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Filling The Vacuum: The Bonn Conference

On Nov. 27, 2001, delegates from traditionally hostile ethnic factions, united only by their opposition to the Taliban, were brought together for the first time when the United Nations convened a conference in Bonn, Germany, on the future of Afghanistan. Here's an overview of how they created a blueprint for a transitional post-Taliban government.

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 country."


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 together."

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.


After much discussion over who would be nominated for cabinet posts in the interim administration, the delegates came to an agreement calling for a 29-member interim administration and an international peacekeeping force to provide security in Kabul, which would be organized by the U.N.

Amid concerns that Afghanistan's Pashtun majority would be alienated by the selection of Abdul Sittar Sirat as leader, the Bonn delegates agreed to the selection of Hamid Karzai as chairman of the interim administration on Dec. 5. The debate over the role of former King Mohammad Zaher Shah was resolved when the negotiators determined that he would be given a largely symbolic role and asked to convene the emergency meeting of the loya jirga in the spring.

The Northern Alliance received about half of the posts in the interim cabinet, and members of the Rome group were named to eight positions. Also included in the new cabinet were two women, named to the posts of vice chair of woman's affairs and minister of public health.

On Dec. 20, the U.N. Security Council approved the deployment of a peacekeeping force numbering between 3,000 and 5,000 troops. Britain agreed to lead the force, which became known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and to supply 1,500 troops. The first British Royal Marines arrived at Bagram air base the next day, in time to escort Afghan dignitaries in town to attend Karzai's inauguration on Dec. 22.

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(Ethnicity and political affiliation, where known, in brackets)


Hamid Karzai [Pashtun, did not attend Bonn Conference]


Women's Affairs: Sima Samar [Hazara, Rome group]

Defense: Mohammad Qassem Fahim [Tajik, Northern Alliance]

Planning: Muhammad Mohaqqeq [Hazara, Northern Alliance]

Water and Electricity: Shaker Kargar [Uzbek, Northern Alliance]

Finance: Hedayat Amin Arsala [Pashtun, Rome group]


Foreign Affairs: Dr. Abdullah [Tajik, Northern Alliance]

Interior: Younus Qanooni [Tajik, Northern Alliance]

Commerce: Seyyed Mustafa Kazemi [Shiite, Northern Alliance]

Mines and Industries: Muhammad Alem Razm [Uzbek, Northern Alliance]

Small Industries: Aref Noorzai [Pashtun, Northern Alliance]

Information and Culture: Raheen Makhdoom [Rome group]

Communications: Abdul Rahim [Tajik, Northern Alliance]

Labor and Social Affairs: Mir Wais Sadeq [Northern Alliance]

Hajj (Pilgrimage): Mohammad Hanif Hanif Balkhi [Shiite, Independent]

Martyrs and Disabled: Abdullah Wardak [Northern Alliance]

Education: Abdul Rassoul Amin [Rome group]

Higher Education: Sharif Faez [Northern Alliance]

Public Health: Suhaila Seddiqi [Tajik, Independent]

Public Works: Abdul Khaliq Fazal [Rome group]

Rural Development: Abdul Malik Anwar [Northern Alliance]

Urban Development: Abdul Qadir [Pashtun, Northern Alliance]

Reconstruction: Muhammad Amin Farhang [Rome group]

Transport: Sultan Hamid Hamid

Return of Refugees: Enayatullah Nazeri [Northern Alliance]

Agriculture: Seyyed Hussein Anwari [Shiite, Northern Alliance]

Irrigation: Mangal Hussein [Pashtun]

Justice: Abdul Rahim Karimi [Uzbek, Northern Alliance]

Air Transport and Tourism: Abdul Rehman [Tajik, Rome group]

Border Affairs: Amanullah Zadran [Rome group]

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