Four delegations of anti-Taliban ethnic factions attended the Bonn Conference:
the Northern Alliance; the "Cypress group," a group of exiles with ties to
Iran; the "Rome group," loyal to former King Mohammad Zaher Shah, who lives in
exile in Rome and did not attend the meeting; and the "Peshawar group," a group
of mostly Pashtun exiles based in Pakistan. The Northern Alliance and the Rome
group each contributed 11 representatives to the discussion, while the Cypress
and Peshawar groups contributed five. Notably, four of the representatives were
women, two from the Northern Alliance and one each from the Rome and Peshawar
groups. Although Pakistan lobbied for the inclusion of moderate Taliban
delegates, the Taliban were excluded from the conference. Eighteen outside
countries sent representatives to monitor the talks.
The Northern Alliance, which controlled approximately half of the country at
the time of the conference, sent a team comprised of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks,
Hazaras and Pashtuns. Their delegation was led by Interior Minister Younus
Qanooni, a Tajik and relatively junior member of the Northern Alliance. The
official leader of the Northern Alliance, former President Burhanuddin
Rabbani, refused to attend the Bonn discussions. Rabbani had returned to
Kabul and moved back into the presidential palace after the Northern
Alliance captured the city earlier in the month.
He was insistent that any talks on the future of Afghanistan should take
place inside the country. "I said in Bonn there could be no decision taken on a
new government," Rabbani told FRONTLINE. "I said if my representative were
under pressure, he should walk out saying, 'I have no authority.'"
However, in the opening ceremony of the conference, Qanooni hinted that he might be more flexible
than Rabbani. "Fighting and holding on to our monopoly of power is no
longer an honor," he told the other delegates. "We want to do our utmost to
support the proposals of the United Nations for the stability in our
On the first day of the conference, the delegates agreed on a road map for the
process of forming a government. Under the agreement, an interim administration
would be formed at the Bonn meeting and would run the country for the next
three to six months until an emergency meeting of the loya jirga, the
traditional Afghan grand council of ethnic leaders, could be held in the
spring. The loya jirga, in turn, would pick a transitional administration that
would run the country for the next two years, and draft a new constitution to
be approved by a second loya jirga.
In a surprise move, the U.S. arranged for Hamid Karzai, the Pashtun
leader whom the U.S. was promoting as a viable candidate for leading the
interim administration, to address the opening session of the conference via
satellite phone from inside Afghanistan. Karzai made an impassioned plea for
the various factions to set aside their differences for the sake of the nation.
"This meeting is the path towards salvation," he said. "All the people I've
talked to in Afghanistan believe in a loya jirga as the vehicle for bringing in
a legitimate government."
However, old ethnic rivalries and suspicions soon flared over two main sticking
points: peacekeeping forces and the leader of the interim administration.
The Northern Alliance favored an all-Afghan peacekeeping force to provide
security for the capital of Kabul. The other three delegations, however, feared
that a Northern Alliance-led peacekeeping force would resort to the sorts of
abuses that plagued the country when Northern Alliance warlords had taken over the government after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. These
factions made clear their preference for a multinational peacekeeping force in
Kabul under the auspices of the U.N.
The question of who would lead the interim administration was another hotly
debated issue at Bonn. At the beginning of the talks, the former king appeared
to be a figure around which all the Afghan factions could rally. However, his
leadership was opposed by Rabbani and other members of the Northern Alliance.
By the final days of the conference, it was down to two candidates: Pashtun
leader Hamid Karzai, and Abdul Sittar Sirat, an ethnic Uzbek whose name was
proposed by the Rome group.
The talks stalled when Northern Alliance leader Rabbani refused to allow his
delegation to submit names of candidates for posts in the interim
administration. At a press conference in Kabul he announced that Afghanistan
should hold direct elections for an interim council rather than abide by the
decisions made at Bonn, and suggested that the Northern Alliance delegation
return to Kabul for further discussion.
Amid worries that the Northern Alliance would pull out of the discussions, U.S.
special envoy to Afghanistan Jim Dobbins called Secretary of State Colin Powell to ask his advice. According to Dobbins, "The United States had certainly come
to the conclusion that this was an essential and maybe irreplaceable
opportunity; that if this meeting broke up without a conclusion, it was going
to be very difficult to get another meeting."
"The answer was 'Do not let them break up! Keep them there; lock them up if
you have to," Powell recalled to FRONTLINE. "This is the time to grind
it out on this line. If they go off, I don't know when I'll get them all back
Powell asked Russia, which had an established relationship with the Northern
Alliance, to intervene and plead with Rabbani not to break up the conference.
According to Afghanistan's foreign minister Dr. Abdullah, Russia "passed
on a message that the world expect[s] an agreement, "and that the Northern
Alliance "shouldn't expect that without an agreement [Russian] support ... can
continue." Under pressure from Russia, the younger members of the Northern
Alliance decided to mutiny and continue to participate in the Bonn Conference
with or without the support of former President Rabbani.