A major political hurdle for Afghanistan was apparently cleared Sunday when the victorious Northern Alliance agreed to attend a U.N.-sponsored conference on the country's future. But more hurdles remain, and if not cleared, they could lead to renewed factional fighting in a country that has known little but war over the past 20 years.
International attention is focused on Afghanistan as it has not been since the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979. Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani analyst and author of a best-selling book about the Taleban, says the international community will wash its hands of Afghanistan if the leaders again resort to civil war, as happened in 1992 when the mujahedin defeated the communist government. "If this is repeated, of course, then everyone's going to give up on Afghanistan and walk away again," he said. "But this is a moment of opportunity for them with the kind of international engagement there is now in Afghanistan to come together."
Three key questions stand out: how should a government be chosen, what form should it take, and should there be a role for the Taleban? Of the three, it is the last which is perhaps the most contentious.
The Northern Alliance, which marched into Kabul last week, says there should be no Taleban in Afghanistan's postwar government.
But Hamid Karzai, a former foreign minister in a pre-Taleban government, does not rule it out. Speaking to VOA by satellite phone from Uruzgan province in southern Afghanistan, he says the issue should be decided by a traditional grand council, called a Loya Jirga, a representative body which he says would decide Afghanistan's government. "I don't see it this way as a place for Taleban or place for non-Taleban," he said. "I think it's basically up to the Afghan people to determine the form of government they want and who they want to appoint to the government. Now if the Loya Jirga of Afghanistan determines a government, and that government has a Taleban element in it, okay. If the Loya Jirga determines a government of Afghanistan which does not have Taleban element or any other element, that, too, is okay. My thinking goes towards the right of voting exercise for all people."
But Mr. Rashid says that any new Afghan government will in all likelihood have to make room for some Taleban. "Well, I think that at some level this Talebanized culture which exists in the south of the country will have to be represented in some form or the other within any new government, as least at a local and provincial level," he said. "You cannot have a government which does not represent this kind of extremist Islamic viewpoint. It will just alienate tens of thousands of people in the south who have been living under this and who actually probably still believe it."
Mr. Karzai is a close associate of former King Zahir Shah, and sees some kind of figurehead role for the ex-monarch in pulling together Afghanistan's disparate factions. Mr. Karzai has been traveling in Afghanistan to mobilize anti-Taleban sentiment and drum up support for a Loya Jirga.
The Northern Alliance is made up primarily of ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks, while Mr. Karzai is a Pashtun, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, which is concentrated largely in the south. Much has been made of this north-south, Pashtun-non-Pashtun divide. But Mr. Karzai dismisses the split as largely an invention. "No, there is nothing like that," said Hamid Karzai. "There is really nothing like Pashtun, non-Pashtun in Afghanistan. It's really too much in the media. Our people get surprised when they hear it in the media. The common people hear, they ask questions, 'okay, why are they saying that?' Basically, we treat ourselves as Afghans. This Pashtun, non-Pashtun, is too much in the foreign media. It isn't here in us."
Still, there is no denying that the civil war that began in 1992 and paved the way for the advent of the Taleban was largely along ethnic and tribal lines.