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Afghanistan: Opposition's Successes Pose Serious Political Questions

  • Jeffrey Donovan

U.S. President George W. Bush has welcomed news that the Taliban is on the run and the opposition Northern Alliance now controls the Afghan capital of Kabul. But as RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports, the surprise turn of events poses serious questions about the political future of Afghanistan, as well as of its concerned neighbor, Pakistan.

Washington, 14 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Capping a remarkable domino-like fall of cities across half of Afghanistan, the opposition Northern Alliance claimed control of the capital Kabul yesterday as Taliban forces fled south toward their stronghold of Kandahar.

U.S. President George W. Bush welcomed the news, even as he sought to allay fears that the Taliban's retreat -- facilitated by 38 days of coalition air strikes -- could open the door to ethnic chaos and tribal bloodshed and undermine the support of neighboring Pakistan for the U.S.-led military action in the Central Asian country.

Pakistan -- engaged in a bitter standoff with rival India over control of the disputed Kashmir region -- for years backed the Taliban against the Northern Alliance, which receives support from New Delhi, as well as Moscow, Tehran, and Washington.

But all that changed after the terrorist attacks against the U.S. on 11 September, when Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf risked his political life by opting to back the U.S.-led drive to oust the Taliban for harboring the alleged mastermind of those attacks -- Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden.

Bush and Musharraf had repeatedly asked the Alliance to refrain from taking Kabul until a solution was in place to ensure a broad-based government could take over the country, which is bitterly divided along ethnic lines.

But the Alliance -- made up of mostly ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks -- said it was forced to take Kabul to prevent the city from descending into chaos after the retreat of the Taliban, composed of mostly southern Pashtuns -- the country's largest ethnic group.

Charles Fairbanks, a Central Asia expert at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, said the Alliance -- despite appeals from the coalition -- clearly could not stop before an open door: "It was too big a plum to pass up."

U.S. President Bush nevertheless welcomed the news of the Alliance's victory. He said it was wonderful to see Kabul residents celebrating in the streets, with people shaving their beards and listening to music, which had been outlawed under the militia's strict version of Islam.

But Bush urged restraint amid reports that Alliance supporters were engaging in summary executions of Taliban supporter: "We will continue to work with the Northern Alliance commanders to make sure they respect the human rights of the people they are liberating."

Alliance leaders were quick to call on the United Nations to help with the peace and rebuilding process. They also invited the former king, Zahir Shah, to send envoys to the country to help set up a Loya Jirga, or Supreme Council, that will decide the country's future.

The United Nations says it will send representatives immediately and called on all ethnic groups to meet in one place to begin government consultations.

Still, Musharraf reiterated his concern that any post-Taliban government be ethnically balanced, while analysts warn that Pakistan's anxiety over India is rising amid fears the Alliance may not hold to its word.

At a news conference in Istanbul, Musharraf called on the UN to deploy a Muslim peacekeeping force to Afghanistan -- possibly with Pakistani troops -- and added that Kabul should remain a demilitarized city in order to avoid the bloody ethnic fighting of past years: "There has to be a Pashtun representation emerging because, at the moment, within the Northern Alliance forces who have captured the area up to Kabul and beyond Kabul and also Kabul, really, there is no Pashtun representation. This must emerge because then it will be multi-ethnic, because Pashtun is the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan."

Musharraf's concern is understandable, says Teresita Schaffer, head of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy institute. Schaffer says Musharraf may come under greater internal pressure due to the events in Kabul: "I think there are going to be deep misgivings in the Pakistan army and in the Pakistan intelligence services, which look on the Northern Alliance as a hostile force. This is partly because they've been mounting armed resistance to the Taliban during all the years Pakistan was supporting them. It's partly because they've had Indian support."

Schaffer repeated that Musharraf's concern is that events in Afghanistan could weaken Pakistan's position versus India: "From Pakistan's perspective, India is the big issue. Afghanistan is the derivative issue."

At a news conference yesterday with visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin, Bush said the U.S. and Russia exert strong influence over the Northern Alliance. He said there will be no preferential places at the bargaining table during discussions of Afghanistan's future government.

Fairbanks of Johns Hopkins University agrees that the U.S.-led coalition still holds some sway over the Alliance -- in the short term, military; in the long term, economically.

But Fairbanks voices doubts about whether a Loya Jirga will still be held and concern over the future role of deposed Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who is backed by the Alliance and who remains head of the UN-recognized Islamic State of Afghanistan, even though he was driven from Kabul by the Taliban in 1996: "The Northern Alliance after this success is going to be much more reluctant to accept that [Loya Jirga] option. Rabbani still regards himself as the president of Afghanistan."

Rabbani said he would return to Afghanistan today. Analysts say he may seek to pronounce himself the head of territories now under opposition control.