Preparing Afghanistan for the next stage

Transition: Speedy U.N.-brokered coalition of leading ethnic groups must precede institution-building.

November 20, 2001

THE TALIBAN rule of Afghanistan is over. The country needs a working interim coalition regime as soon as possible, to restore civil order and safety and allow for restoration of public health and humanitarian aid before winter.

Only in such a setting can more permanent political institutions be negotiated through traditional Afghan councils.

Women, who played important roles in society before the Taliban and are now a greater majority than before, are needed in essential services immediately and should participate as citizens in institution-building.

The Northern Alliance and the former president, Berhanuddin Rabbani, are not a suitable interim regime but are an indispensable part of it. The old former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, could help confer legitimacy to such an undertaking, but could not run it.

The United States has properly deferred to the United Nations in bringing the factions together. A first conference outside the country is essential. A major role for ethnic Pashtuns is required. They may not all be identified before both Kandahar and Kunduz have been transferred to anti-Taliban, Pashtun control.

Kabul will not do for the first meeting because the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance holds it. A site in Pakistan is symbolically out because of that government's involvement with the Taliban and Pashtun favoritism.

A quick meeting - probably in Europe - could enable a transition government in Kabul that the Northern Alliance would join. An international conference on economic reconstruction, scheduled for Nov. 27 in Islamabad, Pakistan, might instill confidence.

A continuing U.S. political role is vital. Americans and Afghans alike will welcome a withdrawal of the military presence when the Taliban and al-Qaida have been dismantled. Other peace-keepers are in the wings. But the hands-off indifference of Washington after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, leading to anarchy and Taliban tyranny, must not be repeated.

While the Northern Alliance looks strong in Kabul, nobody is fooled. As an opposition, it was barely hanging on until U.S. bombing broke the will of its enemies.

The music has been turned on in most of Afghanistan after five years of terrible silence. It should be clear to observers from everywhere that the Afghan people are being liberated from a substantially alien regime that most hated.

The Afghans of all ethnicities and countries with a legitimate interest have a chance to put right what they all did so dreadfully wrong more than a decade ago.

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