Afghan Talks Advance Amid Ethnic, Political Tensions

A Western diplomat told the Associated Press on condition of anonymity, ”We are now in a difficult phase.”

The Northern Alliance’s political leader and former Afghan president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, said in Kabul that interim councils should be chosen by elections in Afghanistan rather than appointed at the U.N.-sponsored conference being held outside Bonn, Germany.

He also reiterated his opposition to having an international peacekeeping force ensure security in Afghanistan until an interim government is formed, favoring instead a force comprised only of Afghans.

Rabbani’s stipulations cast doubts on the agreements reached by the Northern Alliance delegates during the Bonn talks.

The Northern Alliance representatives in Bonn yesterday dropped their objections to a multinational peacekeeping force in Afghanistan.

Also yesterday, all four delegations agreed to draw up lists of their proposed representatives to the interim council, which would be made up of a 20-person executive body and a 200-person semi-legislative body. That council would govern until a loya jirga, or assembly of tribal leaders, convenes in the spring to approve an offical post-Taliban government that will prepare a constitution.

The delegates have yet to discuss how many seats on the council each faction might get or what role the former King Zahir Shah might play.

Younus Qanooni, the head of the alliance delegation, said Friday he could not submit the list of representatives until it is approved by the leadership in Kabul. The delay in submitting the lists could become a serious obstacle, U.S. envoy James Dobbins said.

“It is important this be overcome,” Dobbins said. “This will be the most difficult part of the negotiations and it hasn’t started yet.”

The Bonn talks are scheduled to end Saturday.

The split between the Kabul leadership and Alliance delegates caused some grumbling among people attending the meeting.

“[The Northern Alliance leadership] sent representatives who do not have the authority to speak on their behalf,” said Mohammed Bakhshi, spokesman for an alliance delegate. “And now, they have discovered that serious business is being decided here.”

In a sign of ethnic tensions, an ethnic Pashtun representative who was part of the Northern Alliance delegation refused to attend meetings Thursday and Friday to protest the meager representation of Pashtuns at the conference.

“If peace and stability are to return to Afghanistan, it can only be through proper representation of the Afghan people” Abdul Qadir told Reuters by telephone.

United Nations optimistic

Despite the setbacks, United Nations officials and some delegates at the conference remain confident that the talks will end successfully.

“We’re inching forward, inch by inch toward an agreement that is acceptable to all four,” U.N. spokesman Ahmed Fawzi said. He added that talks could stretch into Sunday if the U.N. thinks a deal is near.

Fawzi was not concerned about Rabbani’s objections to the international peacekeeping force and demands that government decisions be made within Afghanistan.

“We have Mr. Rabbani’s word that he will respect whatever comes out of the Bonn talks and we have been assured by the head of the delegation [Qanooni] that he will take it home and implement it,” Fawzi said.

As for Qadir’s withdrawal from the meetings, Fawzi said he did not “expect any major setback as a result.”

An adviser to the Northern Alliance in Bonn said Rabbani’s comments were personal opinions that would not affect the delegation’s position.

“Our view is that we welcome U.N. peacekeepers to establish security in Afghanistan until we have a 100 percent democratic government where all people will enjoy their rights,” the adviser told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

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