Montreal Gazette
Tuesday, November 27, 2001
Page: B1 / BREAK
Section: News
Source: The Gazette; The London Daily Telegraph

The Afghan peace talks in Bonn this week are not necessarily doomed to fail, but historical precedence points that way.

Following the Soviet pullout of Afghanistan and before the emergence of the Taliban, representatives of the various Afghan tribes met in Peshawar to devise a government. But the 1992 Peshawar Accord was a bust.

Too many people wanted a seat at the table, a situation similar to the meeting that begins today. The meeting produced a power-sharing formula that was so cumbersome that it never worked. It led to the bloody civil war that produced the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.

Now, Western diplomats are demanding a “broad-based” government in Afghanistan, and have invited representatives of the various ethnic groups.

Almost every ethnic group at the talks in Bonn is represented by a single political group that can make a claim of speaking on the behalf of the majority of that group.

Except the Pashtun, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, who are unable to come up with a credible alternative to the Taliban. Those Pashtun in Bonn have no credible voice in the country.

Tajiks, the driving force behind the Northern Alliance, have a cohesive political and military structure represented by the Jamiat-e-Islami, headed by president Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Hizb-e-Wahdat, the principal Shia party in Afghanistan, represents the interests of Hazara people in the west of the country.

Junbish-e-Milli Islami Afghanistan (Junbish), speaks for the ethnic Uzbeks.

Non-Hazara Afghan Shias are represented at the talks by the Harakat-e-Islami, another Shia party, allied with Jamiat-e-Islami.

The Pashtuns, who represent about 40 per cent of the population of Afghanistan, however, are not represented by a single organization.

On the side of the Northern Alliance they are represented by Ittihad-e-Islami Barayi Azadi Afghanistan, one of the Pashtun components of the anti-Taliban coalition led by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a hard-line Sunni fundamentalist and a well-known Pashtun commander who remained loyal to Rabbani.

In addition there are three other groups claiming to speak for the Pashtun majority: Loya Pakhtia movement represents the pro-king Pashtuns; the Peshawar process represents the pro-Pakistan Afghan diaspora and the Cyprus process represents the Iranian-backed Pashtun intellectuals.

None of the groups has much of a following on the ground in Afghanistan although the Peshawar process could count on a lot of Pakistani assistance.

Contrary to Western expectations, so far only one Pashtun province has declared its loyalty to the former king, Zahir Shah, and his Rome-based peace process.

“We have no partners in the south,” said Abdullah Abdullah, who, as foreign minister, is one of three Northern Alliance leaders in Kabul.

“We are looking for partners with whom we can set up a transitional government, but the south is fragmented and the situation there is chaotic.

“We need bridges between us and the Pashtuns, but so far we see only one or two individuals who can play that role. If the king wants to play that role, he will have to be more active.”

The problem for the Pashtuns is that they are divided along ethnic, tribal and political lines. Ethnically they are divided into two major sections – the Ghilzai and Durrani.

The rivalry between these two Pashtun groups has shaped much of the modern history of Afghanistan.

For the past 200 years the political power lay in the hands of the Durranis, who fielded not only the kingly dynasty but also the leftist and communist elites.

However the political power of the Durranis has been at a steady decline for most of the 20th century. The ouster of Zahir Shah in 1973 marked the end of the Durrani dynasty, and infighting between rival groups within the Afghan Communist Party put the last nail in the coffin of Durrani Pashtun rule in Afghanistan.

The Taliban movement, which was based in the south dominated by the Ghilzai Pashtuns, rose out of the feeling of disgust with the corruption of Durrani warlords and shame with the loss of Kabul to the staunchly anti-Pashtun Jamiat-e-Islami.

Now for the second time in 10 years the Pashtuns have lost control of the capital to the Northern Alliance, led by their Tajik rivals.

The Alliance, in its turn, is adamant that any future government be formed after a second meeting in Kabul. But Western powers and the Pashtuns balk at such a proposal because a meeting would give de facto recognition of the Alliance’s control of Kabul.

Abdullah emphasized that the maximum that could be hoped for from the Bonn meeting would be “a set of principles that we can all agree to in order to form a transitional government,” rather than forming the government itself. Anything else is high hopes.

The Bonn meeting was originally intended to bring together about 25 Afghan leaders. The UN had called on five Afghan groups to send delegations, with 11 representatives from the Northern Alliance and eight from the former king.

Much smaller delegations would come from the Cyprus process, the Peshawar process and the pro-king Loya Pakhtia movement.

Alliance leaders were furious to hear that the king was sending 18 representatives and the smaller factions were also sending larger numbers, raising the total number of Afghans to 50.

“The other parties are breaking the UN formula and now we have to decide whether to send more representatives. It is a matter of honour,” said an Alliance leader.

The UN will have to decide whether to accommodate all the Afghans or stick to the original number and screen out the excess.