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Afghanistan: Exiled Pashtun Leaders Scramble To Build Strength Following Fall Of Kabul

  • Charles Recknagel

The Northern Alliance's taking of Kabul yesterday is creating growing anxiety in Pakistan among exiled Pashtun leaders trying to build a Pashtun "southern coalition" to secure their place in any post-Taliban Afghanistan. As RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports from Islamabad, the exiled Pashtun leaders are now redoubling their efforts to gain some successes of their own inside the country to counterbalance the Northern Alliance's progress.

Islamabad, 14 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Northern Alliance's taking of Kabul has alarmed Pakistani officials and exiled Pashtun leaders in Pakistan, who warn it could spark new rounds of fighting unless a final power-sharing agreement is reached among Afghanistan's ethnic groups.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf called yesterday for all the Northern Alliance's forces to withdraw from Kabul and for the capital to be a demilitarized city. Speaking in Istanbul, he also called for deployment of a United Nations force and said Turkey and Pakistan could play a role in any peacekeeping contingents.

At the same time, the Pakistani president said that to avoid new ethnic conflict in Afghanistan, a formula for the country's future administration should be outlined as soon as possible. He said it must include the participation of all ethnic groups, including the majority Pashtun.

The leaders of the Northern Alliance's forces are mostly from Afghanistan's minority Tajik and Uzbek populations, while the Taliban's base of support is in the Pashtun community. Pakistan has repeatedly called for the participation of all Afghan elements, including moderates among the Taliban, in a UN-sanctioned peace process.

Exiled Pashtun leaders in Pakistan are also expressing alarm over the Northern Alliance's progress. They are working feverishly to put together their own anti-Taliban "southern coalition" to represent Pashtun interests.

Several key exiled leaders met in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar yesterday at the recently opened office of the Eastern Shura of Afghanistan, which seeks to bring together former mujahedin commanders and other anti-Taliban groups in the four eastern provinces of Afghanistan. The Shura backs the return of former Afghan King Zahir Shah and hopes to open a military front against the Taliban from the eastern side.

One of the leading figures in the Eastern Shura, Haji Mohammad Zaman Ghamsharik, told reporters yesterday that he welcomed the retreat of the Taliban from Kabul. But he said Kabul "should be left to UN peacekeeping forces."

Haji Zaman, a veteran mujahedin commander from eastern Ningarhar province and a cousin of Abdul Haq (a senior exiled Pashtun commander executed inside Afghanistan by the Taliban last month), also called on the Northern Alliance to honor its power-sharing agreement with former king Zahir Shah, who is a Pashtun by birth.

Under that agreement last month, the ex-king and the Northern Alliance decided to set up a 120-member council that would call a Loya Jirga to create an interim administration leading to national elections. But the two sides have yet to exchange lists of their nominees for the council, and planned meetings to do so have yet to take place.

Another key exiled Pashtun supporter of the former king, Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani, said in Islamabad yesterday he had hoped that "we could have achieved a political solution before" the Northern Alliance took Kabul.

Western leaders, who back the formation of a broad-based interim administration for Afghanistan under Zahir Shah, had repeatedly warned the Northern Alliance not to unilaterally take Kabul. The Alliance said yesterday it moved into the city only to guarantee security after the Taliban unexpectedly withdrew all of its forces Monday (13 November) night.

Amid the alarm here over the Northern Alliance's moving into Kabul, exiled Pashtun leaders are racing to establish their own authority over Pashtun-populated areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan. That activity is taking place through negotiations with other Pashtun leaders inside the country, some of whom are shuttling to meetings with the exiles in Peshawar and other places along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

In Peshawar yesterday, Haji Zaman and another exiled leader, Haji Roohullah, who is the former governor of Afghanistan's Kunar province, held meetings with tribal elders, former Afghan commanders and fighters from their areas.

The Pakistani English-language daily "Dawn" reported that Haji Zaman gave instructions to his men in Ningarhar province "about taking positions at vital locations." The paper also quoted him as saying he has dispatched a group of some 50 fighters from among his supporters in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan to bolster those efforts.

At the same time, Haji Zaman said he is sending a delegation to Afghanistan to persuade Northern Alliance leaders to stick to their commitments in the Zahir Shah peace process.

Many observers in Pakistan now believe the next key Afghan city that could fall out of the Taliban's hands is Jalalabad, across the border from Peshawar. Reuters reports some Northern Alliance forces are moving east toward the city from Kabul, while Taliban commander Malik Hazrat Ali is moving to reinforce it from the north.

Amid those movements of forces, the exiled Pashtun leaders are reported by the Pakistani press to be working hard to negotiate a peaceful Taliban surrender of the city to themselves.

The exiled Pashtun leaders in Peshawar sent a four-man delegation to Jalalabad yesterday to meet Maulavi Kabir, the head of the eastern zone under the Taliban, but the group returned in the evening after being unable to locate him. Haji Zaman has said he is optimistic the city will fall with no resistance except from Arab and Pakistani fighters who are allied with the Taliban.

The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported today that a former mujahedin group led by Maulvi Yunus Khalis -- who previously supported the Taliban -- has taken control of Jalalabad from the militia. The report is not confirmed.

Other negotiations among anti-Taliban Pashtun elements are taking place far to the southwest of Peshawar at the Pakistani border-crossing town of Chaman, on the road which leads to Kanadahar. Pakistani newspapers report today that anti-Taliban Pashtun commanders are gathering at the border town to coordinate their line of action together with some disaffected Taliban leaders.

The reports say former deputy minister of the mujahedin government Hamid Karzai and former governor of Kandahar Gul Agha Barakzat are playing key roles in the effort. Karzai is currently inside Afghanistan, where he has been secretly visiting central and eastern areas to raise support among the Pashtun tribes for former King Zahir Shah.

The question now is how united the exiled Pashtun leaders and their allies inside Afghanistan can be in presenting a common front in the field against the Taliban, or in negotiations against the Northern Alliance.

Observers in Pakistan say the stakes for the anti-Taliban Pashtun leaders are high and time is short.

Shireen Mazari, director-general of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad, says the longer the exiled Pashtun leaders are unable to present a united front, the greater the risk they will lose a role in shaping events in Afghanistan.

"One of the problems is that the Pashtuns are so divided. And if they remain divided, then they will by default give up the role they should have as the single biggest ethnic group in Afghanistan. But they are of no consequence if they are divided, and until now the Pashtuns have remained divided.

"So it is very important for all the Pashtun groups to come together to form a counter [balancing] power base to [that of] the Northern Alliance, and they have to establish that base physically somewhere in southern Afghanistan. And the longer the delay, [the greater is the chance that] they might become irrelevant to the whole process."

But Mazari, whose institute receives funding from the Pakistani government, says creating a power base poses real challenges for the exiled Pashtun leaders. The leaders often complain of having only limited supplies of arms themselves, and the analyst says it is unlikely the U.S.-led international coalition will provide them more, for fear of fanning more conflict in Afghanistan. She says Pakistan, as a member of the coalition, is not likely to violate that policy.

That may mean that any substantial stocks of weapons will have to come from defecting Taliban elements. And that only adds urgency to the exiled Pashtun leaders' efforts to woo away disaffected chiefs of the militia.

As the exiled Pashtun leaders scramble to secure their own negotiating positions in Afghanistan, the immediate future of Kabul itself has yet to be decided. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called yesterday for the international community to form what he termed a "coalition of the willing" to provide a force of peacekeepers led by soldiers from Muslim nations to secure the capital.

Such a force would be intended to give time for Afghanistan's political process to begin to catch up with the country's ever-changing military situation.