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RESPONSE TO TERROR | DIPLOMACY

Alliance Agrees to U.N. Talks on Sharing Power

War: Initial negotiations could take place soon outside Afghanistan, officials say. But local commanders may be reluctant to give up their battlefield gains.

November 19, 2001|PAUL WATSON and TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

KABUL, Afghanistan — Racing to fill a political vacuum before it spawns new turf battles among warlords, diplomats won assurances from officials of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance on Sunday that they would begin talks outside the country soon on plans to share power.

Top alliance officials appear sincere in their promise that they won't try to cling to power or limit other groups to token participation, U.N. special representative Francesc Vendrell said in an interview during his second day of talks here.

"I must believe they mean to start fresh because they surely recall the experience of the 1990s," Vendrell said, referring to a vicious civil war that began in 1992 and ended with the Taliban's takeover of Kabul four years later.

The United Nations has accused the Northern Alliance of obstructing political progress. The alliance's rapid move into the capital as the Taliban retreated to its southern stronghold and its previous insistence that talks on Afghanistan's future be held in Kabul have led to fears that the alliance has been trying to behave like a functioning government in order to strengthen its negotiating hand.

At the same time, powerful military commanders in the alliance threaten to derail any power-sharing agreement.

Fighting continued on two fronts Sunday where Taliban forces were holed up, Kunduz in the north and Kandahar in the south. U.S. warplanes struck both areas. B-52 bombers battered the area around Kunduz, and reports emerged that the Taliban offered to withdraw if safe passage were guaranteed by the United Nations.

U.S. officials said that despite conflicting reports, they believed that Saudi militant Osama bin Laden was still in Afghanistan and that his room to maneuver was shrinking.

Vendrell arrived in Kabul on Saturday to try to arrange a meeting of the Northern Alliance, representatives of former monarch Mohammad Zaher Shah and other Afghan groups.

After meeting with Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah on Saturday and political leader Burhanuddin Rabbani on Sunday, Vendrell said he was optimistic that U.N.-sponsored power-sharing talks could begin in a week to 10 days.

Meeting separately with U.S. special envoy James Dobbins in Uzbekistan on Sunday, Abdullah agreed that the first meeting does not have to take place in Afghanistan.

"It will be outside Afghanistan," Abdullah said. "Some of the venues proposed by Vendrell are acceptable to us--Germany, Switzerland or Austria. From our view, it could be this week. There is no obstacle as far as timing is concerned."

Top U.S. officials applauded the diplomatic developments but continued to warn the Northern Alliance against going it alone.

"We have been very clear that we do not expect there to be a kind of preemptive government set up in Kabul, that this is for the United Nations and for Afghanistan's neighbors and near neighbors to work with all Afghan elements so that we can have a stable government there," National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "We believe that the Northern Alliance understands that, and they're going to respect that."

The 87-year-old former king had refused to send delegates to a meeting in Kabul unless it was controlled by a neutral peacekeeping force. Aides said he probably would send representatives to the initial talks rather than attend himself.

Diplomats and experts agreed that speed is critical.

"It's absolutely essential," said Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, spokesman for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

A Pakistani-based Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added: "This meeting has to happen in days, not weeks. There is a real worry about a consolidation of power by the Northern Alliance."

Observers in Pakistan say military successes by the Northern Alliance, a fractious coalition of ethnic, religious and militia groups, have had the effect of pushing tribal leaders of Afghanistan's dominant Pushtun ethnic group to present a united front. However, that might not last long.

Local Pushtun leaders also have begun to seize power in their areas, and, as they do, their political flexibility has diminished.

Rifaat Hussain, chairman of the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, said those Pushtun tribal leaders who managed to win power locally would seek to keep it, while those who lost out would want a stronger central government.

"If you delay, you risk a slide back into the rule of warlords," Hussain said.

Vendrell said he hoped to meet Sunday night with the Northern Alliance's top commander, Gen. Mohammed Qassim Fahim, considered the real power in the alliance because he has the most loyalty from commanders and troops.

Some alliance commanders, whose authority and wealth stem from the barrel of a gun, are reluctant to give up their battlefield gains or face the foreign troops sent in to maintain stability.

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