This editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:
Winter storms and the threat of famine were apparently powerful incentives for representatives of Afghan ethnic groups to buckle down and reach agreement on an interim government. They succeeded Wednesday at their meeting in Germany, removing one more barrier to aiding families huddled in sleet-covered tents and increasing the prospects of restoring a long-absent peace.
The rulers who will take temporary control of Kabul, the Afghan capital, now that the Taliban regime has been swept from power represent a remarkable step forward. They are balanced among ethnic groups and exclude the extremists and warlords who wreaked so much destruction on Afghanistan before the radical Taliban took control five years ago. Among the 30 Cabinet ministers are two women, no longer barred from work, school and ultimately power.
Afghan troops assisted by U.S. military forces continue to battle the Taliban in southern Afghanistan and to hunt for members of the Al Qaeda terrorist organization, especially their leader, Osama bin Laden. Despite the continued bombing and ground fighting, international peacekeepers need to enter the country as soon as possible. They can provide security in the cities, protect government officials and offices, start training a police force and furnish safe passage for desperately needed food, shelter and supplies.
To their credit, the Afghan delegates agreed to accept peacekeepers, putting need over politics. That meant overriding the objections of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the titular president of the nation but also a man who presided over years of civil war before the Taliban took over. Rabbani's Northern Alliance representatives in Bonn rejected a number of his demands. That's good. If he can be kept on the sidelines, it will be a breakthrough for a new generation of Northern Alliance leaders. The younger, more moderate Afghans are likely to be focused more on building the nation than on representing their own ethnic groups or seeking international stature.
The lure of reconstruction money was a powerful incentive for agreement. In addition, the arrival of more aid in Afghanistan can be an inducement to recalcitrant Taliban members to switch sides and stop the fighting.
The interim government is supposed to take power Dec. 22 and rule for up to six months, until a traditional grand assembly known as a loya jirga convenes and appoints a transitional government. That government then will rule for 18 months, until a constitution is approved and elections are held.
There are many opportunities for mischief before then, and little in the way of a democratic tradition to support the goal. However, the presence of so many foreign observers at the Bonn gathering demonstrated the international community's desire to help Afghanistan rebuild after Al Qaeda and the Taliban are gone, a far cry from the abandonment that followed the ouster of the Soviets and set the stage for the warlords and then the fundamentalists.
A broad-based government representing all the major ethnic groups needs to start reversing the devastation of decades of turmoil. Other countries need to help but not impose their wills. The nine-day conference in Germany was an important step, against the odds, in a long process of recovery.