Afghan Conference Won't Bring Unity

November 26, 2001


Afghan diplomats are meeting in Germany for discussions on a future post-Taliban government. But the most powerful Afghan factions are placing little value on the conference, with some leaders not even attending. This reinforces the expectation that Afghanistan will descend into low-level violence, and the question then will become how long the U.S. military will be able to operate in the country.


Rival Afghan factions gathered Nov. 25 in Bonn, Germany, to prepare for U.N.-sponsored talks on a future government for post- war Afghanistan. The conference, to begin Nov. 27, may lead to the establishment of a grand council of tribal chiefs to decide on a broad-based Afghan government, encompassing all of the country's diverse ethnic strands.

Little can be expected from the Bonn meeting, as Afghanistan has too many interested parties with too many disparate agendas. Some sort of settlement will eventually be made, but it will only be a matter of time until Afghanistan devolves into its historic state of low-level chaos. The challenge for the United States is to keep the country from falling apart until it finds Osama bin Laden and dismembers the Taliban.

The United Nations is facing a massive task with its conference, due to Afghanistan's complex ethnic makeup. More than 35 different languages are spoken in the country, and at least 13 anti-Taliban parties vie for control.

More than 80 percent of the population is split between Pushtun, Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek factions, with the remainder divided between a grab bag of smaller groups. Adding to the complexity are dozens of semi-autonomous "field commanders" who each control a few hundred to a few thousand men and who feel they should have some say in any new arrangement.

Several significant factions aren't even attending the meetings, making negotiations next to impossible. So far at least three prominent Afghan leaders have decided to stay away from the talks. Pushtun tribal leaders Hamid Karzai and Abdul Khaliq told Reuters they were too busy trying to win southern Pushtun tribal leaders away from the embattled Taliban. A prominent Hazara leader, Sheikh Mohammed Mohaqiq, will reportedly not join the current talks either.

Two groups that will be there in force are perhaps the least relevant to the entire process. The "Rome group," led by former Afghan king Mohammed Zahir Shah and his supporters, initially enjoyed U.S. backing. However, it has failed to organize major support among ordinary Afghans, and Washington has backed away.

The "Cyprus group" is supported by Iran and includes exiled Afghan intellectuals, former congressmen, ministers and university professors. Few of these people have spent much time in Afghanistan in the last few years, and none commands the military power necessary to compete in Afghanistan's political scene. At best, these expatriates will act as a vehicle to legitimize the maneuverings of the Iranian-backed Pushtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Pakistan, meanwhile, supports a political initiative organized by exiled Afghan Pushtuns in Peshawar. But this "Peshawar Accord" has relatively little power as well. The group, though it shares ethnic ties with Afghanistan's Pushtun population, has low credibility -- as it comprises populations that fled the country -- and little military muscle.

The Northern Alliance, which now claims about 80 percent of Afghanistan, sent representatives to Bonn, including one for Uzbek Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum. However, alliance head Burhanuddin Rabbani played down hopes the meeting could quickly produce a new interim administration. Rabbani stressed that major decisions would be made inside Afghanistan, implying that the armed combatants would sort out their differences and ignore both the Rome and Cyprus groups.

Besides the stark differences between the Afghan factions, cracks are beginning to emerge within the Northern Alliance itself. The recent Taliban surrender of Kunduz was delayed in part because of bickering between the rival Uzbek and Tajik forces that surrounded the city, according to unconfirmed reports. Ethnic Hazaras reportedly turned against Tajik and Uzbek fighters west of Kabul last week, Reuters reported. And there are persistent rumors of tensions and splits among Northern Alliance political leaders, all the way up to Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and Rabbani.

It is simply a matter of time before negotiations fall apart. The issue is not how long will it take for an effective civil government to be formed, but how long it will be until the country slides back into factional warfare and backstabbing -- and whether the United States can wrap up its military operations before the infighting begins.

Washington will do two things. It will prolong the negotiations as best it can, hoping the factions continue to behave while at the bargaining table. It will also step up the pace of operations in Afghanistan, in order to take out bin Laden and the Taliban as soon as possible.

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