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Afghanistan: Should The Northern Alliance Form A New Government?

  • Bruce Pannier

As the bombing campaign against terrorist facilities and Taliban military targets continues inside Afghanistan, more people are discussing a post-Taliban government for Afghanistan. Many point to the group that has been fighting the Taliban for five years now -- the Northern Alliance -- as the likely next rulers of Afghanistan. But some among the Northern Alliance have been in power before in Afghanistan, and their track record left much to be desired.

Prague, 10 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As the U.S.-led military campaign against Taliban targets and suspected terrorist bases in Afghanistan continues, attention is focusing on a successor government.

Many say the task of leading the country will naturally fall -- at least in part -- to the Northern Alliance, the multiethnic armed group that has been fighting the Taliban for the past five years.

But the New York-based rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) says in a recent statement that the policies of the Northern Alliance have not always indicated support for a multiethnic government.

The statement said, "abuses that were reported from an area controlled by a [Northern Alliance] faction in late 1999 and early 2000 include summary executions, burning of houses and looting, principally targeting ethnic Pashtuns and others suspected of supporting the Taliban."

The statement continues: "The various parties that comprise the [Northern Alliance] also amassed a deplorable record of attacks on civilians between the fall of the Najibullah regime in 1992 and the Taliban's capture of Kabul in 1996."

That includes rapes and looting with respect to Shi'a Hazara citizens in the Kabul neighborhood of Karte Seh in March 1995 -- when Tajik forces took control of that area -- and the use of cluster bombs by an Uzbek group in attacks from warplanes on civilian neighborhoods of Kabul. In 1994, during the battle for Kabul which involved nearly all the groups making up the Northern Alliance today, an estimated 25,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed in rocket and artillery battles for the Afghan capital. HRW wrote in an earlier report, "There was virtually no rule of law in any of the areas under the factions' control."

The Northern Alliance occupies just 10 percent of Afghan territory, but its forces have made modest military gains in the wake of the U.S.-led air strikes, which started on 7 October. These gains -- small as they may be -- represent the greatest advances in more than a year.

Alliance troops under the command of three different leaders, ethnic Tajik General Mohammad Fahim, ethnic Uzbek General Abdulrashid Dostum, and Ismail Khan, an ethnic Tajik allied with Iran, are said to have timed their operations to take advantage of the bombing by U.S. and British forces. The air attacks could open routes to taking the capital Kabul and other key cities, and weaken the Taliban's resolve.

But it's not yet clear what will happen if the Northern Alliance achieves its goals. And some say there is little reason to believe that replacing the Taliban with the Northern Alliance represents a change for the better.

That change would be especially unacceptable to Pakistan, which has backed the Taliban. Pakistani leader General Pervez Musharraf said at a press conference in Islamabad this week that any future Afghan government must include as many groups inside Afghanistan as possible.

"Whatever dispensation, it must be broad-based, it must be multiethnic, taking the demographic composition of Afghanistan in view."

Musharraf is concerned that having the Northern Alliance in power would inevitably lead to a return to the often violent and chaotic form of government which preceded the Taliban.

The government of ousted Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, which held power in Kabul from 1992 to 1996, excluded Afghanistan's dominant ethnic group, the Pushtun, and was almost exclusively a government of ethnic Tajiks. Rabbani, General Fahim, and the recently assassinated former defense minister in Rabbani's government, Ahmad Shah Massoud, are all ethnic Tajiks.

In last week's statement, Human Rights Watch said the U.S. and its allies should not cooperate with (Northern Alliance) commanders "whose record of brutality raises questions about their legitimacy inside Afghanistan." One of those commanders specifically named was Dostum.

Dostum fought alongside Soviet troops during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and is now reportedly set to retake his stronghold at Mazar-i-Sharif.

HRW also recommended that Abdul Malik (Pahlawan), once one of Dostum's leading commanders, not receive assistance. Abdul Malik turned on Dostum in May 1997 and drove Dostum from Mazar-i-Sharif. Abdul Malik then invited the Taliban into the city and allowed them to stay for three days before he turned on them also and slaughtered as many as 3,000 Taliban soldiers.

Dostum returned in September and it was Malik's turn to flee. Reports indicate Malik is now in Turkey but he has made public statements on television that he wishes to return to Afghanistan and join with the Northern Alliance. There have also been reports that Malik met with Dostum earlier this year to plan a campaign against the Taliban -- an example of the ephemeral nature of Afghan alliances.

Ismail Khan was an ally of Rabbani and Massoud during the Soviet occupation, but he ruled Herat as his own fiefdom after Soviet troops departed. When he was attacked by Taliban forces, no one came to his aid. He fled to Iran and has made several forays into his former territory, many believe with Iranian military help.

Haji Muhammed Muhaqiq is one of the leaders of Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami Afghanistan, a predominantly Hazara group that is now fighting, according to Muhaqiq, near Samangan, east of Herat and south of Mazar-i-Sharif. The Hazara are a Shi'ite Muslim group descended from Chingiz (Genghis) Khan's Mongol hordes and are now in the Northern Alliance. The Hazara and the Tajiks under Massoud fought many times when the Rabbani government was in Kabul.

Muhaqiq told RFE/RL's Tajik Service today of the kind of government his group is now seeking.

"We want a government attended by all ethnic groups of Afghanistan. It should be like a mirror, the whole of Afghanistan should see themselves in it, Pushtun, Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, Turkmen -- all ethnic groups. We want a government which respects human rights and democracy and prevents all this killing. Any government who supports this, we will support."

Building trust among the various groups -- some of whom are supplied by Russia, some by Iran, some by Uzbekistan, and some of whom are dominated by Tajiks or Uzbeks -- may prove more difficult than toppling the unpopular Taliban regime.

Getting them to form a broad-based government with participation from the Pushtun, who have been supported by Pakistan, may be even harder still.