After decades of war, lawlessness and factional infighting, Northern Alliance leaders have agreed to take the first diplomatic steps toward the establishment of a broad-based provisional government in Afghanistan.
Speaking in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent on November 18, Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said his coalition would attend a meeting with local tribal leaders in Europe as early as this week to discuss a UN-sponsored stabilization plan for Afghanistan. The central element of the stabilization plan is the rapid formation of a broad-based provisional government. The plan also calls for the deployment of a multi-national armed force to provide security. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Northern Alliance leaders had earlier sought to convene the meeting in Kabul, the Afghan capital, which is now controlled by alliance troops. Holding the meeting in Kabul would have given the Northern Alliance a considerable advantage in the shaping of Afghanistan's future. The United States and the United Nations applied intense diplomatic pressure on Northern Alliance leaders to accept a more neutral location.
Abdullah suggested Germany, Switzerland or Austria as possible meeting locations. He also affirmed that the Northern Alliance, which comprises Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara forces, envisions a future Afghan government that would be "broad-based."
"There should be a fair chance for everybody to play his role," Abdullah said, referring to the participation of Pashtuns, who are Afghanistan's largest ethnic group but are poorly represented in the Northern Alliance.
While in Uzbekistan, Abdullah consulted with James Dobbins, Washington's chief representative to the Northern Alliance. Speaking with reporters afterward, Dobbins stressed that talks on formulating a new government in Afghanistan should be organized as soon as possible. "Our view is that it should occur this week," he said.
The planned meeting in Europe could be a precursor to the convocation of a loya jirga, or gathering of Afghan tribal elders. American and UN officials hope a loya jirga can agree on the composition of a provisional government that can manage reconstruction while overseeing efforts to form lasting state institutions.
Despite the Northern Alliance's concession on a meeting location, substantial obstacles to the realization of the UN stabilization plan remain in place. UN Special Representative for Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi has indicated that Afghanistan's former monarch, Mohammed Zahir Shah, is the most suitable choice to head the provisional government. However, there are indications that some Northern Alliance factions would prefer to see former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who returned to Kabul on November 17, lead the provisional government.
In addition, some Northern Alliance military commanders -- including Ismail Khan, whose troops now control the western city of Herat - oppose the deployment of an international security force.
The rout of the Taliban has created a power vacuum in which various Northern Alliance commanders and local tribal leaders have moved swiftly to carve out spheres of influence. The current situation somewhat resembles developments in 1992, when the Soviet-backed regime of Najibullah collapsed, leaving a loose coalition of Mujaheddin factions in charge of governing the country.
Rabbani headed the Mujaheddin government. Yet, almost from the start, the Mujaheddin factions, many of which are now part of the Northern Alliance, pursued individual interests and never managed to forge viable state institutions. Ultimately, internal rivalries led to armed conflict, paving the way for the Taliban takeover of Kabul in 1996.
Seeking to avoid a repetition of history, Brahimi warned that delays in implementing the UN stabilization plan would diminish the chances of its success. "The more time is wasted, more problems may crop up and make progress that more difficult," Brahimi told the British Broadcasting Corp.
An additional complication for the UN stabilization is finding a suitable number of Pashtun tribal leaders to participate in the planned meeting. The Taliban draws most of its support from Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. Some Pashtun tribal leaders have suggested that moderate Taliban leaders could participate in the political process.
Northern Alliance officials, and several key members of the anti-terrorism coalition, oppose any Taliban participation in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Pakistani officials have said they will not accept any government in Afghanistan that does not adequately represent the Pashtun majority.
Raffi Khatchadourian is a Tashkent-based freelance journalist.