KOENIGSWINTER, Germany -- Under strong international pressure to end more than two decades of war, four Afghan factions began talks Tuesday on how to share power once the Taliban are defeated.
The talks among four delegations representing the northern alliance, exiles backing former King Mohammad Zaher Shah and two smaller exile groups are the most concerted effort yet to stop the strife that has plagued Afghanistan.
With the United States, Russia and neighbors such as Pakistan and Iran exerting influence from the corridors, the delegates must decide how long a transitional administration would run the country before convening a national assembly and the makeup of a peacekeeping force under a U.N. mandate. Regional stability and billions in development aid are at stake.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer opened the conference at a luxury hotel overlooking the Rhine River with an appeal to deliver peace and stability to the Afghan people.
"I urge you all to forge a truly historic compromise that holds out a better future for your torn country and its people," Fischer said. "The international community is prepared to make this great effort," but only if its expectations are met.
The delegates must agree on binding rules for a future political system and respect for human rights, particularly for women, Fischer said.
"Their active participation in the social and political life of the nation is essential for the country's peaceful future," Fischer said.
Leaders of each of the four delegations gathered around the 36-seat table gave opening remarks, before they broke up into a shifting series of groups. The delegations represent all the major ethnic groups, including the Pashtun, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group.
However, due to rapid developments on the battlefield, key warlords stayed home, sending sons, sons-in-law or key aides instead.
The northern alliance comes to the talks in a position of strength after ousting the Taliban from much of Afghanistan. But its delegation here said 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," the northern alliance delegation leader Younus Qanooni said.
However, the alliance's titular head, Burhanuddin Rabbani, said the Germany talks were unlikely to yield substantial results. Rabbani has insisted that the real decision-making would have to take place in meetings in Afghanistan.
"The International Conference on Afghanistan held in Bonn should be the last meeting held outside Afghanistan. I don't expect decisive results from the meeting," Rabbani told reporters in Dubai. He did not elaborate.
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, also women, who under the Taliban's five-year Islamic rule lost most of their rights. Two women were among the 25 Afghan delegates at the table.
At the foot of Petersberg hill where delegates met, about 30 Afghan women protested for greater women's rights in their country. About 300 supporters of the exiled former king also demonstrated, many carrying photos of a younger Zaher Shah in a military uniform.
The former king's grandson, Mostapha Zaher, 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," Zaher said. "There will be a result. It will be for the good of the Afghan nation."
Before the conference opened, Ahmad Fawzi, the U.N. spokesman for Afghanistan, said that the Afghan groups must wrap up the talks in less than a week. The United Nations had previously said it would allow the talks to continue as long as necessary.
The talks at 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.
Many countries, including the United States, see the ex-king -- a Pashtun -- as a symbolically powerful candidate for heading an interim administration. But he has been in exile in Rome since being ousted in a 1973 coup.
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.
"Until there is a government that is broadly representative and recognized by us, there's not going to be any reconstruction assistance," a senior U.S. official close to the talks said on condition of anonymity.
Germany, which has taken a lead role in organizing aid to Afghanistan, will hold a meeting Dec. 5-6 in Berlin where donor nations will discuss how to deliver additional humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.
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