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UN action plan for Afghanistan

A conversation with Francesc Vendrell, the United Nations special envoy to Afghanistan.

Diplomats are racing to map out the post-Taliban future of Afghanistan, to take advantage of the fluid political situation created by the radical Islamic militia's unexpectedly swift retreat.

While the term "nation-building" is not being used - memories of the disastrous 1993 operation in Somalia still haunt Washington and the United Nations - top officials are trying to guarantee broad-based, representative rule in Afghanistan.

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"We have a window of opportunity ... that is narrow, and it's not going to last forever. Therefore we must move quickly," says UN special envoy to Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, in an interview in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

International goodwill - and billions of dollars in relief aid - depend on a workable political settlement. "That should be a great incentive to the Afghans to move forward quickly, to not repeat the mistakes of the past," Mr. Vendrell says. "If this is not enough, I don't know what it's going to take."

Since the rebel Northern Alliance - a loose grouping of ethnic minority forces and eight political parties - captured Kabul last week from the Taliban, and advanced farther south toward the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, Western officials have been urging caution.

While the alliance publicly endorses the peace moves, at least two old-guard alliance leaders - President Burhanuddin Rabbani and Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf - are believed to be privately reluctant to share power.

Questions also remain about who will represent Afghanistan's dominant Pashtun ethnic group - which also dominates the Taliban - and whether those representatives will be acceptable to the majority of their fellow tribesmen.

Juggling these variables, diplomats are working overtime to produce a framework formula for Afghanistan's future meant to yield - like alchemy - a legitimate and stable government from the ruins of two decades of war.

The four-point plan presented to the UN Security Council by Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN secretary-general's special representative to Afghanistan, begins with the creation of a provisional council that will manage day-to-day functions until a loya jirga, or grand assembly, can be formed.

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That assembly in turn is to select a provisional and broad-based government - and possibly even a head of state. That body would rule with help from the international community for maybe two years, Vendrell says. A new army and police force would be established.

The final step is to be the approval of a constitution and the holding of elections. The first move is a UN-sponsored all-party meeting - minus the Taliban - that is to begin work in Germany on Monday.

"The key to all this is to ensure a level playing field from now on" so that no single group has an advantage in the loya jirga, Vendrell says. This is critical, he says, because "one of the root causes" of war in Afghanistan is the lack of legitimacy of past regimes, which turned into "invitations to outsiders to come in and help their favorites."

How the Taliban are defeated - possibly turning into a rebel force capable of disrupting any peace plan, along with Arab and Pakistani forces loyal to accused terrorist Osama bin Laden - will also affect discussions on possible peacekeeping or international force deployments. "We don't think a peacekeeping force is an adequate instrument at the moment, because first of all there is no peace agreement - there is not even a peace," says Vendrell. That option would take six to eight months to pull together - far too slow.

"We are now confronted with the need for some security force in Afghanistan," Vendrell says, so a "coalition of the willing, some international security force, could be put in place."

While the broad diplomatic brush strokes sound similar to those painted by UN and Western diplomats when they waded into Somalia in the early 1990s, planners are quick to point to a far greater commitment to solving this issue now, than was evident in Somalia, or in Afghanistan in the past.

One reason, he says, is recognition that Afghan suffering could have been eased "if the international community had not walked away" after the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet forces here. Another, Vendrell says, is that "the bin Ladens ... and the Al Qaedas of this world would not have found refuge, and would not have become the threat to international security" if the West had paid more attention.

Still, many issues remain that could stymie diplomatic moves. If the Taliban were to devolve into a guerrilla force and gain support from Pashtun tribal belt areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the result could be "very destabilizing" and a "danger that one should not ignore."

The shape of any troop deployment is unclear, however, and the wording of the UN Security Council resolution is vague. It "encourages member states to support efforts to ensure the safety and security of parts of Afghanistan no longer under the control of the Taliban" - phrasing that could, in theory, enable a country such as Pakistan to move into eastern Afghanistan.

"It has the potential to be a mess," says a diplomatic source in Kabul who asked not to be identified. The phrasing of the UN resolution is the "most incredible" regarding the use of foreign forces, the diplomatic source says.

While the Afghanistan mission does not yet involve the numbers of UN or multinational troops deployed in Kosovo, Bosnia, or Somalia, its political ambition is among the most far-reaching taken on by the UN in nearly a decade.

Progress on the military front could speed diplomacy. President Bush said this week that "the noose is beginning to narrow" for Mr. bin Laden, as the Taliban-controlled territory in which he can hide shrinks.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cautioned, however, that "does not necessarily mean that the task will become easier. People can hide in caves for long periods. This will take time."