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Afghanistan: Talk Of Strikes Throws Lifeline To Opposition

What role, if any, could Afghanistan's anti-Taliban Northern Alliance play in a possible U.S.-led military operation in Afghanistan to root out Osama bin Laden, the main suspect in last week's terrorist attacks on the United States? Afghan opposition leaders are offering help, but so far, Washington -- which is putting together an international coalition to fight terrorism -- has not responded, at least publicly.

Prague, 19 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Afghan opposition seemed on the verge of irrelevancy -- or worse, extinction -- earlier this month. On 9 September, the Northern Alliance lost its charismatic leader, Ahmad Shah Masood. He was mortally wounded when a bomb -- hidden in a camera held by two assassins posing as journalists -- exploded at Masood's headquarters on Afghanistan's northern border with Tajikistan. He died of his injuries six days later.

The assassination attempt came just two days before the devastating terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. U.S. President George W. Bush is vowing to find and punish not only the perpetrators of those attacks but states or groups that assisted them in any way. And the man Washington sees as most likely to be behind the attacks is Saudi-born extremist Osama bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding in Afghanistan with the Taliban's cooperation.

The U.S. is widely perceived as preparing to launch a military strike against Afghanistan -- possibly including ground forces -- to not only capture or kill bin Laden himself, but also to destroy the network of "terrorist camps" he is believed to have set up there.

Given its remote location and mountainous terrain, any military operation in Afghanistan will prove tricky, to say the least. The very name given to the mountains of Afghanistan -- the Hindu Kush -- means "killer of the Hindus." The Soviet Union was the last nation to learn how difficult it is to wage war in Afghanistan. Moscow withdrew in defeat in 1989 after 10 years and the loss of some 15,000 soldiers.

But Afghanistan's anti-Taliban opposition knows the terrain well and could prove useful to the United States. The opposition's ambassador to the United Nations, Ravan Farhadi, told our correspondent in an exclusive interview that the forces opposed to the Taliban would be willing to hunt down bin Laden.

"We are insisting that assistance is given to us because by this way, because we know the population, we are the sons of that country, and we know all the conditions, and we know what's happening in each region, and therefore we can deal with the matter and we can locate Osama bin Laden."

Farhadi accuses the United States of looking too much to Pakistan -- which neighbors Afghanistan -- for help. Farhadi questions how Pakistan -- one of only three states to officially recognize the Taliban -- can be a reliable ally to the Americans:

"The best option for me, is, number one, not to bank only on Pakistan. This is wrong to bank on Pakistan. [ISI], which is Inter-Service Intelligence, is the military intelligence of Pakistan. These people, they created the Taliban, and now how can we use them to correct the attitude of the Taliban? Because the same General Mahmoud [Ahmed], who is the head of the ISI, the military intelligence of Pakistan, was the one who was advising for months and months to the Taliban to keep bin Laden in Afghanistan and to protect bin Laden."

Tony Davis is a defense analyst for Jane's military publishing group. He says Pakistan will be integral to any U.S. military action against Afghanistan, given that it could serve as a launch site for aerial strikes. But, he adds, the Afghan opposition also could serve in several capacities, especially intelligence gathering. Davis says:

"The Northern Alliance is in a position to offer several things. One, and not to be sniffed at, is good intelligence on what's happening in various parts of Afghanistan. Now clearly, that intelligence will become probably less reliable the further away you got from their own areas of control. Nevertheless, given the fact that the Northern Alliance is not confined only to the northeast, it has significant wide pockets of guerrilla activity in central and western Afghanistan, those areas are dotted around a lot of Afghanistan."

Some commentators suggest that should any U.S.-led military operation in Afghanistan turn to ground fighting, the Northern Alliance would seem a natural ally. As for the number of its fighters, Davis says the Afghan opposition has between 12,000 and 15,000 fighters in Takhar and Badakhstan provinces and in the Panjshir Valley, all in the northeast corner of Afghanistan.

But Davis says -- adding in "pockets" of guerrillas scattered across Afghanistan -- that figure could balloon to some 25,000 fighters, a number many other Afghanistan observers say is high.

As for military hardware, Davis says the Afghan opposition is "lightly armed" with an arsenal amounting to a few armored fighting vehicles and tanks procured from neighboring Tajikistan, as well as several multiple-rocket launcher systems, two attack helicopters, and a "limited number" of transport helicopters.

The Northern Alliance's UN ambassador, Farhadi, says the strength of the opposition is routinely underestimated. He says the anti-Taliban coalition is not to be written off. He contends the opposition controls not 10 percent of Afghanistan's territory, as is routinely reported, but closer to 25 percent.

"It is not only Northern Alliance, it is also many fighters and commanders who are in the west of Afghanistan, who are in the north of Afghanistan. There is General [Abdul Rashid] Dostum. There is also [the] especially successful Ismail Khan. In the last three months Ismail Khan has been able to inflict defeats in the battles against the Taliban."

What about the loss of Masood? Is the Afghan opposition in disarray after losing its forceful leader? Not according to Farhadi, who says Masood's assassination has actually galvanized the opposition. Farhadi's message of opposition unity is also echoed by Dostum in an interview he gave to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service:

"Ahmad Shah Masood has established a military system. Bismillah Khan is the leading commander for Kabul. In Takhar province, it's General Fahim. He serves as acting defense minister. Mullah Pirimkul is the commander for Gokche. In northern Afghanistan, it's me. In Khazarajat [region] Khalili, in Herat, Ismail Khan. I can assure you that the Talips [Taliban] cannot succeed against us. All the Mujaheed side is willing to avenge [the killing of] Masood. Our morale is very high. Talips cannot win over us. I was always in contact with Ahmad Shah Masood. And now I keep contact with [ousted Afghan president] President [Burhanuddin] Rabbani, Dr. Abdullah, [and] General Fahim every hour. We all have a united political and military position."

Davis, the Jane's defense expert, predicts that while Fahim has succeeded Masood as the opposition's overall military leader, another opposition leader, Abdullah Abdullah, could become the contact man between the opposition and the West in coordinating any Northern Alliance involvement in U.S. military action in Afghanistan.

"Abdullah Abdullah, in my estimation, will emerge as the overall leader. He has no military experience. He's been on the frontline a lot with Masood, but he's not a commander. He's had no command experience. So I would imagine that he will emerge as the international point man, as effectively the leader, who on the military front will defer to advice he gets from Fahid and others."

If a military campaign in Afghanistan leads to calls to oust the Taliban from power, Davis says the Afghan opposition -- which holds positions just some 50 kilometers north of the capital, Kabul -- could be well-situated to move in. In such a scenario, Davis says the U.S. may be unwilling to move on Kabul, just as Washington opted not to march on Baghdad to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War:

"If the Americans decided that they wanted to dismantle Taliban power, in toto, then the Northern Alliance would be the only force in a position to move into the capital, were a vacuum to take place."

(Naz Nazar of the Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.