KOENIGSWINTER, Germany – It's good to be the king in Afghanistan, where deposed monarch Mohammed Zahir Shah will play a role in unifying his war-torn country, according to U.S. officials.
Four major Afghan factions - one led by the Northern Alliance, the others representing royalists, Iranian- and Pakistani-backed groups - began talks Tuesday on how to share power once the Taliban are defeated. And at least for now, all sides see the king in the role of unifying figure, said James F. Dobbins, the U.S. government's Central Asia envoy.
"The atmospherics for the opening session were remarkably good," he said . "The prospects of us making some progress are pretty good."
Dobbins said detailed discussions were only beginning, but he suggested the factions could agree to establish former Zahir Shah — who has lived in exile in Italy since his 1973 ouster — as a uniting figure.
"Everybody sees the ex-king as a rallying point and hopes that he will be ready and able to play that role," he said.
Zahir Shah is a Pashtun, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. The Pashtuns — whose participation is seen as key in any government — have no separate delegation at the talks, though there are Pashtun representatives in each of the groups.
The Northern Alliance, made up of ethnic minorities, holds a strong hand entering the talks, since its fighters now control around half the country and hold the capital, Kabul. But the Alliance promised it would not use its battlefield victories to seek advantage.
"It is not our pride to monopolize power. It will be our pride to work for a broad-based government based on the will of the people of Afghanistan," Northern Alliance delegation leader Younus Qanooni said.
During their first closed session, the delegates agreed that their goal was to establish an interim administration that would be followed by a national assembly of tribal leaders, or a loya jirga, possibly by the Afghan New Year, in March, U.N. spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told reporters.
The assembly would then approve another transitional administration that would govern for up to two years. After that would be a second loya jirga, which would approve a constitution that will guarantee rights for all Afghans, women included, and a goal of elections, Fawzi said.
The leaders also agreed to try and reach a consensus in three to five days, he said.
In a strong Pashtun endorsement, Pashtun leader Hamid Karzai telephoned the conference room from Afghanistan.
Fawzi read excerpts from the call:
"We have been made extremely poor and vulnerable but we are a strong people who would like to assert our will and a sense of self-determination," he said. "This meeting is the path toward salvation."
Because of rapid developments on the battlefield, key warlords — including Karzai — stayed home, sending sons, sons-in-law or key aides instead.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer opened the conference at a luxury hotel overlooking the Rhine River, urging delegates "to forge a truly historic compromise that holds out a better future for your torn country and its people."
There were already troubling signs of friction ahead, however. For one, the Alliance's unpopular titular head, Burhanuddin Rabbani, said the Germany talks were unlikely to yield substantial results. He told reporters in Dubai that the Bonn talks "should be the last meeting held outside Afghanistan. I don't expect decisive results from the meeting."
Rabbani, a Tajik who was ousted from the presidency by the Taliban in 1996, has never given up his claim to the post. He had pressed for the conference to be held in Kabul, which is controlled by his forces.
Each of the four delegation heads underscored the need for flexibility and an interim authority that would include all Afghans. Two women were among the Afghan delegates at the table.
At the foot of hill where delegates met, about 30 Afghan women rallied for greater rights in their country, where the Taliban stripped away nearly all women's rights. About 300 supporters of the exiled former king also demonstrated.
The former king's grandson, Mostapha Zahir, descended from the hill to greet the crowd. He told reporters that talks were proceeding in a friendly atmosphere and expressed optimism they would succeed.
"We are going to get peace. That's what we came for," he said.
The talks at Peterson, a secluded luxury hotel across the river from Bonn, Germany, are seen as a historic opportunity to stabilize Afghanistan and avert a repeat of fighting between rival warlords after they drove out Soviet occupiers in 1989.
Meanwhile, the United States, Russia and influential neighbors such as Pakistan and Iran are all asserting their political power, with regional stability and billions in development aid at stake.
Western nations have linked the prospect of billions in reconstruction aid to the creation of an interim administration and respect to human rights by Afghanistan's new rulers.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.