Northern alliance accepts U.N. talks

Wednesday, November 21, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Leaders of the northern alliance, which controls the Afghan capital and more than half the country, accepted a U.N. invitation to attend power-sharing talks in Germany with other factions, likely to be held on Monday.

The alliance's formal acceptance of a U.N. invitation to the talks was announced Tuesday by the alliance's acting foreign minister, Abdullah, at a joint news conference in Kabul with a U.N. envoy present.

Abdullah said the alliance would send a delegation to take part in the talks aimed at establishing a new broad-based multiethnic government to replace the Taliban, whose control of the country collapsed this month after relentless U.S. bombing and attacks by northern alliance ground forces.

Pashtuns to attend

In addition to the alliance, three other main blocs will be taking part in the conference: followers of former Afghan king Mohammad Zaher Shah, the Peshawar group and the Cyprus group. The latter three are made up of Pashtuns who want a constitutional government.

With Abdullah was the deputy U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, who had been in Kabul trying to persuade Afghan groups to attend the session.

Diplomats had earlier said the hoped-for date was Saturday, most likely in Berlin, but Abdullah indicated it would not be that soon.

"Now we think that the timing is Monday," he said. "We are making preparations for sending our delegations to Germany." He did not say where in Germany.

Germany has a long history of close ties to Afghanistan; it is a major aid donor and many Afghan expatriates live there.

Weekend gathering

"We are rather encouraged by what we've heard from the various parties, and we hope that this will be the beginning we've been looking for to end the conflict in Afghanistan and start building new institutions for the country," said Lakhdar Brahimi, the top U.N. envoy for Afghanistan. He said the parties would begin gathering over the weekend.

Alliance officials had been saying for days they were ready to attend, but had not formally accepted an invite. The head of the northern alliance, Burhanuddin Rabbani, had demanded the conference be held in Kabul, while the United Nations wanted it on neutral ground.

Rabbani backed off the Kabul demand, but said Tuesday he would insist that substantive decisions on the future of Afghanistan be taken at meetings in this country.

"We can have the first gathering in a foreign country, in Europe, but this gathering will be mostly symbolic, that's all," he told CNN.

Asked later about Rabbani's "symbolic" comment, Brahimi said: "That's not what they told us."

Afghanistan has been without a central government since the Taliban pulled out of the capital Kabul on Nov. 13, and the power vacuum has raised fears the country could again descend into anarchic factional fighting.

Vendrell, appearing with Abdullah, said that although the Taliban would not be represented at the conference, there would be representatives from the Pashtun community, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. The Pashtun have been the backbone of the Taliban movement, though in the past week some Pashtun tribes have risen against the Taliban in the south.

"We are very aware that convening these groups would not mean that every single Afghan would feel totally happy, totally represented," Vendrell said. "This is the first step. This is not the final step."

Afterward, Vendrell told CNN that holding the initial meeting outside Afghanistan was important for "security, logistical and perception reasons." He repeated that an initial session in Kabul would have sent the wrong signal.

"We are not objecting to the fact that the (northern alliance) are in Kabul, but the perception must be avoided that they are in control of Kabul in their capacity as the legitimate government of Afghanistan," he said. "For other Afghans, it was better to hold it in a neutral place."

The northern alliance, which immediately moved into the capital when the Taliban pulled out, holds the strongest cards in any negotiations.

Rabbani, who has never given up his claim to be head of government, leads the largest faction in the northern alliance and has already returned to the capital. Thousands of alliance troops and policemen are providing security in the streets, and the alliance has taken over important ministries.

However, the movement is a loose collection of ethnic minorities, and if it excludes other parties from a role in the government, it is likely to face resistance from the numerous armed factions.

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