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Afghanistan Transition Is in Trouble


WASHINGTON — Once again, Afghanistan is threatening to unravel under the weight of its deep internal divisions.

Rival Afghan factions can't even agree on a venue to hold talks about a broad-based new government to replace the Taliban, prompting U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to lash out in frustration Friday.

"We will go only as fast as the Afghans are willing to go. Unless we have answers and an expression of readiness to meet the Afghans, obviously we cannot meet," said Brahimi, who quit the same job two years ago in frustration with squabbling ethnic, religious and tribal groups.

For all the euphoria among Afghans celebrating their new freedoms, the transition in Afghanistan represented by the end of burkas and unruly beards is in trouble--even before the political process begins.

The situation has been complicated by the opposition Northern Alliance's steady progress in creating a de facto government on the ground--with endorsement from the Russians and to the dismay of the Americans--that may be difficult to push aside.

"The military campaign against the Taliban is easy compared with the problems of getting all the rest of the Afghans together," said a senior Bush administration official. "This may be harder than we thought--and we thought it was going to be hard.

"No one's giving up. But Afghans may be celebrating a bit prematurely."

Serious Setback to Political Process

The diplomatic turn has been abrupt and is a serious setback that could delay the political process by two or three weeks or longer, U.S. officials concede.

Just a few days ago, the United States and the United Nations were working on grand ideas of creating a new Afghan system and society, principles captured in a U.N. resolution passed with unanimous backing Wednesday. A summit of Afghan leaders was tentatively scheduled as early as this weekend.

By Friday, however, U.N. and U.S. officials were instead in a diplomatic race to prevent a dispute over the location of the meeting from undermining the process altogether--and opening the way for the country to break apart along its natural ethnic lines.

The dispute over the venue of the Afghan conference is an apt metaphor for the mounting tensions--both within Afghanistan and among the major international players, several of whom have their own competing interests. It reflects historic claims to power spanning centuries, decades of rivalries that ended up destroying half of Kabul, the capital, in the 1990s, and military conquests over the last week.

The U.N. initially proposed to hold the summit on neutral turf outside Afghanistan--the possibilities as of Friday included the United Arab Emirates, Austria, Germany and Kazakhstan--to even the playing field for all parties.

But the Northern Alliance's political leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani, now insists that the summit be held in Kabul, a site that could give his loose coalition of minority groups an edge in the play for power. The alliance already controls Kabul, having driven the Taliban out of the city this week.

In response, many Pushtuns, who account for about 40% of the population and make up Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, have balked, according to U.S. and European envoys. The Pushtuns have been the country's traditional leaders over the last three centuries, and all sides recognize that no government will be deemed broad-based or viable unless they play a major role.

Several Pushtun politicians and commanders have told U.S. and U.N. mediators that they wouldn't feel safe meeting in Kabul unless foreign troops are deployed to ensure their protection. That would take time to organize, further delaying the process and allowing the Northern Alliance time to entrench its hold on Kabul, a multiethnic city.

Northern Alliance In for Warning From U.S.

U.S. officials were planning Friday to issue the Northern Alliance leadership a diplomatic warning about cooperating with the United Nations.

"The Northern Alliance is feeling its oats, but they were nothing without us, and they'd still be stuck where they were a couple of months ago if we hadn't intervened. So we're delivering a strong message to make sure they understand what is at stake," said a well-placed State Department official.

The United States has been struggling to work out a compromise and is willing to endorse the Kabul site, in part because it would make the logistics of assembling Afghan officials--and keeping them together--easier.

But regional players, including U.S. allies in the Afghan campaign, are also divided over the venue, in turn fueling the positions and passions inside Afghanistan.

Pakistan warns that meeting in the Afghan capital could put the southern Pushtuns, its allies, at a disadvantage. And without a leading role for the Pushtuns, Pakistan fears a less friendly government in what has traditionally been an important neighbor. Islamabad also fears internal tensions because Pakistan has even more ethnic Pushtuns than Afghanistan does.

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