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Afghanistan: Warlord's Role As Political Leader Remains Questionable

Afghanistan opposition leader Ahmad Shah Masood has finished a week-long tour of Western Europe that took him to Paris, Strasbourg, and Brussels. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch speaks with specialists on Afghan affairs on what dividends the visit could bring to the military commander.

Prague, 12 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Ahmad Shah Masood, the leader of the armed resistance to Afghanistan's Taliban ruling militia, is expected back in his Panjsher Valley stronghold following a week-long, high-profile European tour aimed at gathering international support.

On his way home this week, Masood made a stopover in the Tajik capital Dushanbe for talks with President Emomali Rakhmonov and other officials.

In Paris earlier, Masood met with French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine. He later addressed the Strasbourg-based European Parliament and then went to Brussels to meet with Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel and Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief.

In Dushanbe, Masood was given a hero's welcome by hundreds of exiled compatriots.

A veteran of the liberation war against the Soviet occupation that gained him a reputation as an unbeatable field commander, Masood runs the embattled Northern Alliance forces. The 20,000-strong Northern Alliance controls about 10 percent of Afghan territory, while the Taliban has effective control over the rest.

Formally loyal to former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Northern Alliance is a loose coalition of mainly ethnic Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara warlords who have been fighting the Taliban since the ethnic Pashtun religious warriors took control of Kabul in 1996.

Masood has described his trip to Europe as "very successful." The Taliban yesterday issued a harsh statement urging the EU to remain "neutral" in the Afghan conflict.

Masood has offered only a few details of what he discussed in Europe. Officially, the only concrete result of the visit was a European promise to increase humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan's impoverished population and to the hundreds of thousands of refugees that have fled the civil war and now live in relief camps in neighboring Pakistan and Tajikistan.

Olivier Roy is an Afghan and Central Asian expert at France's National Center for Scientific Research, or CNRS. Roy believes that Masood's European trip is likely to strengthen his international prestige.

"This visit, I would say, is both a political and a diplomatic success. Masood is now looming up as the real leader of the Afghan opposition -- true, to the detriment of President Rabbani -- and this trip has given him the international and political stature he was lacking before. Prior to this trip, Masood was mainly perceived as a warlord."

Masood was invited to visit the European Parliament in June last year. But he apparently agreed to make the trip only last month after the Taliban ignored international pleas not to destroy two unique giant Buddha statues located in central Afghanistan's Bamiyan province.

The demolition of these pre-Islamic colossi, which were widely considered part of the world's cultural heritage, triggered a wave of indignation and tarnished the Taliban's image in many countries.

Roy also believes that the international community's increasing concern about the fate of the Afghan refugees may have played an important role in Masood's decision to visit Europe now.

Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid covers Afghan affairs for the Hong Kong-based publication "The Far Eastern Economic Review." He too sees Masood's visit to Europe as a diplomatic success.

Yet, in an interview with RFE/RL, Rashid warned that the political support Western countries will provide to the Northern Alliance leader should not be overestimated.

"I think [Masood's visit] is a recognition that everybody wants him there to stand up to the Taliban. Nobody wants to see him defeated. But this does not necessarily mean that Western countries want to see him back in power because he [has] a very narrow political base. He does not have the support of the Pashtun people and he has a past record in the government in Kabul which is not very good. So I think the West is looking to prop him up sufficiently so that he lasts out the summer and, in the meantime, hopefully, there will be some kind of negotiating process, or a United Nations mediation process, which would help bring this war to an end."

Speaking in Dushanbe on 10 April, Masood said he is ready to discuss with the Taliban the creation of a provisional government that would run the country for a period of six to twelve months, after which internationally monitored elections should be organized.

The Taliban has always refused to hold talks with the man they see as their main enemy.

Since he took command of the Northern Alliance, Masood has sealed fragile military alliances with rival commanders, many of whom have betrayed him in the past.

Masood is trying to consolidate power among the opposition, as both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance are reportedly preparing new offensives when the winter snow melts.

Iranian media report that Mujaheddin leader Ismael Khan, another anti-Taliban warlord, returned recently to Afghanistan from Mashhad, in northeastern Iran.

Earlier this month, ethnic Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum returned to Afghanistan's northern Badakhshan province after almost three years of self-imposed exile in Turkey.

Both Iran and Turkey support the Taliban's adversaries.

Speaking from Badakhshan last week (7 April), Dostum said opposition leaders will hold an important meeting after Masood returns from Europe. He also reportedly vowed to join the Northern Alliance in its fight against the Taliban.

But experts disagree over Masood's chances to rally opposition military leaders under his command.

French expert Roy believes Masood's trip to Europe could help him strengthen his position among anti-Taliban field commanders.

"This tour could boost Masood's stature [inside Afghanistan]. In particular it could help him gain prestige in the eyes of other military and political leaders such as Ismael Khan or General Dostum, who would then recognize him as a political leader. This could not have been possible before."

Although Roy believes that Afghan opposition leaders are likely to coordinate new offensives against the Taliban, Rashid does not believe that Masood will be able to broker a political alliance with other field commanders.

"What we have persistently seen with Masood is that he may be a very brilliant fighter, but he is a very poor politician. He has not really been able to build the kind of political alliance and political leadership which would attract other Afghans from other ethnic groups. So what Masood and what, I think, other countries are looking for is to be able to set up different commanders -- such as Dostum in the north, Ismael Khan in the west, Masood in the northeast -- who will play their anti-Taliban role, but will not necessarily be able to form a close political alliance or an alternative government to the Taliban."

Masood could also benefit from local frustration with the Taliban.

Speaking to reporters in Paris last week, Masood claimed that scores of Pashtun military leaders have recently sided with him. He also warned about a possible insurrection against the Taliban in the mainly ethnic Pashtun Kunar Province, next to the border with Pakistan.

However, Rashid believes that Masood's claims regarding his alleged support among the Pashtun population is exaggerated.

"I think that there is a lot of anger and dissatisfaction with the Taliban in the Pashtun provinces. But it is not because they support Masood. It has more to do with the fact that they do not like the Taliban. Are these Pashtun commanders going to join a military alliance with Masood and accept him as commander-in-chief of their forces? I don't think this is very likely."

Last week, Masood urged western countries to pressure Pakistan to stop backing Afghanistan's rulers.

Pakistan has always supported the Taliban and was the first country to recognize the new regime when the religious hard-liners captured Kabul. The other countries that have diplomatic ties with the Taliban are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Although the Pakistani military intelligence services, or ISI, are widely believed to provide arms supplies and logistical support to the Taliban, Islamabad has always rejected the accusations.

Despite a UN Security Council arms embargo placed on the Taliban earlier this year, experts believe the Taliban continues to receive military supplies and technical assistance from Pakistan.

But neither Roy nor Rashid believes that Masood's plea to Western countries regarding Pakistan has any chance of success.

Both experts also rule out that Europe may have promised direct military assistance to the Northern Alliance. At the very most, they say, European leaders could call upon those countries that already provide weapons and ammunitions to Masood -- Russia and Iran -- to increase their assistance.

(Hashem Mohmand of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report)