Allies seeking Taliban's successor

`Inertia' meets efforts to organize Afghans

November 13, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With opposition forces on the march in Afghanistan, the United States and its allies are scrambling to prevent a dangerous political vacuum in the country if and when the Taliban regime collapses.

The solution might require a peacekeeping force and a temporary United Nations administration. Although the details haven't been worked out, diplomats say the operation could be comparable to the one installed in the early 1990s in Cambodia. There, a 22,000-person U.N. "authority" stayed for two years at a cost of $1.6 billion and 78 lives.

For weeks, western and U.N. officials have been imploring various Afghan factions to decide among themselves on the shape of a future government, only to encounter what one senior U.S. official calls "inertia" among the anti-Taliban groups.

Now, with the Northern Alliance gaining ground, the absence of a viable regime to replace the Taliban is provoking a crisis. The alliance includes fighters from minority Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara ethnic groups who are distrusted by the country's Pashtuns, the largest group.

This weekend, President Bush publicly urged the Northern Alliance not to enter Kabul, the Afghan capital. Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, said that if the alliance did, "atrocities" could result.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and senior officials of seven other countries with a stake in Afghanistan's future agreed yesterday to speed up their efforts "on an urgent basis."

Meeting in a basement conference room at the United Nations, the eight ministers declared in a statement that Afghanistan needs a "broad-based, multi-ethnic, politically balanced, freely chosen Afghan administration representative of their aspirations and at peace with its neighbors."

The declaration marked a rare occasion in which the United States and Iran, one of America's main adversaries in the region, were in agreement.

Powell and Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi sat in the same room but did not greet each other because Powell's arrival was delayed amid added security precautions taken after the airline crash yesterday in nearby Queens, a U.S. official said.

The novelty of a high-level U.S.-Iranian encounter was overshadowed, however, by the unfolding situation in Afghanistan.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan pressed the ministers to exert their influence over the Afghan factions in order to overcome the obstacles to forming a new government, an aide said.

"As things are moving very fast, we need to try and bring the political aspects in line with the military developments on the ground," Annan told reporters later.

Neither Annan nor his special envoy for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, thinks the Afghan people will accept a peacekeeping force and an administration imposed from the outside, a U.N. aide said.

"We have always insisted that this process should be home-grown. It is the Afghans that are going to decide," Brahimi told reporters. He did not rule out having members of the Taliban participate in a future government. Brahimi will brief the U.N. Security Council during a meeting on Afghanistan today.

Despite those warnings, however, U.S. and allied officials said they feel they have no choice but to move to fill a possible vacuum in Afghanistan, where the breakdown of government in the past has led to fierce factional fighting and widespread harm to civilians.

Peacekeeping forces might be sent "rather quickly," a senior U.S. official said. With too little time to put together a full-fledged U.N. peacekeeping force, a force composed of "willing" contributors is likely, officials say. Turkey, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Jordan, all mostly Muslim countries, have offered troops.

At the same time, U.N. personnel could be dispatched in what the U.S. official called an "interim administrative role."

The United States has promised the Afghans a brighter future.

Bush declared in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly this weekend that the Afghan people would say "Good riddance" to the Taliban, and added, "The United States will work closely with the United Nations and development banks to reconstruct Afghanistan after hostilities there have ceased."

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