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Kabul seeks to escape history’s cruel cycle

October 18, 2001

Reporting by Guy Dinmore, Edward Luce, Mark Nicholson, Stephen Fidler. Carola Hoyos and John Thornhill Financial Times (London)

Kabul is about to fall. The ruling regime is crumbling from within. Opposition forces have surrounded the city. In the half-ruins of the former Intercontinental Hotel, a United Nations envoy announces that efforts to form a broad-based interim government have collapsed. An even bloodier civil war is in the making.

This is not just the scenario that Afghanistan’s neighbours and the US now fear. It also describes the events of April 1992, when the communist regime of President Najibullah disintegrated and loosely allied mujahideen forces fought one another in the race to capture the capital. A year of intense diplomatic efforts launched by Javier Perez de Cuellar, the UN secretary-general, had come to nothing. UN shuttle diplomacy had moved from capital to capital and tried to tie in Afghanistan’s former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah. The US and the Soviet Union had agreed to stop arming the Afghans. Pakistan worked feverishly to shape the government it wanted in Kabul and a deal was signed in Peshawar, Pakistan, never to be implemented. Tens of thousands of Afghans were to die and many more to flee the country. Is history about to repeat itself?

With the Taliban regime wilting under the intense fire of the US-led coalition, frantic efforts are again being made to stitch together the semblance of a coherent government that can salvage Afghanistan fromits desperate plight.

President George W. Bush has suggested that the UN should play the central nation-building role in trying to reconstitute Afghanistan. The UN, in turn, has entrusted the task to Lakhdar Brahimi, the highly respected former Algerian foreign minister, who has had long experience with Afghanistan.

But the centuries-old rivalries among Afghanistan’s fractious ethnic groups and the divergent interests and persistent meddling of the country’s six neighbours will make Mr Brahimi’s task comparable to playing three-dimensional chess in a blindfold. This week Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, made clear to the Security Council that there could be no lasting political solution for Afghanistan without the backing of its key neighbours. But the outside powers do appear to be coalescing around a plan to establish a broadly based government, representing most of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups, under the symbolic leadership of the octogenarian king.

Senior diplomats say they believe they can build cross-ethnic support for the leadership of Zahir Shah within two weeks, as long as the US provides strong political backing. They say that various Afghan exile groups, including those based in Cyprus, Bonn, Rome
and Peshawar, are supportive of at least a “nominal leadership role” for the exiled king.

“We think we’re pretty close to building a consensus on Zahir Shah,” said a senior international official. “But we need strong US input to make sure it sticks.”

However, one senior diplomat in Islamabad says it would take five or six years to build a genuinely effective pan-ethnic Afghan government, because of the feudal and widely disparate nature of the exiled groups that would have to be included.

“We believe that the only really viable solution right now is to give the UN stewardship over Afghanistan so that it can rebuild the country’s civic infrastructure. This would give the international community the breathing space to create a viable and durable pan-ethnic Afghan government.”

Diplomats recognise, though, that the US will need to come up with a short-term “political fix” among Afghan ethnic groups to provide at least a nominal alternative to the Taliban in the near future. And that will almost inevitably involve the titular leadership of Zahir Shah.

Despite the mounting uncertainty and the looming human disaster, there is still a sense that Afghanistan has a better chance now than it did in 1992. The positions of Pakistan and Iran are closer now than nine years ago. Pakistan, and the US, have learned the bitter lessons of the failed Taliban experiment they backed. Iran knows it has only limited influence over the opposition Northern Alliance.

There is, perhaps, also a feeling among many of Afghanistan’s own leaders that the fratricidal violence of the past decade has run its bloody course. “The Afghan people are fed up with war,” commented one UN official.

“They are the most sinned against people in the world, with 22 years of war, drought and a huge human rights deficit. Imposing another war is the last thing they need, and their leaders now understand this.”

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