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behind the scenes at bonn

Insiders involved in the Bonn Conference describe the challenges of bringing together the various hostile Afghan factions, the forging of behind-the-scenes compromises, and the persistent fear that the conference might break up without a final agreement.

Condoleezza Rice
  U.S. National Security Adviser

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Early on, we had understood -- and not just the United States, but with our partners -- that the United Nations was going to have to play a major role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. We were somewhat concerned that the U.N. might not move quickly enough to fill the vacuum, if you will, between the Taliban and the new government. ...

I think what is very interesting about this is that the U.N. did respond very quickly. In fact, the Bonn Conference was put together rather rapidly, and an interim authority put together far more rapidly than I think any of us thought possible. So in some ways, they turned out to be unfounded fears. But it was just that there was a bit of a shock at how quickly the Taliban was routed, and the fact that we were now facing a reconstruction more quickly than we had expected.

  U.N. Special Representative to Afghanistan

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Our aim was really very modest. From my visit to Iran and Pakistan what I have seen is that there were a number of groups that were talking about peace. Plus, the Northern Alliance, which now had 70 percent of the land. The Taliban had gone and were not a possible partner. So the idea we had is, let us, as a first step ... get these processes welded into one, and do away with these far-reached processes. So hence the Pashtun group, which had just been started with support from Pakistan, the Cyprus group, which was a small group of intellectuals from inside and outside -- inside meaning Iran and Pakistan mainly -- and also from the [Rome] group around the king, plus the Northern Alliance. That is when the idea started to take shape. But these are the people who are going to get together. It's not the perfect arrangement, but we looked all over the place, but on what criteria are you going to invite people, now that the Taliban have gone?

  U.S. Undersecretary of State for Policy Planning

What we needed was a political neutral site. We needed a place that could be secured, because obviously we were worried about terrorism. We needed a place everybody could get to. We needed a place that didn't have political baggage. It turned out, for example, one of the sites in the Persian Gulf was unacceptable, because that had been one of the three countries that along the way had recognized the Taliban. So by the time you dealt with geography, history, security and the rest, you started running out of sites. It turned out that Bonn was a pretty good compromise.

  U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan

... The Afghans arrived, four different delegations of considerably different weight and size. The Northern Alliance delegation was the most representative in a sense: it had Pashtuns, it had people from all over the country, and it had real weight in the sense that it actually was in Afghanistan and governing at that point about half of the country. The other delegations represented, they were called the Rome group, the Cyprus group and the Peshawar group.

The Rome group was the king and his advisers and people who had been associated with him. The Peshawar group was largely people representing the large number of exiles and refugees in Pakistan. The Cyprus group was a group that had been meeting of expatriates that had been meeting to try and find a peace settlement. They had some connections with Iran, although they were no means simply mouthpieces for the Iranians. But the Iranians had been supporting that form and a number of people in it had positive relations with Iran.

[A] point of comparison was sort of the Dayton Peace conference. I found that the Afghans -- and I've found this since -- I mean it's not as conflicted a society as societies in the Balkans that I dealt with where if you ask the average Balkan to explain what his grievances are he'll go back a thousand years. Afghans they go back maybe a decade or at most two and then they [have this] sort of golden age where everybody got along with each other really under the king and in the governments that preceded the Soviet invasion. And so you know the history of ethnic and internecine strife is shorter at least in terms of the popular memory.

So the delegations were very civil to each other. A number of them were related to each other, a number of them had been friends before they were enemies, and it wasn't difficult at all to get them to sit down and talk to each other. I mean you didn't have to spend days of negotiating as to the size of the table or how many people sat there or who could speak first. These things were arranged much more easily than they are in similar situations. I mean I also did the Vietnam peace talks back in the 1960s and I can remember spending an entire year negotiating over the shape of the table before they could actually sit down and talk to each other. There was very little of that.

Having said that at the beginning of the conference, when you talked to Brahimi about what you hoped this conference would achieve, on that first day were you looking at trying to build a framework for more talks? Or did you have in your mind that you just might possibly come out with an end to this?

... 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, and that therefore it had to come to what I guess you would call a self implementing conclusion -- that is simply getting halfway and then agreeing to meet again would not be adequate, that this meeting had to agree on an outcome which wouldn't require this group to get together again. ...

The core question that we felt had to be settled on this occasion was: Who was going to on an interim basis govern Afghanistan and become a partner for the international community in Afghanistan's reconstruction?

Brahimi certainly shared the view that this was an opportunity that shouldn't be missed and that we shouldn't allow people to disperse until this had been achieved. I think some of the delegations that came from other countries felt that this was unrealistic, that it was too much, that a more modest objective should be set. But over time we were able to persuade them otherwise.

  U.N. Special Representative to Afghanistan

One of the things that I did very early on, after the opening of the conference, I said, "We're not going to have any formal meetings. And whenever any one of you needs to talk to somebody else privately, you know, we will stop these meetings." So for probably the first week, we had very, very, few formal meetings. We were encouraging people to get together to talk to one another, and to talk to us, privately, you know, separately, together, always informal. And we were listening.

And also we had all the other players, you know, the Americans, the Iranians, the British, the Pakistanis, they were all there. They were also talking to everybody and by the way they were very angry with me at the beginning because we didn't allow them in. And the reason was because a lot of people sitting in the room owed a lot to these neighbors and friends, and they wouldn't you know speak frankly in front of them, because they were probably telling them things they don't believe. So, we didn't allow them anywhere near our meeting, they continued to meet private.

There were also a lot of other diplomats, including somebody from Moldova. There were something like 25, 26 countries represented there. And somebody told me you see, "These diplomats are sitting here and why don't you brief them?" So, I want to brief them, and I said, "Look, I'm starting to be optimistic. Maybe we will get somewhere. But, you see, this is a very fragile process. Any grain of sand can stop our machine."

When we left there, one of the diplomats was there, came to see me, he said, "You said the grain of sand can stop the machine." I said, "Yes I did." "So what grain of sand?" I told him, "Look, this is Afghanistan. There is a sandstorm. There's a lot of sand flying around. I don't know which one is going to fall in the machine. I'm just praying that none of this sand will get into our machine." ...

  U.S. Undersecretary of State for Policy Planning

What was your problem with [Northern Alliance leader Burhanuddin] Rabbani? ...

... He was clearly a controversial figure. At this point, if our goal was to forge a broad-based Afghan alternative, Mr. Rabbani was somewhat of a problem, given that by appearing to be "the president," quote, unquote, that it was not exactly a level playing field. It would be potentially an obstacle to forging the kind of Afghan unity that we wanted.

If, at some time in the future, through an electoral process Mr. Rabbani emerges as the leader of the Afghanis, so be it. But from our point of view, it probably wasn't going to work if he tried to take his position as head of the Northern Alliance or president of the Northern Alliance and translate that as something like the president of some sort of interim political arrangement for Afghanistan. ...

I know there was the view that we were somehow trying to keep the Northern Alliance at arm's length. It is not true. On the other hand, we also understood that one could not equate Afghan opposition to Northern Alliance. All along, we were very careful about appearing to play favorites. ...

So what motivated all of this -- perhaps we were too sensitive to it -- was the sense that we had to be careful as Americans not to appear as though we were somehow stage-managing the Afghan opposition, that we were picking the favorites or that we were favoring one faction against another.

So what we tried to do, perhaps uncharacteristically, was really stand back and let the Afghans themselves come to understandings. Let them figure out what the distribution of power would be. Not only therefore would it not look as though we had stage-managed it, but if they themselves bought into it, by definition that was going to be a more stable situation that one we or anyone else had forced them to accept.

So what may have looked like standoffishness to some was simply a calculated decision on our part not to get overly involved in an intrusive way that many of us feared would be counterproductive.

  U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan

I think there were sort of three turning points in the meeting in Bonn. The first was came after several days, where it was becoming apparent that they were simply trying to do too much; that they were trying to agree on the composition of an interim administration. They were trying to agree on the composition and powers of a supreme council, which would be a quasi-legislative body. They were trying to agree on the role for the ex-king and whether he would have some sort of interim head of state type function. They were trying to agree on issues of disarmament and peacekeeping and that time was going by, that this probably was more than could be agreed.

I proposed therefore to initially in a series of discussions with the individual factions, that this should be a process of simplification; that the supreme legislative council should be put to the side and left for future work. It wasn't essential to the outcome. The role of the king should be defined as opening the loya jirga, the constituent assembly that would meet six months after the interim assembly came soon to power, and that his role didn't need to be defined beyond that for the purposes of this meeting. The central agreement which had to be forged was the membership and the internal administration. And Brahimi then after working this issue in the corridors and separately brought them together and there was an agreement to proceed on that basis.

The second crisis was when after several days during which Brahimi had tried to get each delegation to nominate its candidates for membership in the interim administration, the head of the Northern Alliance delegation, Interior Minister Qanooni said that he was unable to get instructions to do so and that he felt that the best solution might be to take an adjournment for 10 days or so, to allow him to go back to Kabul and get further instructions and then return.

I said that I didn't think that was optimal, but I understood his dilemma and that I would think about it and get back to him. I then called the Deputy Secretary of State Armitage, and explained the situation to him. I said that a good deal had been achieved, that there'd been agreement to call for a peacekeeping force and in Kabul which represented a significant advance on the Northern Alliance's position on that point, that much else of the final document had been agreed, and that therefore the meeting could be represented as progress, as a positive step. But that it was going to be difficult to reassemble the group and there might be prolonged new negotiations about when, where, how many. He said that he'd speak to the secretary and get back to me.

Colin Powell
  U.S. Secretary of State

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The answer was "Do not let them break up. Keep them there. Lock them up if you have to. We do not want this to go anywhere else. We're almost there, and 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." Rich Armitage loves the little idea that once you get frogs in a wheelbarrow, you don't let them get out. That was a good analogy. So we kept them in. ...

  U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan

There was a spate of sort of bilateral diplomacy all focused on persuading Professor Rabbani and the others in Kabul who still had reservations to withdraw those reservations and let the process go forward. And that succeeded. Later that day I went back to see Qanooni and said that we'd considered his proposal and on reflection had decided that it made more sense to keep people there and to try and get an outcome. And he sort of smiled and he said, "Did it really take you four hours to reach that conclusion? I reached it about a half an hour after we spoke."

Condoleezza Rice
  U.S. National Security Adviser

I think we were all really pretty amazed and quite respectful of what the Afghans were able to do at Bonn. Yes, they had a lot of help. But what was really impressive was the degree to which the Afghans themselves were determined to use this new opportunity to make a new start for Afghanistan. Very often, we get caught up in the history, and we say, "Afghanistan has always had trouble being stable, it's had trouble having a central government," and we forget that, if you give people a choice between freedom and tyranny, they'll very often choose freedom. So the Afghans themselves comported themselves very well at Bonn, and that was very gratifying.

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