Koenigswinter, Germany A new Afghan government headed by Hamid Karzai, the Pashtun warlord leading the insurrection in Kandahar against the Taliban, was taking shape on Tuesday, and was expected to assume power in Kabul before Christmas, said western observers.
The four rival Afghan factions, expected to sign a formal agreement today, have approved a U.N.-proposed plan for Afghanistan's post-Taliban future and were meeting Tuesday evening to pick 28 other members of an interim Cabinet.
Backed by the United States and acceptable to Afghanistan's neighbors, Karzai emerged Tuesday as the top choice after eight days of negotiations that were prolonged by translation difficulties and stalling tactics by an older generation of northern alliance leaders, most notably northern alliance President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
Rabbani has been reluctant to hand over power and accommodate an international security force.
The discord that stalled the talks suggested divisions that could reemerge as Afghanistan tries to build the foundations of an enduring, stable government that has eluded the country through 23 years of civil war.
Karzai has the support of the two largest delegations the northern alliance and royalists loyal to the former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, according to two senior western diplomats observing the talks.
The southern Afghanistan leader had been invited to the talks, but did not attend; instead, by invitation of the United Nations, he placed a conference call to the delegates in which he pleaded for tolerance and self-determination.
A senior western diplomat Monday called him "a respectable and nonthreatening figure," acceptable to Afghans and all of the country's neighbors. His candidacy gained momentum after his main competition, Abdul Sattar Sirat, the former king's chief delegate, withdrew, diplomats said.
Early Tuesday morning the representatives meeting in the Petersberg Hotel, high above the Rhine, broke into cheers and shook hands as they approved a seven-page agreement setting up a Cabinet that will serve six months until the former monarch convenes a loya jirga a council of 1,500 tribal elders.
The elders will approve a transitional government to last 18 months. Elections and a new constitution are to follow.
"Now we have a road map to a free and independent Afghanistan," said Ahmad Fawzi, the U.N. spokesman, whose eyes teared at the agreement. Yet he cautioned: "Anything can go wrong."
Until that point, much had, by the hand of Rabbani, who would not let his delegates release the names of candidates for the administration. Rabbani had continued through the week to make suggestions that appeared intended to derail the talks, which he wanted to occur in Afghanistan, not Germany.
The tensions in the alliance were evident at several points, such as on Wednesday when its lead delegate, Younus Qanooni, flatly rejected the help of multinational peacekeepers, then reversed his position the next day, blaming a bad translator.
Qanooni had been sent to the conference with instructions not to share the list of candidates, according to one senior western diplomat.
The United States and Germany were among those who pressured Rabbani to move forward.
Northern alliance foreign minister Abdullah, considered part of the new guard, downplayed the apparent tensions.