Afghan Peace Talks In Doubt Success Of New Fighting Force May Hurt Fragile Coalitions

SUNDAY, FEB. 19, 1995

After years of frustration, a U.N. effort to bring peace to Afghanistan reached a critical point Saturday when an envoy began a round of shuttle diplomacy aimed at bringing the main warring groups into a new coalition government.

The U.N. representative, Mahmoud Mestiri, had hoped that a new governing council would take power in Kabul, the capital, on Monday.

But as he opened the talks, Mestiri said that the earliest date had slipped to Tuesday, and many Afghans involved in the talks judged the prospects for meeting that deadline increasingly slim.

The peace effort seemed to have snagged on the very thing that brought rapid momentum to Mestiri’s efforts in recent weeks: the sudden military successes of a new Afghan fighting force known as Taliban.

Over the last four months, it has taken control of nearly half the country in an offensive that began in Kandahar, Afghanistan’s secondlargest city.

The Taliban sprang up when students at Muslim religious schools banded together last fall to rid the country of armed factions that had divided the county into fiefs and preyed on ordinary Afghans.

Last week, Taliban units pushed almost to the gates of Kabul, then halted, apparently to review tactics for dealing with the government of President Burnahuddin Rabbani.

After arriving here on Friday, Mestiri acknowledged that the Taliban offensive had changed the political landscape in a way that could alter or even doom his plans, although peace efforts here are closer to success than they have been at any time since they began more than a decade ago.

“When I took this job, everybody said it was mission impossible, but I said, I will try,” said Mestiri, a former foreign minister of Tunisia.

“Now, I think we made some progress. We are heading in the right direction. But how long it will take, God alone knows.”

In earlier talks with Mestiri, Rabbani agreed to cede power to a new transitional governing council made up of representatives of the mujahedeen, Muslim resistance groups that formed to battle Soviet forces that occupied Afghanistan in 1979.

The Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, and the mujahedeen fell into civil war among themselves three years later when the Soviet-installed Communist government in Kabul collapsed.

Along with those eight groups from the anti-Soviet resistance, the new council proposed by the United Nations would include five regional groups that have established power in key provincial cities, including Jalalabad, Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat.

With each of these groups taking one seat on the council, for a total of 13, Mestiri proposed adding an almost equal number of “prominent personalities,” Afghan individuals who have played no part in the fighting that ravaged the country for the past 16 years.

The U.N. plan made little headway until last month, when the swift successes of the Taliban, pressing toward Kabul on a 300-mile road from Kandahar, persuaded several warring factions to bury their differences and accept the proposal.

Various factions of the mujahedeen had battled for control of the capital since the collapse of the former government in April 1992.

The problem now is that the Taliban advance may have made the new council irrelevant.

Tags: unrest

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