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In just under two weeks, the country of Afghanistan has shifted from a war-torn land ruled by the repressive and religiously extreme Taliban into a country ready to negotiate a new future government.
With help from a U.S.-led military bombing campaign during October and November, anti-Taliban forces called the Northern Alliance drove Taliban rulers out of most of Afghanistan's major cities.
When October began, the Taliban controlled approximately 90 percent of the country, including its capital, Kabul. Now they control less than a third.
Northern Alliance leaders are meeting with other Afghan representatives in a conference that began Tuesday in Bonn, Germany to discuss what Afghanistan's next government should look like.
So far, the Northern Alliance has rejected the idea of allowing an outside security force to keep the peace in Afghanistan. The U.N. had offered the idea of a international peacekeeping force to help keep the country stable but the Alliance says they would prefer to use their own troops, or native Afghans instead.
Diplomats and political leaders hope this is the first step toward forming a proper government where all of Afghanistan's ethnic and political groups feel provided for and properly represented.
Who will rule?
Afghanistan is home to nine major ethnic groups, each with their own concerns, interests and alliances inside and outside the country.
There is much tension between the groups, with the majority Pashtuns from the south, remaining wary of the Northern Alliance, which is made of minority Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hararas.
Before the Northern Alliance moved into Kabul, United Nations officials and other diplomatic leaders had planned to form a temporary -interim- government to rule the country until a more permanent solution was created.
Since Kabul fell quicker than anticipated, the talks in Bonn, Germany, are aimed at bringing together interested parties to decide how Afghanistan's government should be run.
Delegations from anti-Taliban groups including the Northern Alliance, Pashtun tribes and supporters of the pre-Taliban king Mohammad Zaher Shah are scheduled to meet without representatives from any Western countries to discuss who would participate in an interim government.
The first goal of the talks is to decide on a interm administration that will run Afghanistan until a council of elders from various tribes (called a loya jirga) can meet, possibly as early as March.
Tribal leaders at the first loya jirga would approve a transitional government to be in place for up two years, leading to a second loya jirga, which would approve a constitution and set the stage for elections.
The interim government would organize the country, start rebuilding and begin to construct a more permanent structure to bring long-term stability to the region.
Aid groups have warned that functioning local governments are needed to oversee distribution of food and other supplies as winter approaches.
Afghanistan's women, who suffered years of repression under the Taliban, will not have a major place at the bargaining table in Bonn either. Women's groups organized protests to demand to be included, but were kept from marching by Northern Alliance police officers.
Former king Zaher Shah has decided to include at least one woman in his delegation, but no major women's group has been invited to participate.
Not just the Northern Alliance
When Northern Alliance tanks rolled into Kabul, the world wondered if their aim was to seize control of the government as the Taliban had several years before.
Members of what is now called the Northern Alliance have ruled Afghanistan before, taking power between the Soviet Union's exit and the Taliban's takeover. The United Nations still recognized that government as Afghanistan's legitimate leadership.
However, on November 14, 2001, Ravan Farhadi, Afghanistan's U.N. ambassador, announced that his group had no plans to grab power in the vacuum left by the fall of Kabul.
"Rather, it is our sincere hope that the people of Afghanistan will democratically decide in the near future what form of political system they desire," he said, endorsing a U.N.-led campaign to help guide Afghanistan to democracy.
Governments of the past
Afghanistan's past is filled with many battles for control of the government. Since 328 B.C., people in the region have fought each other and foreign invaders for the right to rule.
For several centuries, a series of kings ruled Afghanistan - most until they were assassinated, deposed, or forced from power.
In 1933, the 19-year-old Mohammad Zahir Shah took the throne and briefly changed the way Afghanistan managed its affairs.
King Shah introduced several democratic reforms in 1964, including a constitution, and an elected legislature.
Former Prime Minister Sardar Daoud reversed those reforms after he seized control of the government in a 1973 military coup. Zahir Shah fled the country and went to Italy, where he remains today.
By 1978, the communist party in Afghanistan staged another coup, murdering Daoud and his family. The Soviet Union acted quickly to take advantage of the unstable country and invaded with as many as 120,000 troops.
Although they took the Kabul, the Soviets never gained control over warlords in the rest of the country, who continued to fight the communists' advances. The Soviet Union eventually pulled out after years of fighting in 1989.
When the Soviet government fell, there was no clear leader to take control. Fighting broke out between various ethnic factions within Afghanistan.
A movement of former anti-communist fighters called "Taliban" began their rise to power, with a pledge to remove the warlords, provide order and strictly enforce the rules Islam. (The name "talib" itself means pupil.)
A 1997 Taliban order installed Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's supreme leader, as the head of state - giving him ultimate authority over Afghanistan.
Under the Taliban's hard-line rule, women were barred from leaving their homes without a male relative, not allowed to go to school and couldn't show their face in public. They could not work or hold conversations with men.
The Taliban also destroyed two large statues of the Buddha during a drive to remove all evidence of Afghanistan's pre-Islamic past.
Since the mid-1990s the Taliban has allowed Osama bin Laden, a former Saudi Arabian citizen who fought with them against the Soviets, to live in Afghanistan - providing a base for his terrorist organization, al-Qaida.
The U.S. accuses bin Laden and al-Qaida of planning and executing the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, among other crimes.
After the Taliban refused repeated requests to hand over bin Laden and his associates, the United States, Britain and their allies began bombing Afghanistan's terrorist camps and military targets in early October.
It was those bombings that helped the Northern Alliance finally break the Taliban's hold last week, opening the door to a new and unknown future for the Afghan people.
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