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Ahmad Fawzi, the spokesman for UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, said the measure of success for the meeting will be if it can produce a formula for a transitional administration for Afghanistan -- one that represents and involves all groups, including women. This would then be taken to Kabul for the beginning of a phased implementation.
The four main groups at the talks are:
A delegation representing Northern Alliance military commander Rashid Dostum is also reportedly in Bonn.
Though the UN hopes the groups will hammer out an agreement, officials were still cautioning that the conference is only the first stage in a long process.
British envoy Stephen Evans said today at Kabul's Bagram airport, as the Northern Alliance delegation left for Bonn: "I think it is important to emphasize this as a first step -- I mean, the key thing is we are getting together representatives of most of the key parties in Afghanistan and they are going to sit together at the Petersberg [hotel] near Bonn and they're going to start talking through how to manage the transition into a broad-based government, and I think that process is going to be an important one."
Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah warned against hoping for too much from the conference. He said he expects it to lay the groundwork for peace and produce a "timetable" on how to proceed.
Analysts say it will not be easy for all the various ethnic groups -- Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazara -- to agree on anything. With so many disparate factions, what can the conference realistically achieve?
Timothy Garden, an associate fellow at London's Royal Institute for International Affairs, describes the Bonn conference as exploratory talks that could set out a road-map for peace. "They can start setting the rules for how those big decisions would be made in Afghanistan, what are the arrangements by which they're going to sit round a table in Afghanistan. So it's the first preliminary sounding out, a reassurance that each group will not be forgotten, that they'll have a say in the future of Afghanistan."
He continues: "I think perhaps one of the more important things is starting to get a feel for how the rule of law is going to be brought back into a country where warlords are seizing territory, banditry is going on all the time. There's going to have to be some kind of stabilizing force, it seems to me, sponsored by the UN, but one that is acceptable to the people in Afghanistan, in order to make the circumstances right in the country for them to be able to start forming the government which ultimately will become a democratic representation of the peoples of Afghanistan. But that may take two or three years before you get to that stage."
Garden says one problem is that many people who could be there are preoccupied with the fighting still going on at home. "There's a problem at the moment that the people who are the sort of natural leaders are inevitably worried about the fight they're doing at the moment, up in the north at Kondoz and in Kandahar and round about in parts of the country, so the leaders are not really willing to disengage themselves while they're in the middle of a war."
One leader not attending is Burhanuddin Rabbani, the man the UN still recognizes as Afghanistan's president and who says that any key decisions about a future power-sharing government must be made inside the country. But Garden says, "we shouldn't read too much into" Rabbani's absence as he will "certainly be involved in later discussions as they unfold."
Though hopes of a breakthrough at the conference may be premature, the UN is also pressing delegates to move forward quickly. Brahimi earlier this month unveiled a five-point plan for Afghanistan which envisaged a national council that would then lead to a transitional, broad-based government. But over the weekend his spokesman Fawzi urged Afghan leaders to speed up the process, skipping the stage with the council and going straight to the issue of a transitional government. Fawzi today also said a multinational force under a UN Security Council mandate would be the best option to ensure security in Afghanistan.
Garden says the UN is in a tricky position: "There's no doubt, it would be unwise to prolong the process too much because that allows people to consolidate their territory and then start defending it and to have little local battles fought again. So I think the UN is right to try to press for everything to be done without any delay. But on the other hand if it presses too hard and it doesn't get an agreement, that would be worse."
Only once the talks get going in earnest will it be clear if delegates too want to speed up the process of setting up an interim government.