As the U.S. and Britain continue air strikes on Afghan targets connected to the Taliban or Osama bin Laden, attention is focusing of Afghanistan's political future. Concerns are particularly acute in Tajikistan, a Central Asian country that borders Afghanistan to the north, where memories of a 1992-97 civil war are still vivid.
Dushanbe, 15 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As the U.S.-led air strikes on Afghanistan enter their second week, the most important question -- who will preside over the country if the ruling Taliban is ousted -- remains open.
U.S. President George W. Bush has said the United States will not meddle in Afghan politics and that it will be up to the people of Afghanistan to choose who should rule them. But at the same time, Bush recently said that the U.S. would not leave the region once the Taliban is gone -- suggesting that Washington might in fact get actively involved in shaping Afghanistan's political future.
In September, a U.S. congressional delegation visited former Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shah in his Rome exile. The visit was seen as a show of support from the U.S. to the 86-year-old deposed monarch. Zahir Shah was ousted by his cousin and brother-in-law Mohammed Daud Khan in 1973 and has been kept away from Afghan politics since then.
Although older Afghans have fond memories of the former king, Zahir Shah is mostly unknown to the vast majority of the population, which has known nothing but war for the past 23 years.
In its military operation against the Taliban, the U.S. is relying on logistical and intelligence support from the Northern Alliance, a loose coalition of Afghan warlords formally loyal to ex-President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Comprised mostly of representatives of Afghanistan's Tajik, Uzbek, and Shi'a Hazara ethnic minorities, the Northern Alliance has been fighting the ethnic-Pashtun Taliban for years.
Military cooperation between the U.S. and the Northern Alliance would prove crucial if Washington decides to introduce ground troops into Afghanistan. But there is still a question mark over whether the Bush administration is ready to open direct political dialogue with the Northern Alliance.
Speaking recently in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, Rabbani urged the U.S. not to sideline its internationally recognized government of Afghanistan when pondering the country's future.
Nurali Davlatov is a Tajik independent political expert. In an interview with RFE/RL, he said the Northern Alliance would be key to any plan aimed at returning the former king, Zahir Shah, to power:
"Zahir Shah can come back to power only after the Taliban is defeated, on its knees, or if the Taliban gives its consent to his return to power in Afghanistan. And this will be possible only if, in Afghanistan, representatives of the Northern Alliance will cooperate with the Americans. For the Afghan population, which is entirely illiterate and has practically no access to any source of information because they simply do not exist, the arrival of U.S. troops would be perceived as an invasion. [The] arrival of U.S. troops will be seen as an aggression, not only by the Afghan population but also by many Muslims throughout the world. And, naturally, I think that this aggression will be met by resistance in Afghanistan."
Davlatov continues: "If there is resistance, it will last over a certain period of time and, in that case, it will be difficult to make any prediction. It may even happen that the Northern Alliance will unite with the Taliban. In that case, it may happen that some regional countries will decide to help [the Taliban]. This would mean a long war for the U.S. and, as was the case in Somalia in 1992, the Americans would eventually be forced to leave Afghanistan."
Zahir Shah and the Northern Alliance have agreed to hold a Supreme Council for the National Unity of Afghanistan to appoint a Loya Jirga -- a meeting of tribal chiefs of all ethnic groups -- that would in turn elect a replacement for the Taliban. The Supreme Council is expected to meet in October. Yet experts wonder about the cohesiveness of this anti-Taliban united front. Since the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, Afghan alliances have been notoriously ephemeral, with local warlords often switching sides in return for bribes. The recent death of Northern Alliance supreme commander Ahmad Shah Massoud could further shake the cohesiveness of the coalition. Two days before the 11 September attacks on the U.S., Massoud was killed by a suicide bomber allegedly linked to bin Laden and the Taliban.
Pakistan could also play an important role in Afghanistan's future. A long-time backer of the Taliban, Islamabad in September withdrew its support of the militia and joined the U.S.-led military coalition. Yet, the regime of General Pervez Musharraf has apparently not abandoned hope of playing a role in Afghan politics.
Speaking on 12 October in the western Pakistan city of Peshawar, Afghan military commander and Sufi leader Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani laid out his plans for an Assembly for Peace and Unity of Afghanistan, which he said could put an end to political chaos in Afghanistan. During the 1980s, Gailani's Mahaz-e-Milli (National Islamic Front of Afghanistan) advocated the return of Zahir Shah to lead the resistance against Soviet troops. Gailani claims that he has the support of Northern Alliance-backed ex-President Rabbani. Yet, specialists believe that he is being secretly sponsored by Pakistan as an alternative to Zahir Shah and the Northern Alliance.
For some Tajiks, the Northern Alliance's relationship with Russia could present an obstacle to peace in Afghanistan. Asliddini Sokhibnazarov is the deputy chairman of the opposition Democratic Party of Tajikistan. In an interview with our correspondent, Sokhibnazarov said that Russia has been using the Northern Alliance as a proxy to retain its influence in Afghanistan after Russia withdrew from the country.
"Already three years ago I wrote that the Taliban should get international recognition and that Ahmad Massoud's so-called 'Tajik' national structure -- was rubbish, a bluff. It was dreamed up by an impoverished Russia with the help of even more impoverished Tajikistan. Russia wanted to stay in Asia, using Ahmad Massoud to keep the civil [war] alive, as it did in Tajikistan's [civil war] to remain in the country."
Sokhibnazarov was referring to the instrumental role played by Russia in supporting President Imomali Rakhmonov against democratic and Islamic opposition parties during Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war.
Moscow has said its intervention in Tajik affairs was needed to counter the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia. After peace was restored in Tajikistan, the Kremlin concentrated its support on the Northern Alliance, which had been battling the Taliban for three years. But despite increased arms supplies from Russia and Iran, Massoud's troops could not prevent the religious militia from seizing power.
Unlike Sokhibnazarov, Davlatov does not believe that Massoud -- a veteran of the war against the Soviet army -- was Russia's puppet. He nonetheless expresses concern that his successors would not be able to keep Russia -- which recently pledged more support to the Northern Alliance -- at a distance. In that case, he said, Moscow could take advantage of Massoud's death to gain in influence in Northern Afghanistan, thus signaling a new phase of the so-called "Great Game" between world powers over control in Central Asia.
Davlatov says: "[Some] regional countries, including Russia, are supporting the Northern Alliance. The U.S. and the West are backing Zahir Shah. We can therefore say that the 'Great Game' is continuing in Afghanistan. Which conditions these countries will dictate to their Afghan allies, we will see. Massoud managed to remain independent. Even though Russia provided support to Massoud, it was unable to exert pressure on him. Today, it is very difficult to make any prediction. Everything will depend on whether Russia and the U.S. will agree that the Northern Alliance and Mohammad Zahir Shah must cooperate to restore peace. If so, peace in Afghanistan is possible. But if Russia uses the Northern Alliance to defend its interests, and if the U.S. does the same with Zahir Shah, then I'm think that the [Afghan] problem will remain unsolved."
Tajikistan's opposition leader Sokhibnazarov believes the only way to avoid further trouble in Afghanistan is not to topple the Taliban regime. Nationwide elections should be organized and constitutional reforms introduced. Sokhibnazarov concluded: "Otherwise we will inevitably witness a repetition of the 1991-92 Afghan civil war."