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The Bright Quilt

Now that the Taliban has been routed from power and a new deal for power sharing struck in Bonn, Germany, the remaking of Afghanistan from the ruins of more than two decades of civil war is under way. At last Afghan groups have crossed the first hurdle toward a broad-based multiethnic government in Kabul.

The international community must bring peace and stability to one of the most unfortunate nations on Earth, whose destruction can be blamed on the quest of global powers for strategic advantage at the height of the Cold War, and later, by regional powers’ stretching for influence. We could be in for the biggest nation-building project since World War II.

The task is to pull Afghanistan out of the Stone Age and into the rank and file of the international community. This will take decades and billions of dollars. I think the Afghan leadership ought not to be trusted to accomplish this massive chore alone; greater international guidance and participation under the aegis of the United Nations is required for this colossal task.

An interim government has been forged among four Afghan groups — the victorious Northern Alliance, those representing former Afghan king Zahir Shah, the Pakistan-based Peshawar group and the Iran-backed Cyprus group. Their work may end Afghanistan’s long nightmare if all can set aside their petty interests in favor of peace. In Bonn, wisdom prevailed over insanity, and all factions agreed to share power. In the past, the refusal of the Northern Alliance leadership to share power with other Afghan groups led to devastating civil war that ultimately paved the way for the Taliban coming to power.

Some political analysts are unwilling to credit the Afghan groups’ own hopes for peace as the true motivation of the deal and maintain that intense U.S. diplomatic pressure forced the Northern Alliance to parley with others. “The Northern Alliance was nothing without U.S. aerial support, and they’d still be stuck where they were before September 11 if the U.S. had not declared war on the Taliban,” says one commentator. “And they knew it very well. Therefore, it was not their genuineness but U.S. pressure that made them sit with other Afghan groups to assemble a broad-based interim administration.” Also, bear in mind that donor countries conditioned their multibillion-dollar aid package on the formation of multiethnic broad-based government.

The Bonn deal calls for Pashtun tribal leader Hamid Karzai to serve as head of a 30-member interim power-sharing council that will take office on December 22 for six months. A special independent commission will convene the emergency Loya Jirga, the traditional grand assembly of Afghan tribal elders that will choose the transitional council for the next two years, before a constitution is framed and elections are held. Former King Zahir Shah will be in charge of the Loya Jirga.

A day after the deal was signed, the U.N. Security Council agreed to send a multinational peacekeeping force to Kabul. In Bonn, a pledge was made to demilitarize Kabul before the deployment of U.N.-mandated peacekeepers, but on Monday the Northern Alliance insisted that it would not withdraw all of its troops from the city. For political observers, this is the first warning sign of a future storm gathering over the Afghan horizon.

More than two decades of war and internal conflict have destroyed nearly the entire infrastructure of Afghanistan; its foundation must be built from scratch. It is estimated that it will cost up to $12 billion to rebuild Afghanistan and care for the 5 million Afghan refugees who are living in squalid conditions in neighboring countries. International aid groups are focusing on agricultural assistance, water, sewerage systems, de-mining, health and education.

Two decades of civil war have also devastated Afghanistan psychologically. The international community will attempt nation building in the company of notorious warlords, who are unlikely to see benefit in a stable, inclusive government. Some political observers warn that an influx of international money will only give Afghanistan’s regional warlords something new to fight about.

Some worry that Afghanistan could return to a fragmented nation with areas controlled by these warlords. At present, Ismail Khan is in charge of western Afghanistan, Abdul Rashid Dostum controls the Northwest, eastern Afghanistan is under the command of Hajji Qadeer, and the south of the country is controlled by numerous warlords who do not recognize the central authority in Kabul. ä

There are two opposing views on the Afghan nation-building effort. One view insists upon more foreign influence to correct the mess and assemble order; the other sees outside meddling in Afghanistan as the mother of all the problems. A pseudo-leadership addicted to overseas aid and advice is what I fear in Afghanistan. “On the one hand, Afghan groups oppose foreign interference in their internal affairs, and on the other hand they ask for help when their position is threatened,” says one political observer. “Can anyone single out one Afghan group that presently is not enjoying the patronage of one or another foreign power?” The middle course is the united forum of international community, the United Nations. No other organization can better provide a modicum of supervision.

The first step in a long journey is the most important one. The preliminary goals must be humble: to maintain sufficient international supervision to ensure that Afghanistan will not again become a free staging ground for international terrorism, to work with groups to restore security to make daily life possible and to undertake reconstruction projects smoothly.

Afghanistan has a rich history that dates from the time of Alexander the Great. Herat was the cradle of Persian civilization, and Afghanistan has a long tradition of acclaimed architecture, poetry and other cultural accomplishments. The chaos and war of the past three decades has forced hundreds of thousands to flee. If only they would return to help rebuild their homeland. “The tragedy is that now, one, two, even three generations have been outside Afghanistan,” says one expatriate who plans to return if the government stabilizes. “There’s a need to re-acquaint them with Afghanistan as a country, a civilization.”

It will be the greatest political miracle of all time if the international community can put together the patchwork of the Afghan quilt and reveal its bright colors of life. It is not an impossible job for the wisest son of nature who freely roams in the valleys of the sky, conquering stars.