Afghan meeting as diverse, complex as country itself

By David Fox

Dateline: PESHAWAR, Pakistan, October 24 (Reuters)

The problems faced by those trying to create a new government in Afghanistan are the same as the challenges that on Wednesday confronted the organisers of a peace conference on the country -- too many men and not enough seats for them all.

Over 1,000 Afghan men crowded into Nishtar Hall in the Pakistani border city of Peshawar on Wednesday for a conference on peace and national unity that organisers hope could lay the groundwork for an acceptable Afghanistan government should the U.S.-led raids topple the ruling Taliban.

With space for only 600, the theatre quickly filled up.

The aisles were cluttered with wizened old men sitting on the stairs holding court with friends and colleagues. The stage -- ostensibly reserved for VIPs -- was soon taken over by latecomers bearing chairs from a nearby cafeteria above their heads.

It was an incongruous setting for a meeting that would not have been out of place in the middle of Afghanistan over 1,000 years ago.

Luxuriantly bearded men with elaborate silk turbans sashayed up to the entrance to be frisked by efficient Pakistani security officials.

Short, dark-skinned Uzbeks, eyes narrowed as if against the harsh sun of the Afghan plains, scurried through, doffing their woolen caps as they passed.

Tall, blue eyed Pathans walked imperiously with their silver- topped canes beating a tattoo ahead of them.

The arrival of each entourage added to the air of a mediaval market place, the only concession to modernity being the mobile telephones many clutched to their belts like their ancestors would have done with a curved dagger all those years ago.

The only time there was quiet was during the opening prayer when they sat, stone-faced, like garden gnomes on display in the window of a hardware shop.

But once the formalities were over, it became a free for all. The louder your voice, the more likely you'd be listened to. The longer your beard, the more the air of gravitas.

"There is an order to this," said one observer. "If you imagine that everyone must pay respect to everyone else, and everyone else must pay respect to you, then you get the order."

Perhaps, but it takes some divining.

The first speaker up was Sayed Ahmad Gailani, the organiser of the conference and considered almost a saint by those who follow the mystical Sufi branch of Islam.

Grey-haired and trim bearded, Gailani told the audience how he had recently met Afghanistan's exiled King, Zaheer Shah, and how they had agreed for the monarch to head a reconciliation council to step into the breech when the Taliban fall.

Dressed in long dark robes trimmed with brilliant gold thread, he looked every inch the Sheikh as he read from a prepared speech that drew mumbles of approval from the crowd.

Afghanistan has a tradition of Loya Jirgas, grand meetings of tribal and clan elders from around the country that are convened whenever crisis threatens the country or when important affairs of state are to be discussed.

There was certainly something of Loya Jirga feel to Wednesday's conference.

Concern is mounting around the world as to what happens in Afghanistan should -- or, as some believe, when -- the Taliban fall.

While the Northern Alliance has certainly won military credibility by never giving up its armed struggle against the Taliban, it is composed mainly of Afghan ethnic minorities who would struggle to win the loyalty of the Pathan majority.

Although not touted as such, Wednesday's conference is seen by some as being the birth of a Southern Alliance that could have more political credibility and be more truly representative of the whole of Afghanistan.

Certainly, if the audience was anything to go by, the diversity was there.

One old man with a richly-hennaed beard stood suddenly as the sound of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" started broadcasting -- apparently from his head. He retrieved a mobile phone from the folds of his turban, much to the amusement of his friends nearby.

Another man found himself in complete bewilderment when confronted by a Western woman photographer dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. He touched her arm as she moved on, and then stared at his fingers as if not believing what he had just seen.

There was as much testosterone and facial hair on display as at convention of Ernest Hemmingway look-alikes. Each friendly hug to a long-lost friend was more like a wrestling match, with each participant feeling the weight and strength of their opponent.

Alliances and enmities are swiftly forged in Afghanistan, where the harsh landscape and living conditions mean convenience is often more crucial to survival than permanence.

But what united them on Wednesday, was lunch.

As the first session of the meeting broke up, there was an undignified dash for the restaurant where vast vats of bubbling stew and curry had been sending tantalising aromas through the theatre's ventilation system.

"This is not as good as at home, but it is good," said one man, dexterously mopping up gravy with a slab of unleavened bread. "If everyone can eat like this, there is no need to fight anymore."

((David Fox, Islamabad newsroom )) REUTERS