KOENIGSWINTER, Germany – Talks on Afghanistan's political future moved into a decisive phase Saturday after the Northern Alliance said it was prepared to transfer power to a U.N.-backed interim council and allow an international security force, clearing the way for an agreement.
The announcement followed a night of intense diplomacy. The U.N. envoy to the conference among four Afghan delegations outside Bonn called the Afghan capital, Kabul, to press for a breakthrough after Northern Alliance leaders there said they could not accept a council named in Germany.
"There's no guarantee of success but the will is there," U.N. spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said from the hilltop Petersberg hotel where the talks were in their fifth day.
Diplomats and participants at the talks said the emerging deal includes only the creation of a small interim council with executive powers, leaving aside for now an envisioned larger interim council with quasi-legislative functions.
"That's the way things are going right now," a senior U.S. official at the talks said. "There's a lot of discussion about a possible deal."
Under an agreement among the four factions, the interim authority would govern Afghanistan until March, when a national council, or loya jirga, would convene. At that time, a transitional authority would be chosen to govern for up to two years, paving the way for a democratic constitution and possibly elections.
The conference between the Northern Alliance, exiles loyal to Afghanistan's former king and two smaller exile groups had reached an impasse Friday, when Burhanuddin Rabbani — the alliance leader and former Afghan president — took a hard line on two key issues.
Rabbani insisted the interim councils be chosen in Afghanistan, not by the Germany conference, and he said an Afghan force should keep security under the interim government, with at most 200 foreign troops. The United Nations wants an international security force.
But Saturday, after U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi spoke with Rabbani overnight, Rabbani's foreign minister, Dr. Abdullah, announced the alliance was "ready to transfer power to a transitional authority." He said the alliance did not insist that Rabbani, who has never given up his claim to be Afghanistan's head of state, be the head of the interim government.
Abdullah, who uses one name, said a list of names for the interim council would be discussed "in the coming days."
"We think the results are promising," Abdullah said, adding that he was "optimistic of an early result" in the conference, which began Tuesday at a sealed-off hilltop hotel near Bonn.
U.N. spokesman Fawzi said alliance leaders had replied to the U.N. request for the alliance list of people for an interim post-Taliban administration.
"We are studying the formula suggested as one of the options. It might lead to an agreement," Fawzi said.
The other three delegations at the talks had already drawn up their lists of proposed members of the council.
A Western diplomat said idea of two councils — including a larger, legislative-style council — has been discarded to keep the negotiations from dragging on. The smaller interim council must assume power in Kabul this month, he said, and would be accompanied by a multinational force in the capital. The composition of the force was not yet determined.
Fasting for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan has taken a toll on the pace of the round-the-clock talks, with many delegates fatigued, he said, predicting talks on details focused on the composition of both the executive council could and the security force could continue into Monday.
A delegate from the small group of Peshawar-based exiles at the talks told The Associated Press that it appears the former king will lead the interim council. Rabbani will be a member, Hafizullah Asif Mohseni said.
The executive body will comprise about 20 people, including former resistance fighters and commanders and technocrats, he said. The council will go to Kabul for the transfer of power.
Other names from the Northern Alliance being considered for the council include Ayatollah Mohammad Mohseni, a Shiite leader; Abdul Qadir, a Pashtun leader who left the talks several days ago to protest the lack of Pashtun representation here; and Ismail Khan, a Tajik warlord, Mohseni said.
The Northern Alliance is made up mainly of ethnic minorities, particularly Tajiks and Uzbeks, and members of the Shiite Muslim religious minority. Pashtuns are the country's largest ethnic group and dominate the south of the country, once making up the main support of the Taliban.
Rabbani, whose faction within the alliance controls Kabul, has tried to press for fewer decisions to be made at the Bonn conference and more in Afghanistan. The United Nations, however, mindful of the alliance's control of large swaths of Afghanistan, wants to decisions made on neutral ground.