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Afghan Leaders To Meet In Germany For Talks On Afghanistan Future - 2001-11-21

A meeting of Afghan leaders to discuss sharing power in post-Taleban Afghanistan is set for Monday in Germany. It's being hailed as a first step toward forming a broad-based government. At the same time, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is traveling to Iran and Pakistan for talks with two of Afghanistan's neighbors that have concerns about that country's future.

When it comes to Afghanistan and the Taleban, Iranians convey a sense of "we told you so." Iranian officials and political analysts argue that Iran opposed the Taleban from the beginning and gave its support to the opposition Northern Alliance. They say that up until September 11, the United States ignored events in Afghanistan, and they point out how U.S. allies in the region openly supported the Taleban. Until recently, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the only countries to officially recognize the Taleban regime.

Now, despite many other differences between them, Iran and the United States agree the Taleban should be driven from power. Ambassador Siavash Yaghoubi is in charge of West Asian affairs in the foreign ministry. In an interview with VOA in his office in Tehran, he outlined what kind of government Iran would like to see in neighboring Afghanistan. "Our dream ... is to see a representative, responsible, accountable government in Afghanistan to be elected by Afghans. That, I think would meet the national desire of the Afghan people and also the neighboring countries," he said.

While there seems to be a general consensus that the Taleban must be replaced by a broad-based, multi ethnic government, there is less agreement on how to go about achieving that goal. Iran is opposed to American involvement in Afghanistan, fearing the United States will use it to gain a stronger foothold in central Asia. Instead, Iran wants the United Nations to lead the effort to create a new government in Afghanistan. But Iran also wants to have some say in the final outcome.

Enmity between Iran and the Taleban stems, in part, from religious differences. The Taleban, made up of mostly ethnic Pashtuns, are Sunni Muslims, while Iran is predominantly Shia. Iran also views the Taleban as the creation of the Pakistani security services and accuses Pakistan and some Gulf Arab states of trying to export an extremist form of Sunni Islam into the region.

Iran says it has seen the consequences of that extremism pour across its borders and has had to take in more than two million Afghan refugees who have fled the rule of the Taleban. Other neighbors have also had their share of problems. To the north, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan accuse the Taleban of supporting Islamic extremists in their countries and Russia say Afghanistan has been a training ground for separatist Islamic rebels in its own breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Iranian political analyst Mahmood Sariolghalam of Tehran's National University says it will be difficult enough to get all of Afghanistan's neighbors to agree on a future path for the country. But he says it will be even harder to get the various ethnic and political factions inside Afghanistan to agree to share power. "You have a large number of groups with quite a bit of diversity and a history of hostility. They're not going to be easy to come to terms with a government that is acceptable to all of them. So, I don't see a short term solution. I think we're here to see Afghanistan in turmoil for many years to come," he said.

Professor Sariolghalam believes that, because of its ties to the Northern Alliance and to fellow Shia Muslims inside Afghanistan, Iran can play a significant role in bringing about a post Taleban future.

So far, even though the Taleban have been ousted from power in most of Afghanistan, Iran has remained largely on the sidelines, watching and waiting. Professor Sariolghalam says there are good reasons for Iran's unwillingness to play a more forceful role. "There is a large Afghani community in [Iran], more than two million people, and it is not very clear what the political tendencies of this large group might be. So, if Iran sides internationally with a particular group within Afghanistan it is not certain what would be the internal security consequences of such an involvement. ... And, Iran does have an Islamic posture in this region and it is very difficult for this country to engage in a war in Afghanistan," he said.

But, says Ambassador Yaghoubi of the foreign ministry, there is an incentive for Iran to help establish a stable post Taleban regime because Afghanistan, under the Taleban, has not been an easy neighbor. "First of all, we have three million refugees almost; about two and a half million drug addicts coming from the cultivation of poppies and the production of opium in Afghanistan. So, put it together, that's five million people affected by the Afghan situation," he said.

Ambassador Yaghoubi said caring for the refugees, dealing with drug addiction and strengthening patrols along the border with Afghanistan has cost the Iranian government about $4 billion a year.

Analysts acknowledge the task of bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan is daunting. They say, in the past, neglect by the international community was partially responsible for allowing Afghanistan to drift into lawlessness and extremism and for creating conditions that allowed the Taleban to take power. But now, with the Taleban on the run and world attention focused on Afghanistan, the analysts say the international community may finally be able to set things right.