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Europe

Afghan Negotiators on Rocky Road

Rival factions are meeting to decide Afghanistan's fate. Most of them foresee a role for their long-deposed monarch.

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Even as the war rages, diplomats work out Afghanistan's post-war regime

The four Afghan factions represented at talks in Germany went to work for a second day Wednesday, already proclaiming general agreement on the need for "broad-based government", the catchphrase that has come to dominate their meetings.

But how to attain that goal – the nitty-gritty details of constructing a post-Taliban regime – remains a point of fierce contention between parties holed up in the hilltop Petersberg Guest House outside Bonn.

Hopes for a quick agreement have been dampened.

Under pressure to outline a schedule for transition before Taliban forces crumble, the Petersberg talks continued even as Taliban hold-outs stood their ground against attacks in southern Afghanistan.

The talks have been complicated by the fact that only four of the many Afghan factions are represented in Germany. They are the Northern Alliance – itself a jumble of tribes and nationalities – and two exile groups with bases in Pakistan and Cyprus, and finally a group of royalists with a base in Rome and allegiance to ex-king Mohammed Zahir Shah.

A royal muddle

An Italian envoy present at the talks, Enrico De Maio, said that the negotiators may be nearing agreement on a transitional role for the ex-king.

But this matter, too, is not worked out in detail. The Cyprus group, backed by Iran, is less than friendly with the comparatively secular and liberal Zahir Shah, who since forced from the throne in 1973 has dwelt in Rome.

The ex-king's delegation includes two women, and the role of women in Afghanistan is another potential point of contention as the factions attempt to work out what sort of legal code will replace the militantly patriarchal Taliban regime.

The 87-year-old ex-king, said De Maio, is "a flag, a symbol of unity" for the Afghans but not likely to be a long-term leader.

He is a Pashtun, hailing from Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, and therefore an important ally for the Northern Alliance, and like the Alliance's leaders he is openly uncomfortable about foreign troops' presence in the country.

"We prefer that security is looked after by Afghan forces themselves, a force consisting of different ethnic groups and different forces. Still we insist on that," Yunis Qanuni, Alliance interior minister, told journalists Wednesday.

The new build-up of United States Marines in the country's south is, theoretically in the short term, militarily advantageous for the Northern Alliance. But the debate over long-term foreign military influence, begun even before the war comes to some sort of end, highlights how difficult the situation is.

Afghanistan's factions would have a difficult diplomatic task ahead of them, even if the playing field were static. But this one still quakes with the variable shocks of a running war.