- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 21, 2001

Afghanistan's long-divided opposition factions have agreed to meet in Berlin as early as Monday to begin work on a post-Taliban government.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who met here yesterday with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, told reporters that Germany was "honored" to host the U.N.-sponsored talks, which will be held behind closed doors at a new conference center in the Foreign Ministry in the heart of the city.
"I think it's very important to push forward now and speed up this political process," Mr. Fischer said of the meeting intended to bring a measure of stability to a country that has known only war and deprivation for more than two decades.
Even with the U.S.-led military campaign against the fundamentalist Taliban regime still raging, U.S. and U.N. officials consider the talks vital to avoid a replay of the factional and ethnic infighting of the mid-1990s. The chronically weak government of that period cleared the way for the Taliban to seize power in 1996 and create a safe haven for the al Qaeda terrorist network of Saudi-born financier Osama bin Laden.
The announcement of the Berlin gathering came after intense talks in Kabul between U.S. and U.N. envoys and leaders of the Northern Alliance, a collection of rebel groups that ousted the Taliban forces from the capital last week.
Francesc Vendrell, the U.N. deputy envoy for Afghanistan, told reporters in Kabul he hoped the Northern Alliance's agreement to attend the talks "will be the first of some very important steps towards achieving the dreams and hopes of all Afghans."
U.N. officials see the Berlin talks as the kickoff to an extended process that will include the creation of a short-term transitional government, the writing of a new Afghan constitution and the establishment of a broad-based, multiethnic new regime in Kabul.
Mr. Vendrell praised Northern Alliance leaders for dropping a demand that the all-hands meeting be held in Kabul, which their troops control.
"The fact that [Northern Alliance leaders] are willing to travel abroad in these rather challenging circumstances is a signal of flexibility, is a signal that we are in a completely different era," Mr. Vendrell said.
But the alliance, whose unexpectedly swift string of military successes in recent days has put it in a commanding position, may not be willing to share power or make further concessions so easily.
Northern Alliance President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who has already declared himself the country's de facto head of state, told CNN yesterday the Berlin meeting would be the exception.
"We can have the first gathering in a neutral country, in Europe," Mr. Rabbani said. "But this gathering would only be symbolic."
Expected to attend the Berlin meeting along with Northern Alliance leaders are representatives of the exiled former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who now lives in Rome, and leaders of the southern-based ethnic Pashtun tribes.
A spokesman for the king in Rome said yesterday the ex-monarch, who many believe is the only figure capable of uniting the country's various groups, had agreed "in principle" to send an eight-person delegation to the talks.
The Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group, have chafed openly at the military successes of the Northern Alliance, which is dominated by ethnic Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara commanders. Both the former king and many senior officials of the Taliban are Pashtun, and any power-sharing talks in Berlin promise to be highly contentious.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations' point man on Afghanistan and Mr. Vendrell's boss, said Friday that two opposition groups, one with ties to Iran and one closely allied with Pakistan, would also be included in the Berlin talks.
The Iranian-allied group, known in diplomatic circles as the "Cyprus Process," was established with financial backing from Tehran to challenge the 87-year-old ex-king's efforts to reclaim authority. But it has been harshly criticized for including relatives and allies of former Afghan commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whom many blame for bringing down the Kabul government in 1996 and clearing the way for the Taliban to seize power.
Pakistan, which has long vied with Iran for influence in Afghanistan, has ties to a fourth group granted a seat at the Berlin table. The "Peshawar convention" has been the primary political vehicle for tribal elders and former military leaders of the estimated 1,500 Pashtun groups living in exile in Pakistan.
The Pakistani-based group's most prominent leader is Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani, a former commander in the war against the Soviet occupiers who enjoyed close ties to the CIA.
The Pashtun exile groups have favored a restoration of the former king, a fellow Pashtun.
Despite Pakistan's urging, Mr. Vendrell said "moderate Taliban" elements would not be invited to the Germany talks. He said the regime was on the verge of collapse and that its leaders were not a legitimate representative of Pashtun interests.
"The meeting will be as representative as we can make it, given the short time," Mr. Vendrell said. "This does not mean every Afghan will feel totally happy, totally represented."
An early flash point in the new post-Taliban regime will be security. The Northern Alliance has expressed reservations about a U.N. demand to withdraw its forces from Kabul and allow a multinational security force to take over as the government-building talks proceed.
Contingents of French and British troops dispatched to Afghanistan for peacekeeping and humanitarian missions have been held up by Northern Alliance officials in recent days.
"We see no need" for more foreign troops, alliance Interior Minister Younis Qanooni told the Pakistani daily Dawn on Monday.
The United States and its allies have been eager to draft troops from Muslim-majority countries for future peacekeeping duties in Afghanistan, a recognition of the tensions in the Islamic world surrounding the campaign.
Turkey has already agreed to take a leading role in the peacekeeping force, and Jordanian troops could be in Afghanistan by tomorrow to aid humanitarian relief efforts.
The government of Bangladesh, home to the world's fourth largest Muslim community, said yesterday that is would wait for a formal U.N. invitation before deciding whether to send troops.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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