ethnic Pushtuns in all four delegations taking part in the UN-sponsored talks, they are not separately represented, except by a small group comprising leaders of the mainly Pushtun exiles based in Pakistan. Of Mr Hadir's departure, the UN spokesman said: "We are very unhappy to see him go, but the show must go on". And individual members of other delegations tried to allay fears that he might agitate against any agreement reached in Bonn, saying that he had pledged before leaving to "accept the spirit" of the gathering and to support whatever was agreed. Mr Fawzi appeared less certain, however, and suggested that Mr Hadir might be included in a future administration – a strong hint that he might be more trouble outside than inside a future power structure.

The issue of Pushtun representation, however, is likely to remain problematical – if not at Bonn, then in the weeks ahead – as it masks another, still more sensitive question: whether former Taliban members and their sympathisers should be included in a new administration. The Taliban enjoyed its greatest support among Pushtuns and this association will make it hard to find untainted Pushtun leaders from inside Afghanistan.

Today is the fifth day of talks that the UN had said at the outset were likely to last between three and five days, and there were signs yesterday that the UN was pushing hard to have them completed by this evening. A late-evening session was held last night, where the first draft of a written agreement was due to be discussed.

But although everyone spoke of "positive progress" in the previous three days of talks, it was hard to divine precisely what progress had been made. The agenda, which included the principle of two interim leadership bodies – a smaller executive and a larger "supreme national council" – was accepted at the outset. That stage of talks, one Western diplomat said, had gone with the speed of "a running gazelle", compared to the start of such difficult talks as those over Bosnia or Northern Ireland.

As late as yesterday afternoon, however, the size of those two bodies, the principles on which members would be chosen, and the members themselves, were still in dispute, as was the precise role that the former king, Zahir Shah, might play – and when. Lists of nominees to the leadership bodies were being discussed within the four delegations, but they had not apparently reached the point of exchanging the lists with each other. Mr Fawzi referred to "heated discussions" within the delegations, while saying that the UN negotiators had not yet seen any of the lists of names. "Finding the right people to sit on these councils," he said delicately, "has not been an easy task."

It was also confirmed that delegates had barely got around to discussing perhaps the most vexed question of all: the provision of a multinational security force for Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance, whose forces occupy Kabul, have been reluctant to accept the need for such a force: Burhanuddin Rabbani, the president before the Taliban seized power and Northern Alliance leader, ruled out the deployment of more than 200 United Nations peace-keepers.

The other three delegations, including supporters of the former king, insist on such a force, perhaps even the demilitarisation of Kabul, before they will agree to take part in any Kabul-based interim administration.

Members of the delegation representing Cyprus-based exiles said that "every group has its own position" on security arrangements for Kabul. They also said that any final document from the Bonn talks had to be acceptable to the leaders of all four delegations and that they were all on an equal footing. "We all have only one vote on the final agreement," they said. The UN has insisted that any agreement reached in Bonn must be accepted unanimously.

Without agreement on a security force, then, it appears unlikely that any interim administration will be able to function, even if its composition is agreed.

There are indications that the four delegations might be prepared as a last resort to hand the UN responsibility for deciding on an outside security force. But this is not what the UN has in mind.

While stressing the lack of security prevailing, even in Northern Alliance-controlled areas, Mr Fawzi said: "We will only establish a security presence – in the form of military personnel and civilian police – once the Afghans ask us to do so. We need Afghan agreement on the composition and mandate of such a force."