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MARGARET WARNER: Rival Afghan factions have been meeting at a castle near Bonn, Germany, since Tuesday trying to negotiate a blueprint for a post Taliban government. There are more than 30 delegates at these UN-brokered talks from four major factions representing the Northern Alliance, the exiled King Zahir Shah and two smaller exile groups from Peshawar, Pakistan, and Cyprus. Joining us for an update is Steven Erlanger, Berlin bureau chief at the New York Times. Welcome Steve. There have been conflicting reports coming out of the talks today. Where do things stand?
STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, right now they’re at a critical moment. The Northern Alliance, which is the major faction, partly major because it holds power inside Kabul itself, has so far refused to table names, its own candidates for a proposed temporary government inside Kabul. The whole point of these talks is to create an interim council and an interim executive that would be broadly based, more representative of the whole country than the Northern Alliance itself. But it means the Northern Alliance must cede some power. And the titular head of the Northern Alliance in Kabul, Mr. Rabani, has been dragging his feet from the beginning of these talks, and he continues to drag them now. So all today, really, nothing happened because the other three factions were waiting for the Northern Alliance to get permission from Kabul to table its candidates’ names, and that permission has not come so far.
MARGARET WARNER: Is there any serious doubt as to whether the Northern Alliance negotiators there really have the authority to negotiate, to make a deal?
STEVE ERLANGER: Well, it’s a generational question, too. The head of this delegation is a man named Younus Qanooni, who’s a sort of attractive young man– looks a lot like Gerry Adams– who’s the interior minister. And the foreign minister in Kabul, a man named Abdullah Abdullah, I think they both understand that Mr. Rabani’s era is rather finished, but they do need the support of people back inside Kabul. The Northern Alliance itself is a very loose coalition of forces, and I think these younger people understand that unless they do a deal here, they risk splitting apart. So the question is whether there will be a challenge to Mr. Rabani’s authority, and whether the people here will simply go ahead and make a deal despite him.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, remind us about Mr. Rabani. He was, in fact, head of Afghanistan until the Taliban ousted him, right?
STEVE ERLANGER: That’s right. I mean, he was President until 1996, and during his rule, Kabul fell into chaos, so he’s not remembered with a great deal of fondness by most people.
MARGARET WARNER: So that raises the question, in fact, of this international security force, which has been something that the U.S. and other governments have been talking about. But I gather that Mr. Rabani yesterday already also cast doubt on his interest in that kind of a force. Where do things stand on that question at the talks?
STEVE ERLANGER: Well, all the other factions who obviously don’t hold power inside Kabul want this international security force, as much for symbolic reasons. They want to dilute Northern Alliance control over Kabul and create, if you like, a kind of neutral political zone for themselves in which a new, more broadly based government can begin to work. The Northern Alliance is obviously trying to hold on to what it can. The people here, Mr. Qanooni and the delegation, though they say for security reasons, an all- Afghan force would be quite sufficient, are willing to discuss an international security force in the context of a broader agreement on a new government. So they’re using it as a bargaining chip. Mr. Rabani is casting doubt on it, but I’m not sure that should be taken all that seriously. The other big question, of course, is what role the former king, the 87-year-old Mohammed Zahir Shah, ought to play.
MARGARET WARNER: Steve, there are reports of growing lawlessness in Afghanistan, even in Kabul, where the Northern Alliance is supposedly in charge. Do you sense any sense of urgency at the Bonn talks about getting this thing done and getting some sort of security force in place?
STEVE ERLANGER: Well, there’s a lot of urgency to get it done, because people want a government inside Kabul that people can talk to, that can begin to rule and that won’t be so factional and won’t cause instability and the risk of another civil war. The security situation inside Kabul itself is said to be all right, but that’s not really the point. I mean, the point is to get other forces in other than the Northern Alliance, to let people feel that things are changing in Afghanistan. The rest of the country has a lot of lawlessness, but no one’s really talking about an international peacekeeping force for the whole country. It would take thousands and thousands of people. Washington doesn’t want any part of it, and I don’t think too many other countries do, either.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, there was a report today that one of the leading Pashtun delegates, leading delegates from the Pashtun tribe, walked out or didn’t show up to protest that there weren’t enough Pashtuns. Are you hearing grumbling from some of the delegates that this entire Bonn exercise isn’t really representative?
STEVE ERLANGER: Well, everyone knew it wasn’t going to be quite representative. Mr. Kadir, who did walk out, had joined the Northern Alliance fairly recently. He’s an important power in eastern Afghanistan, and you know, he’s got his own games to play there. The Hazaris, which are another small minority tribe, unlike the big Pashtuns, are also unhappy with their representation. But generally, what most people want who are not part of the alliance is more representation for themselves, and especially for the Pashtun in southern Afghanistan, who are either backing the Taliban still — because after all, the war continues– or who are actually fighting them. So it’s very likely that in Bonn they will leave some seats open to be filled in later once the war progresses further. But the whole problem now seems to be the Northern Alliance dragging its heels, hoping that with time the war will go even faster and they can entrench themselves further. It’s really become a question of the sincerity of the Northern Alliance about finding a broad-based deal here and giving up some power for a stable Afghanistan in the future.
MARGARET WARNER: And very briefly, there’s been a lot of attention to the question of women and whether they will be represented. What are you seeing at the conference?
STEVE ERLANGER: Well, there are three women delegates, but each of the four factions has at least one woman as an advisor, and I think women will be part of the new government, even as a kind of grudging nod to western preferences.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Steve Erlanger, thanks very much and thanks for being with us.