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Security drawn up for Bonn talks

"In the driving seat:" U.N. special representative to Afghanistan Brahimi  

BERLIN, Germany -- Rigid security measures are being prepared for talks in Bonn between Afghan leaders to try to thrash out the composition of an interim government.

Delegations from four anti-Taliban groupings -- including the Northern Alliance, Pashtun tribes from southern Afghanistan and supporters of exiled king Mohammed Zahir Shah -- are scheduled to meet in Bonn on Monday for the U.N.-organised talks.

German government spokesoman Sabine Sparwasser told The Associated Press: "The conference is planned at the moment in such a way that it will be a purely internal Afghan meeting under the leadership of and hosted by the United Nations here in Germany."

Bonn was the capital of West Germany before it reverted back to Berlin after the reunification of the country in 1990. Berlin was also considered for the conference, Sparwasser said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, said on Tuesday he hoped for a quick decision by fewer than 30 Afghan leaders. Sparwasser said she was expecting between 50 and 70 participants next week.

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Sparwasser stressed that the decision to hold the talks in Germany came from the United Nations and the Afghan groups, although she cited "the fact that Germany long had good relations with Afghanistan, which are still remembered by the forces there."

"Germany has for many years worked very intensively inside the United Nations for a political solution for Afghanistan," she said.

The U.S. government's Central Asia envoy said on Wednesday he was optimistic the meeting would produce a broad-based post-Taliban power-sharing administration.

James F. Dobbins, who has spent the last two weeks in the region, said "high levels of suspicion and anxiety" remained among the anti-Taliban factions, but said opinion was "less divergent and more convergent than I expected."

"I return a good deal more optimistic than I left that we have an opportunity to promote the early development of a broad-based government in Afghanistan which the international community can assist," Dobbins, who was named the Bush administration's representative to Afghanistan's anti-Taliban opposition two weeks ago, told The Associated Press.

Dobbins, a career diplomat, advised the Clinton administration on Balkan issues and headed the State Department's European bureau for a time.

Up to now there has been considerable tension reported among the groups taking part in the talks.

Many Pashtuns are wary of the Northern Alliance -- which is dominated by minority Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras -- and eager to see international peacekeepers deployed in Afghanistan.

The Northern Alliance meanwhile had been critical of the make-up of the delegations and had at first asserted that the meeting should be held in Kabul.

Its team will be headed by Interior Minister Yunus Qanuni while an aide to the king said he would send a high-ranking delegation which could include a woman -- a clear rejoinder to the Taliban whose regime ordered that a woman's place was in the home.

Diplomats from United States, Britain, Pakistan and Russia are also expected to attend. Washington will send Dobbins, while Moscow will dispatch its own Afghan specialist, Zamir Kabulov.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who obtained a vote of confidence in the Bundestag last week over sending troops to Afghanistan, will be looking to the talks to raise Germany's global profile.

Paramount will be the security measures for the behind closed-doors sessions particularly in view of the devastation caused in the U.S. on September 11.

"We are providing structural support, all else comes from the United Nations," one diplomat, told Reuters stressing that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, was "in the driving seat."

Three of the four suicide pilots involved in the September 11 attacks, including alleged ringleader Mohamed Atta, lived in Hamburg and other suspects with German ties are still at large.

Only last week, the head of Germany's federal crime office said Islamic militants prepared to wage a jihad, or holy war, may have lived undercover in Germany for up to 15 years.

"The risk is quite real. There are supporters of Osama bin Laden in this country," Bernt Glatzer, Afghanistan expert at the German Foundation for International Development, told Reuters. Some politicians have warned of expecting too much from the conference, especially with what is viewed as the underrepresentation of the southern-based Pashtun, from whom the Taliban drew its support.

"I don't want to raise expectations too high," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told a news conference in London.

"It will take some time before a fully-fledged government, equivalent to that of a normal nation state, can be established ... The signs are, however, more hopeful than they were."

The choice of Bonn as the venue for the talks reflects a century of strong German-Afghan ties and Germany's perceived more neutral stance than other European nations such as Britain.

Afghanistan "is one of a number of Muslim countries, including Iran and Turkey, which have had good relations with Germany. They have seen Germany as a counterweight to British and Russian imperialism from the late 19th century," Afghan expert Andreas Reich of the German Middle East Institute told Reuters.

In 1920, Afghan King Amanullah paid what was recognised as the first state visit by a foreign dignitary to Germany, still regarded as a pariah nation after World War One.

"The friendly contacts date back to then," said Glatzer. After World War Two, contact continued with Germany giving more development aid per capita to Afghanistan than to any other country. A German school was also established.

Germany has one of the largest Afghan communities outside Asia and the United States, with 70,000 to 100,000 political exiles and students in the country.

Until the Soviet invasion in 1979 Germany was one of the largest aid donors. After that, there was a trickle of humanitarian help. Independent groups, such as German-based Shelter Now, eight of whose workers were arrested by the Taliban in August, continued the work.

Next week's meeting may be a precursor to a renewed German involvement in and financial aid for Afghanistan. The talks begin coincidentally on the day Germany mobilises its first troops for the U.S.-led anti-Taliban war.


• United Nations

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