German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer opened the conference at a luxury hotel overlooking the Rhine River by urging delegates “to forge a truly historic compromise that holds out a better future for your torn country and its people.”
Fears that the eventual fall of Kandahar, the last Taliban stronghold, will ignite infighting among the different factions has intensified international pressure to reach a consensus on Afghanistan’s political future.
“It’s a very simple agenda really,” U.N. spokesman for Afghanistan Ahmad Fawzi said. “We’re talking about the possibility to form a transitional administration for Afghanistan, as soon as possible because speed is of the essence in view of the situation on the ground.”
The four factions include supporters of the ex-king, a group of exiles based in Cyprus, another group based in the Pakistani city of Peshawar and the Northern Alliance warlords who are successfully fighting the Taliban for military control of Afghanistan.
After the first few hours of discussion, a U.S. official said the parties are heading toward their first possible point of agreement: installing former Afghan King Mohammed Zaher Shah as head of state. U.S. envoy James Dobbins said the prospects for progress look “pretty good.”
Zaher Shah is a Pashtun, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. The Pashtuns have no separate delegation at the talks, although there are Pashtun representatives in each of the groups.
The U.N. hopes delegates will agree on how long a transitional administration would run the country before convening a loya jirga, or national assembly, as well as the makeup of a peacekeeping force under a U.N. mandate.
However, since the most important warlords are still fighting in Afghanistan, several leaders were unable to participate in the talks.
Northern alliance leader Burhanuddin Rabbani sent his acting interior minister, Younus Qanooni. Zaher Shah remained in Rome, where he has lived in exile since 1973, to remain above politics.
“His majesty is above such meetings. His role is that of a father figure,” said Mostapha Zaher, his grandson, who was part of the delegation.
Two women are attending the talks. Concern about the participation of women, who suffered repression under the Taliban, sparked a rally near the meeting site. A similar march in support of women’s rights was halted by Northern Alliance forces in Kabul.
There had been talk that moderate Taliban would be included in the talks, but the head of the Cyprus delegation said they no longer had a role.
Aid linked to broad-based government
While the Afghans are meeting, officials from the United States, Russia and neighbors such as Pakistan and Iran are pressuring the delegates to form a coalition government.
The United States hopes the promise of billions in aid will help bring about a power-sharing accord among the four groups. The U.S. has said the aid necessary to rebuild the war-torn country is contingient on a broad-based, inclusive government.
“Until there is a government that is broadly representative and recognized by us, there’s not going to be any reconstruction assistance,” a U.S. official told The New York Times on condition of anonymity.
Fawzi said the United Nations was not imposing specific conditions on the Afghans.
“It’s their choice. They know what the international community has to offer,” Fawzi said. “Without peace there will be no development. Without peace there will be no investment.”