United Front Divisions Emerge

The delegation representing the United Front at the Bonn peace talks appears riddled with thinly-disguised divisions.

United Front Divisions Emerge

The delegation representing the United Front at the Bonn peace talks appears riddled with thinly-disguised divisions.

The man widely tipped to become the real power in post-Taleban Kabul had his first taste of Western-style media attention earlier this week on a tourist barge moored on the Rhine near the Bonn suburb of Konigswinter.

Yunis Qanuni, who heads the 11-strong United Front delegation to the five-day UN talks on Afghanistan, is a young, slightly-built Tajik, with a well-trimmed beard, who walks with the help of a cane. He more closely resembles the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, than the shaggy mullahs and mujahedin who have addressed the press at varying times during the past 10 years of fighting.

At a riverside press conference on Wednesday, Qanuni - flanked by five tight-lipped colleagues, including the United Front's only woman delegate - sought to present an image of a government-by-committee, though it was clear who in this Afghan politburo was actually in charge.

Until his meteoric rise into the post-Taleban political limelight, Qanuni was the sole political advisor to the late opposition leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by alleged al-Qaeda terrorists on September 9.

As interior minister in the de facto government of northern Afghanistan, Qanuni is also in charge of security in Kabul, an issue which at first seemed likely to dog the Bonn conference up to its closure on Saturday.

On Wednesday, he categorically rejected the UN plan to send a peace-keeping force to patrol Kabul and other urban centres until a transitional government is in place that will pave the way to national elections. ''We prefer that security is looked after by the Afghan security forces, composed of different ethnic groups and different parties," he said.

That refusal was repeated three times more in the face of further questioning from journalists at the hastily convened press conference, the first to be held by any of the four groups of Afghans participating in the talks.

The UN believes a multi-national military presence in Afghanistan is crucial to prevent the fragile balance of interests in the multi-ethnic Northern Alliance from degenerating into a new round of blood-letting.

A neutral force will also reassure other groups not represented at the conference - particularly the Pashtuns of southern Afghanistan, but also the Hazara Shia - that they will eventually have a say in the UN-backed interim administration.

Qanuni's bold assertion was qualified on Thursday, however, when the United Front's foreign minister, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, told CNN, "Our preference would be for an Afghan force, composed of all ethnic groups. But if we have to go for a multi-national force, we would consider it positively... we are flexible in that regard." Dr Abdullah was previously Massoud's foreign affairs spokesman.

The following day, Dr Abdullah's counsel seemed to have prevailed. In a second press conference, Qanuni said that the United Front would no longer "oppose the deployment of foreign troops in Afghanistan". He blamed his earlier stance on an error in translation, and had called for a new interpreter. Qanuni only speaks his native Dari.

But as the talks moved on to agreeing which names should be nominated to the crucial interim council, a further setback occurred when Haji Abdul Qadir, a Pashtun member of the United Front, walked out. Qadir is the only "warlord" attending the Bonn talks. His exit was apparently in protest that his ethnic group was insufficiently represented at the conference.

Qanuni's initial intransigence punctured the general air of optimism that had drifted down from the hilltop castle of Petersberg, where the United Front began talks on Monday with the Rome delegation of former king Zahir Shah and two other exiled Afghans factions, known as the Cyprus and Peshawar groups, named after the venues of earlier gatherings.

Hamed Kharzai, the Pashtun leader currently seeking to stimulate opposition to the Taleban from his bases in Helmand and Oruzgan provinces, telephoned the conference to tell delegates, "This meeting is the path towards salvation".

Reports from the conference suggested a high degree of consensus on the three main items on the agenda that the UN calls a "road map for free and fair elections" over a 2-3-year time phase. The first is the selection and composition of an interim supreme council; the second, the formation of an interim administration; and the third, the convening of an emergency Loya Jirga, or grand council.

The prime task of the latter is to agree the ground rules and procedures for the summoning of a second Loya Jirga that will create a transitional government to prepare for national elections.

Even the issue of a role for ex-king Zahir Shah appeared to have been tacitly agreed until Qanuni's press conference. "We do not believe in the role of persons or personalities," he said in another far-reaching statement of dissent, "we believe in systems. The Loya Jirga is a traditional system in Afghanistan. If the Loya Jirga agrees that the former king has a role, then no one can deny that."

But the UN, the king's party and the Peshawar Group all know that the 87-year-old former king is unlikely to live long enough to see a Loya Jirga convened. His role in the interim supreme council was designed to reassure both the Pashtun and international donors that serious efforts were being made to establish a legitimate authority in Kabul.

Though fraught with risk, due to its extended time frame and the opportunism of the many warlords restored to power as a result of the US-backed campaign against the Taleban, the UN plan appeared to be working - largely because of the 10-17 billion US dollars of reconstruction funding in the offing - until Qanuni's surprise departure from the script.

Michael Griffin is author of Reaping The Whirldwind - The Taleban Movement in Afghanistan.

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