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Shaping the Future of Afghanistan

Ray Suarez discusses the significant first step in creating a post-Taliban Afghan government with Steven Erlanger, Berlin bureau chief for The New York Times.

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    After nine days of intensive talks and an all-night negotiating session, Afghan political leaders gathered in Bonn to sign an accord to set up an interim, post-Taliban government. It's the first step toward restoring peace after 20 years of occupation and civil war. 46-year-old Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun from the South, was named chairman of the 29-member governing committee. The new leader spoke in a radio interview from somewhere near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, where his troops are fighting the Taliban.


    And do you worry just how difficult this will be after more than two decades of civil war and continuing disagreements, really, about the representation on this council?

    HAMID KARZAI, Chairman, Interim Government of Afghanistan: I am not a man of worries. I am a believer in God's help. And I hope that with God's help, we'll go ahead and take the country forward to a much better future.


    The four main Afghan factions involved in the talks will share power in Kabul. The largest group, the Northern Alliance, will hold the three most powerful ministries. The others to be represented are the Rome Group, led by the former Afghan king, Zahir Shah, the Pakistan-based Peshawar Front, which groups together mostly Pashtun tribal leaders, and the Iran-backed Cyprus Group, which was established to challenge the king's bid to power. Two women will serve in the Cabinet, one as deputy chair to Karzai and the other as health minister. Under the agreement, the United Nations will dispatch an international security force to Kabul to allow for the peaceful return of the king and other exiles. But the size of the peacekeeping force is yet to be determined. After the signing ceremony, the leader of the Northern Alliance delegation, soon to be the interior minister, promised to adhere to the agreement.

  • YUNUS QANOONI, Northern Alliance Delegate:

    (Translated): For 20 years, we have wanted to become the champions of peace. We declared at the opening session that we clearly came to this conference with the intention of moving Afghanistan into a new period of peace, democracy and respect to human rights, including women's rights.


    In the Afghan capital, many residents were enthusiastic about the prospect of a new government.

  • MAN (Translated):

    After a long time, the United Nations finally succeeded in bringing a general alliance between Afghans. It is a big victory for the Afghan people. It makes the Afghan people united and pledged to one government. It is a huge victory.


    Transfer of power to the new government will take place on December 22, less than three weeks away.


    And joining us for an update is Steven Erlanger, Berlin Bureau chief for the New York Times. Steven, maybe you can help us understand exactly what they've got. Is it a government? Is it a road map to forming a government, something in between?


    Well, in a way, it's both. What they have is an emergency interim authority, which is a government. As soon as it takes office in Kabul, on December 22, it will have full decree power over the country. It will have Afghan sovereignty. It will be recognized as the government of Afghanistan by the United Nations and the rest of the world. It will have Afghan's seat at the United Nations. And at least in formal ways, it will be Afghanistan's only government.

    It will be the post-Taliban government for Afghanistan. It will be relatively broadly based, be relatively representative of various ethnic religious groups in Afghanistan. And it has within it, however, a built-in process for a more permanent government. It's supposed to go on for, perhaps, six months.

    And during that period, a Loya Jirga will be called probably in March or April. That's the traditional Afghan constituent assembly of tribal and provincial elders. That Loya Jirga will pick a new government, which is likely to look very much like this government, probably some kind of legislature. And that will become a transitional government, which will run the country for about two years. And during that period of time, the idea goes– this is what they've agreed to– a constitution will be written, a new Loya Jirga will ratify that constitution, and you'll have Afghanistan's first free and fair elections. Now, that seems all very theoretical right now, but that's what they're committed themselves to do.


    In these long days of talks near Bonn, word kept coming out of stumbling blocks, of demands that were placed by one faction that seemed to be a deal breaker for another. What were some of the big hurdles that they had to clear in the last several days to come to this agreement?


    Well, the biggest problem is that there is one group, the Northern Alliance, which is really America's proxy in this war, who took power in Kabul. And the problem with them is, if there is a problem, is they're really regional, and they represent ethnic groups– mostly Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras– who are minorities. I mean, they're smaller than the Pashtuns, who are the biggest group in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Taliban was pretty much Pashtun.

    So the problem with the Northern Alliance running Kabul is one, first of all, the last time they ran it, it was horrible… Horrifying, and you had a civil war. And secondly, they're not representative enough. So the whole point of this thing was to get the people with the power to be willing to share power with exile groups, who are more representative ethnically but who had no power on the ground. So that created all kinds of problems.

    Basically we're trying to get the people with the guns to be decent to the people with perhaps some moral authority, but no guns at all. And, in the end, that's what happens. The biggest deal breakers were put forward by the titular head of the Northern Alliance, Mr. Rabbani, who is the last president of Afghanistan, who now sits in the presidential palace in Kabul. But he was being challenged in this quiet, rather polite way by a younger generation of Northern Alliance leaders closer to the assassinated military leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, and they seem to have really taken control there, the most powerful part of this government. And these are people like Abdullah Abdullah, the foreign minister; Yunnis Qanooni, the interior minister; and Mohammad Fahim, who became the military leader when Massoud was assassinated. So you had this generational shift, which was the psychological and fascinating subtext to all this.

    The other big problem is, besides the factions, there are ethnic interests. So a Hazara, for instance, could be loyal to the king but have very good friends in the Northern Alliance, and if someone was assigned to a portfolio and decided they couldn't do it and the Rome group… The king's group said, "well, we'll put in a Pashtun," the Hazaras and all the other groups got upset saying, "well, that's too many Pashtuns, not enough Hazaras. So it all had to be very carefully balanced between factions and ethnicities.


    Did the large amount of aid money at stake finally, let's say, keep everybody's attention to get this deal done?


    Yes, it got everyone's attention. And also frankly, you know, in a very sincere way people understood that the last 23 years of Afghanistan have been a horror. The whole generation has grown up, knowing nothing but war — that Afghanistan in a way, by accident through this odd American war against al-Qaida, which became a war against the Taliban, that Afghanistan has a chance for the first time in many years– it won't come again– to reestablish itself as a kind of more modern, more democratic state, with western aid. I mean, Afghanistan would not have been on the West's screen without this war. So I think it came clear to people, particularly this younger generation, that this was an historic opportunity, however accidental, they could not let go by for the interests of the people of Afghanistan. And that had a lot to do with it, too, I think.


    And briefly before we go, are there any forces, any stakeholders or faction leaders who can still scuttle this agreement?


    Well, yes. I mean, there've been agreements on governments that have never been implemented. People are worried about Rabbani and a colleague of his, a Pashtun Wahabi named Sayev who controls forces. I mean, the worry is that people will not recognize the authority of this government, that they will continue their kind of warlordism, cutting off… fiefdoms — in a country in chaos, without real government. Ideally they put all their forces in the central command of this government. That's a lot to ask of them.

    So first you've got to get these people on the ground, you've get them pencils and paper, you've got to implement this deal. But secondly they will need the help of international community and probably a peacekeeping force to assert their authority over the rest of Afghanistan. And as you know, the war continues in the south of Afghanistan. Mr. Karzai, who is going to run this government, is still in a battle against the Taliban. So anything could happen.


    Steven Erlanger from the New York Times, good to talk to you.


    Thanks a lot.

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