A United Nations-sponsored conference has opened in Germany, where Afghans are discussing their country's political future. U.N. officials see a difficult road ahead.

Karl Fischer, deputy U.N. Special Envoy for Afghanistan, had no rosy outlook for the outcome of the Bonn conference, Tuesday. Speaking in Islamabad to a conference on aid to Afghanistan, Mr. Fischer predicted a rocky road ahead in the quest to bring a stable, broad-based government to Afghanistan. "The talks are in Bonn," he said, "are just the initial step on an uncertain road. The process will no doubt be difficult. A positive outcome is hoped for, but not guaranteed."

Memories are strong of previous efforts to bring stability to Afghanistan, most notably in 1992, when the Mujahedin triumphed over the communists, only to have the peace degenerate into squabbling and civil war.

This time, the United Nations has a skeletal plan to lay before the Afghan groups gathered in Bonn. It is suggesting the Bonn conference agree on formation of an interim government to be followed by a two-year transition to build up legal and governmental institutions.

But, Mr. Fischer says this is not "set in stone" and can be revised by the Afghans, themselves.

No political process can survive and thrive in an unstable environment. Mr. Fischer says a security framework has not yet been ironed out. He calls on the victorious Northern Alliance, now calling itself the United Front, to ensure security and abide by international law. "The process for establishing effective security is not finalized," he said. "For the longer term, all agree that work on establishing an all-Afghan force should start as soon as possible. In the short-term, security arrangements will rest on the parties on the ground, and the United Nations again calls on all parties to respect their obligations under the Geneva Convention - in particular the humane treatment of prisoners of war."

As Mr. Fischer notes, there have been calls for a multinational force in Afghanistan to ensure security. "A number of groups are increasingly calling for some kind of multinational force, authorized by the [U.N.] Security Council. Such a force could, at least, establish a security environment that would allow for the continuation of the political process. It might also have a mandate to facilitate humanitarian and recovery activities."

But the Alliance, or United Front, has voiced strong objections to any foreign troops in Afghanistan. The Alliance, or Front, holds Kabul and is the dominant military force in the country.

Mr. Fischer says Afghanistan's neighbors must also resist the urge to meddle in Afghan affairs. "Security in Afghanistan will also depend on its neighbors," he said. "Unless there's an end to interference in Afghanistan's affairs by the neighbors, in reality as much as in rhetoric, there can be little hope of lasting stability in the country. Here, too, we have some grounds for optimism."

Pakistan has come in for sharp criticism trying to influence events in Afghanistan to its advantage.