The U.N.-sponsored negotiations that begin today on creating a post-Taliban government will bring together some of the world’s most experienced diplomats with leaders of at least four of Afghanistan’s major ethnic groups. The pre-conference moods range from optimism about a new, unified Afghanistan to gloomy predictions of further tribal warfare.
The gloom is understandable. More than 20 years of uninterrupted war – first against the Soviets, then against each other – have given the Afghan groups ample material for grudges and reprisals. That bloody divisiveness, after all, is what gave the Taliban its opening to seize power five years ago.
Which is why the optimism is rational. Afghanistan’s recent history is not all chaos – until the Soviet invasion of 1980, Afghanistan had some experience as a reasonably civil society. More importantly, there are strong signs now that an overwhelming majority of Afghans yearn for a political solution to the ethnic strife warfare has failed to eliminate.
The northern alliance has defied the conventional wisdom that it would replace the Taliban with equal repression by keeping order in Kabul and other cities it has taken. Some Alliance leaders have publicly supported building a broad-based government that gives a prominent role to ethnic Pashtuns, who make up 40 percent of Afghanistan’s population and from which the Taliban come. The inclusion of Pashtun forces in providing security forces for Kabul and areas of the south, necessary for true peacekeeping, is being considered. A renewed role for women in Afghan society is a near certainty.
The key to keeping this coalition together and to the success of the Bonn conference will be international assistance. Western leaders must fill the void left by the Taliban with immediate humanitarian aid, followed by long-tern support for economic development and U.N. recognition of the new Afghan government.
Taking Kandahar, the Taliban’s last stronghold, and the hunt for Osama bin Laden must continue to be the focus of American attention. The United States, its allies and the United Nations also should make sufficient financial commitment to stabilize Afghanistan.
Pessimists point to the similarities between Afghanistan today and Somalia in 1992, where international peacekeeping ended in calamity. The difference is that the diplomatic efforts to rebuild Somalia were not accompanied by the multibillion-dollar reconstruction effort now proposed for Afghanistan. The only argument against that proposal – that Afghans are somehow different from all other people of the world, that they prefer war to peace – goes beyond pessimism to hideous cynicism.
The people of Afghanistan are exhausted by war; the desire for peace is nearly unanimous. The conference in Bonn can build the framework for a broad-based government, but it can stand only with international financial aid.