KOENIGSWINTER, Germany — Afghan political leaders settled into a secluded Rhine Valley guest house Monday and began behind-the-scenes maneuvering ahead of today's U.N.-sponsored talks on creating a transitional administration for their nation.
Delegates from three of the four factions invited for talks caucused with conference host Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy for Afghanistan, and huddled in small groups in the rooms where German hosts have them sequestered in hopes that cabin fever will force an agreement.
"They've been talking to each other, and we are encouraging this," U.N. spokesman Ahmed Fawzi said of the impromptu negotiations among delegates waiting for the last stragglers, members of the Northern Alliance, to arrive at the secluded Petersberg hotel overlooking the foggy, rain-dappled Rhine River near Bonn.
The talks originally were scheduled to begin Monday. The day off forced by the delayed arrival of those coming from Kabul, the Afghan capital, left the rest of the approximately 30 political figures isolated here with time on their hands.
"I'm stuck here," Daoud Yaqub said in mock horror when reached by telephone. As head of the Afghanistan-America Foundation in Washington, he is one of the advisors to the so-called Rome group representing Afghanistan's ousted monarch, Mohammad Zaher Shah.
The king's grandson described the diplomatic lock-down as a good chance to sound out the other delegations.
"From my 22 years' experience [in Afghan peace talks], most results are achieved informally, over a cup of tea or over dinner," said Mostapha Zaher, the grandson and a delegate to the talks. He said he had spent a productive 90 minutes with Ehsan Mayar, a senior member of Iranian-backed Afghans known as the Cyprus group, with whom the king's representatives found much common ground.
"Most people are determined to get a positive result from these meetings. They feel the time has arrived to work toward peace and unity," the younger Zaher said. "It was very, very encouraging."
The more difficult faction to win over will probably be the Northern Alliance. The group is deeply divided within its own ranks and in little rush to hand over power to an interim administration in the major Afghan cities it now controls.
At a briefing on the eve of the conference, Fawzi said the U.N. organizers want the factions to agree on a series of steps. They include: drawing up a list of individuals to join a provisional administration, determining a titular leader, establishing a time frame for the transition, and endorsing a deployment of security forces to impose peace and order.
"We need to get a transitional authority in the country as soon as possible," Fawzi said. "All parties agree this is imperative and that speed is of the essence."
Repeatedly insisting that it is up to the Afghans to determine their future and that the United Nations is here only to assist and make suggestions, Fawzi laid out several security options under discussion and made clear that the international community has its strong preference. Several warlords have said the peacekeeping force must be made up only of Afghans, but Fawzi said countries monitoring the meetings will be pushing for a multinational force with a U.N. mandate.
The failure of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani to get the talks based in Kabul may signal his weakening authority over Northern Alliance colleagues, who did not strongly back his demand. The alliance represents a broad array of minority Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.
The other three groups attending the conference--the ousted king's delegation, the Cyprus group and representatives of a group of Afghans based in Peshawar, Pakistan--are made up mostly of Pushtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. They may be more welcoming of outside involvement to prevent the Northern Alliance chieftains from dominating their nation.
With so many pressures and interests converging here, observers have lowered expectations even while urging delegates to put aside personal aspirations for the good of their country.
"This is not a voting meeting. It's just to try to get them used to the concept of Pushtuns sitting down with Tajiks and Hazaras and Uzbeks without giving in to the first impulse to go to their Kalashnikovs," a U.S. State Department official said, referring to the Russian-made rifle carried by most Afghan fighters. The official requested anonymity.
The U.S. is one of 18 countries registered as observers and intermediaries, including Russia and all six nations bordering Afghanistan. The large number of states watching from the sidelines shows the international community's keen interest in overcoming Afghanistan's legendary disarray and pressuring delegates to grab what Fawzi called "a golden opportunity" to get aid and reconstruction moving.
"They need to shoulder their responsibility and turn around this situation," the U.N. spokesman said.
Times staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.