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Afghanistan: Can Rabbani Fill Leadership Vacuum?

  • Alexandra Poolos

Burhanuddin Rabbani, the man ousted as president of Afghanistan five years ago by the Taliban regime, returned to Kabul on 17 November. The appearance of the deposed president, who still holds Afghanistan's United Nations seat, is raising fresh worries over the effort to build a broad-based, post-Taliban government. But as RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos reports, analysts believe Rabbani does not wield enough political clout to pull the country's disparate factions together. And the question remains: Does anyone wield such clout in Afghanistan?

Prague. 19 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Burhanuddin Rabbani returned to Kabul on 17 November, some five years after his ouster by the Taliban as the nation's president.

Rabbani drove into the capital from his Northern Alliance base in the Panjshir Valley. Once in the city, he pledged not to monopolize power and to work for a broad-based government. In a news conference, he said he had come to Kabul for "peace."

Today, the Northern Alliance agreed to attend UN held talks on a future Afghan government. So far, a time and date for the talks has not been set, although they could be held as early as this week.

U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz spoke yesterday about the difficulty of building a coalition government in Afghanistan: "I think one lesson of Afghanistan that we have seen and people have seen in the past is alliances shift from month to month and year to year. And the one thing that seems to unite Afghans over long periods of time is they don't much like foreigners, which is why we would like to help them arrange their affairs between themselves and not have us be the main person in the middle."

Rabbani, who still holds Afghanistan's United Nations seat, will be a key figure in the upcoming talks. The Islamic scholar, who heads the Jamiat-e-Islami party, is the closest thing the Northern Alliance has to a political leader. But experts say he really doesn't command much authority within his own ranks, much less throughout the rest of Afghanistan. That void, they say, had been filled by opposition military commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by suicide bombers in early September.

Rabbani's return also is raising suspicions that the deposed president and the Northern Alliance will try to cling to power rather than build an inclusive government. The Northern Alliance is dominated by ethnic Tajiks like Rabbani, as well as Uzbeks and Hazaras. The group is distrusted by many Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group and a base of Taliban support.

Oliver Roy is a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. Roy says Rabbani does not hold a major leadership role in the Northern Alliance: "He didn't play a big role even in the Northern Alliance. The big role was, of course, played by Massoud. So Rabbani would like, of course, to be recognized as president, but even most of his own troops do not recognize him as leader of Afghanistan."

Many anti-Taliban groups want the deposed former king, Zahir Shah, to be the figurehead of a new regime. The king's spokesman has criticized Rabbani's return to Kabul, saying he should not try to impose his leadership on the people.

Rabbani himself has guardedly supported the involvement of Zahir Shah, who international officials are encouraging to form a Loya Jirga, a grand national council that would choose Afghanistan's new leader. Because of Rabbani's ethnic background, it is unlikely he would ever be elected by such a council.

Although the king is an ethnic Pashtun, he, too, will have difficulty establishing himself as Afghanistan's next leader. Zahir Shah is 87 years old, and many Afghans feel that his 20 years of exile in Rome have left him out of touch with the country.

Roy says there is no Afghan personality that can act as a leader for the country: "Nobody has the charisma now in Afghanistan. The last charismatic leader was Mullah Omar. But I'm not really sure the Afghans are looking for a charismatic leader. Any future government will be a coalition. And the problem is here: How to have a working coalition?"

Timothy Garden, an analyst at the Royal Institute for International Studies in London, says the United Nations has to act quickly in negotiating a future Afghan government. He says that, in the past, Afghan warlords have fought over territory and have had difficulty forming a united government: "The real problem is that as time goes on, there will more and more little areas that will be controlled by different warlords, effectively. And they will be very reluctant to share power and cooperate. We've had the experience in the past where they've ended up fighting over who controls which bit of territory. So the longer it's left for an agreed progress toward some form of democratic government, the more difficult it will become. But I think the UN is very well aware of that, which is why it's got its representative in there early."

Garden says Afghanistan's next leader must prove adept at unifying these disparate groups. He says Rabbani was not able to do this during his last rule in Kabul from 1992 to 1996.

"It appears he wasn't terribly effective when he was president doing the job of unifying the different factions. Since the job that's coming up is very much about unifying factions that are likely to fight, you're going to need somebody with a strong enough personality and enough admiration by the various other leaders to get that job done. And all the reports seem to suggest he's not going to be the man for that."

Civil war erupted early in Rabbani's last rule, and tens of thousands of people were killed as political and ethnic factions waged war against one another. Garden says this scenario is unlikely now because the Northern Alliance is eager for Western political and financial support.

"It's more hopeful this time, but we're at a very dangerous moment because the war hasn't finished. The country is not yet completely cleared of the Taliban. And at the same time, different groups are staking claims almost in an old sort of Wild West fashion to bits of territory. That's why it's important the UN does move quite quickly at bringing the groups together to talk -- and it looks like that may happen over the coming week -- and that we get a gradually increasing, but quite rapidly increasing, number of trained troops on the ground to promote the rule of law."

Garden says Afghanistan's future government is likely to resemble a group of local, regional governments that come together on larger countrywide issues. But he said it will take at least two or three years to build such a system.

In the meantime, he says, the United Nations will have to act as Afghanistan's surrogate leader, increasing its role both as a mediator and as a peacekeeper.