'Friends' Watch as Afghans Talk

BONN, Germany -- As a small group of Afghans started talks Tuesday at an isolated hilltop hotel to chart the future of their country, foreign diplomats lurked just outside the conference room to help prod the process forward.

Officially, it was entirely up to representatives of the Northern Alliance, the former king and two other groups to agree on the outlines of a transitional post-war Afghan government.

Yet behind the scenes, the world's major powers as well as neighboring nations are providing a road map and dangling substantial bonuses in international aid if the very different Afghan interests can agree to a deal.

The foreign diplomats are like parents who provide children with a connect-the-dots drawing, tell them to make whatever they like, but offer a reward if the crayons glide between the dots.

"Distinguished guests from Afghanistan, now you have to shoulder your responsibility to pave the way for a peaceful political future for your nation," German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said in opening the talks. "It is up to you."

It may be up to the Afghans to forge an interim government and security plans, but foreign governments are indicating that the bounty of international help is available only if they make the right moves.

"Now is the time to make use of the combined efforts and strength of the international community for rebuilding your country," Fischer said. He added that Germany had set aside $70.5 million for postwar Afghan reconstruction.

Among foreign nations attending the talks as observers are the United States, Russia, Pakistan, India, China, Iran, Britain, Japan, France, Switzerland and South Korea -- in short a large pool of potential donors.

German diplomats hosting the talks call the nations, who certainly have many differences among themselves, the "friends."

The diverse friends attending the opening session sat just behind the central round table but were to stay out of substantive negotiations after that.

Diplomats hope the talks could set up an interim Afghan leadership council of about 15 people, akin to a cabinet, and later, a larger group of more than 100 people acting as a sort of parliament before elections.

Some diplomats bristle at the suggestion that the world community is writing the script for the Afghans to follow.

"It is not like parents looking from nearby on what the children are doing," said Swiss diplomat Emanuel Yenni. But clearly, with their soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan anxious to hunt down Osama bin Laden and its bombs still landing, the United States is a very interested party to the Bonn talks.

U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan James Dobbins told journalists the Afghans could gain billions of dollars in reconstruction aid if they forge an acceptable transitional government. "The provision of that kind of assistance -- of which there are potentially billions available to Afghanistan, not just from the United States, but from the international community -- does depend on the emergence of a broadly based government that is recognized and with whom we can have a partnership," he said.

Diplomats say some countries could help push forward a deal by twisting arms in delegations with which they have close ties. Pakistan has links to the Peshawar group and Iran to the Cyprus group. Both are represented in Bonn.

"We can be around if any delegation wants to consult us," said Pakistani Ambassador Asif Ezdi. "I'm sure that Pakistan and other delegations could want to consult each other."

The foreign caution about taking too prominent a role is vital to preserving the legitimacy among the groups in Afghanistan, who pride themselves on their independence.

Yet in a statement read to the 30-odd Afghan delegates, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan admonished them to heed the world's advice and not act too independently lest war continue.

"You must not allow the mistakes of the past to be repeated, particularly those of 1992," Annan said. "To many skeptics it appears that is precisely that which you are about to do.

"You must prove them wrong."