From their Rhine Valley mountaintop retreat, the architects of Afghanistan's future have an unparalleled vision of hope, peace and security. It is, of course, just a vision - analysts give the 28 participants in the talks in Germany only a 50 per cent chance of agreeing on a framework for the country's future governance. They have huge ethnic, historic and linguistic divides to conquer. But those splits may not be as severe as they are being painted. Afghanistan's 'golden age' during the 40-year reign of the former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, was a time of relative peace and this is being seen by some as a model - even to the point of returning the now-exiled former monarch in a figurehead role. The thorniest issue is the make-up of an interim council to govern until a formal government can be put in place. The four participating groups and their ethnic components will jockey hard for representation - and it is here, sceptics say, negotiations may prove inconclusive. Just a generation ago, though - before the Soviet occupation and 23 years of war - Afghans did not talk of Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras or any of the other diverse ethnic groups which are now represented at the table. Afghan-born Amin Saikal, an Australian academic, says that when he was growing up, people spoke only of being Afghan. 'If someone had asked me what my ethnic background was, I couldn't have told them - I would have replied, 'I'm an Afghan',' he said yesterday. 'Most other people would have said the same thing - it simply wasn't an issue.' Professor Saikal said it was only following the Soviet occupation and the subsequent interference of Pakistan that ethnicity had become important. Suddenly, official forms asked for nationality and ethnic background - and so evolved an issue that seems so important to deciding who might next rule Afghanistan. The participants have a common language in their favour. They all speak Pashto, the tongue of the ethnically-dominant Pashtuns, who make up about 40 per cent of the population. The 1964 constitution made Pashto the national language along with Dari, or Afghan Persian, which is also widely spoken. The UN hopes the former king will also provide a unifying force. His rule from 1933 until his flight to Italy in 1973 after being overthrown by his cousin is fondly remembered by Afghans. There is a strong likelihood that early agreement can be reached on his role, although his critics think that his age - 87 - and his apparent lack of interest in his homeland while in exile render him ineffective. The Northern Alliance, whose army occupies more than half the country, will play a key role. Its leader, UN-recognised president Burhanuddin Rabbani, although not at the talks, looms large over the proceedings. He is filling the power vacuum that the Taleban left and says he will remain in Kabul until agreement has been reached on a transitional government. His fighters are providing security, a role that will be taken over by whatever force - most likely international peacekeepers - the meeting agrees on. Anthropologist Richard Tapper, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, believes the Bonn talks participants will shelve their differences to prevent the country falling apart. 'There are major historical, linguistic and cultural differences between the people of Afghanistan - just as there were in the case of the Balkans.' he said. 'It was possible at certain points in the past for these people to live at peace. I would say it's not impossible for them to do so again.'