There comes a time in any conflict when everything seems to come together at a single crossroads, when the outlines of a resolution are clarified and the combatants face their starkest choices. The conflict in Afghanistan has reached just such a juncture.
With the fall of Kunduz to the Northern Alliance, the diehards of the Taliban regime are now holding out only in the southern city of Kandahar, from which they began their assault on power. The United States, wary until now of committing its forces to ground combat in a land that has defeated so many outsiders, is assembling a force of several thousand within striking distance of that city.
And even as the battle for Kandahar looms, some 30 Afghan delegates from inside and outside the country have assembled near the former German capital, Bonn, for the purpose of forming an interim government. On the face of it, the prospects for any agreement, let alone agreement on an interim administration, look dim. With the fighting not yet over, and the risk of a new flare-up, such as took place in Mazar-i-Sharif, ever present, it might be judged too early for the talking to start.
In the circumstances, however, it is arguably almost too late. The collapse of the Taliban was so rapid and so comprehensive that all parties with an interest in Afghanistan's future were left scrambling for some acceptable form of administration to replace it. The conditions were, and are, that Afghanistan should be governed by Afghans; that any new government should be representative of the population in all its diversity; and that no one ethnic or political group should dominate.
The ever-deeper entrenchment of the Northern Alliance in Kabul risks making those objectives less and less attainable. Dominated by Tajiks and with a fair sprinkling of Uzbeks, a Northern Alliance administration would leave the largest ethnic group in the country, the Pashtun, with no representation at the centre of power. It would thus create precisely those conditions that fostered the rise of the predominantly Pashtun Taliban in the first place.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy to Afghanistan who will chair the talks that open today in Bonn, confronts one of the most difficult tasks that has faced any diplomat. At stake is not only the future of Afghanistan – a tough enough assignment in itself – but the stability of the whole region. While the only parties doing the direct talking today will be Afghans, no fewer than 18 countries, including Pakistan, India, Britain, Iran and Russia, have sent representatives of their own. They must resist the temptation to chivvy, lobby or otherwise exert pressure from the sidelines.
The greatest responsibility, though, rests squarely with the 20 or so Afghan delegates themselves. They have not only to bury many hatchets from the past, but to consider those who are not directly represented at the talks. These groups include former members of the Taliban and their supporters; they also include Afghanistan's women. Juxtaposing those two groups alone illustrates the enormity of the task.
The representation at Bonn is less broad than it might, ideally, have been, and less senior. The Northern Alliance has a slight advantage in numbers, but its delegation can negotiate with the knowledge that it holds real power on the ground. The onus therefore rests mainly on the 10 men and one woman who will negotiate in the name of the Alliance today: they must yield enough to convince other groups that their voices will be heard, but not so much that their own side rejects the agreement they have tried to make. After a generation of civil war, it is a tall order, but one that can surely be met, if only everyone wants peace enough.Reuse content