Switch of venue points to troubles for Afghanistan conference

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The Independent Online

Talks on the future of Afghanistan sponsored by the United Nations and due to start on Monday were switched from Berlin to Bonn on Wednesday, exemplifying the on-the-hoof nature of planning for a broad-based Afghan government.

The German foreign ministry said the conference would be planned in such a way as to be "a purely internal Afghan meeting under the leadership of, and hosted by, the United Nations" in Germany. The former German capital is much smaller and quieter than Berlin. It also has a wealth of meeting facilities and accommodation that has been underused since most of the government moved to Berlin. The last-minute change of venue was apparently for reasons of security and seclusion.

The unexpectedly rapid fall of Kabul to Northern Alliance forces 10 days ago and the retreat of the Taliban meant that the UN had to translate its plans from the drawing board to reality as a matter of extreme diplomatic urgency. The longer the delay before discussions take place, UN diplomats fear, the more entrenched the Northern Alliance forces in Kabul become and the less amenable they may be to sharing power with other ethnic and political groupings.

There is a consensus among members of the US-led coalition formed after the terrorist attacks of 11 September that any post-Taliban government must be politically broad-based and representative of the ethnic composition of the country. Early indications were that agreement on even an interim administration, such as the type the UN says it hopes to set up, would be fraught with difficulty.

Preliminary arrangements for the conference provide for the participation of 30 people, representing four main groupings. As well as the predominantly Tajik Northern Alliance, there will be representatives of the former king and delegations from the two main exile groups – the mainly Pashtun exiles who met in Peshawar, Pakistan last month, and the mainly Hazara exiles, based in Cyprus, who are supported by Iran. Hazaras constitute 20 per cent of the population of Afghanistan, while the Pashtuns account for more than 40 per cent.

According to the UN, the talks will be purely internal Afghan talks, but interested outside parties, including the US and members of the coalition, as well as Pakistan, India, Iran and Russia, are expected to send representatives to be available for consultation. The most that is likely to come out of the meeting, which could last up to two weeks, is a formal commitment to the formation of a small, provisional administration. This would then convene a larger council and then a full tribal assembly, a loya jirga.

No time scale has been set for any but the first of these steps. Among the issues likely to be on the agenda is whether a multi-national force should be brought into Kabul to provide security. This would inevitably diminish the influence of the Northern Alliance, which has established its own policing – which is why the UN and non-Alliance groups are likely to support it, and why several Alliance commanders oppose it.

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