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Afghanistan: Northern Alliance Fighting On All Fronts

As the U.S. prepares for possible military strikes against Afghanistan's Taliban, that country's Northern Alliance opposition continues to wage its own war against the ruling militia. RFE/RL correspondent Tony Wesolowsky looks at the alliance's reported military and diplomatic advances over the weekend and asks whether official cooperation with the U.S. will be the next step.

Prague, 24 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's Northern Alliance opposition claimed to have wrested control of a key northern district from the ruling Taliban militia over the weekend.

Officials from the Northern Alliance say forces under the command of General Abdul Rashid Dostum seized control of the Zari district, in Balkh province, on Saturday night (22 September), inflicting heavy casualties on the Taliban, including 80 dead. The Taliban today conceded it had lost "some ground" in Zari.

The Zari district lies about 100 kilometers west of the Taliban-held provincial capital Mazar-I-Sharif. Abdullah Abdullah, the acting foreign minister for Afghanistan's opposition government, told the Reuters news agency yesterday that should the opposition go on to take the nearby Shulgar district, "the Taliban will be threatened" in Mazar-I-Sharif.

Abdullah, visiting the Tajik capital Dushanbe on Saturday, spelled out the strategy of the Northern Alliance, which is reported to control about 10 percent of Afghan territory:

"We started small-scale offensive operations in northeastern Afghanistan and northern Afghanistan as well as in north of Kabul, [also] small scale. The results were good. We will continue to do so in the coming days. We will continue to keep our contacts with the United States and with our neighboring countries which have supported the efforts of making peace and bringing stability to Afghanistan."

Reports out of the United States today say Washington is giving more thought to backing the anti-Taliban opposition. News reports say the Northern Alliance's detailed knowledge of Afghanistan's rugged terrain and the Taliban's military capabilities could prove invaluable to U.S. forces in a strike against suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden and his associates.

"The New York Times" reports today that the United States has increased contacts with the Northern Alliance. The newspaper quoted unnamed officials as saying the U.S. planned to back the coalition with financial support. Separately, "The Washington Post," quoting a senior U.S. official, said the Bush administration was debating whether the ousting of the Taliban should be a stated goal of the military campaign against bin Laden.

On 22 September, the Northern Alliance's Dostum told Turkey's "Sabah" newspaper that the U.S. should back his forces. He was quoted as saying: "I and my soldiers have been fighting the Taliban for years. We are experienced. The U.S. should give us logistic support. We are ready to give them help in the region and with all kinds of leadership."

Such talk of increased cooperation between the U.S. and the Northern Alliance, however, leaves officials in Moscow wary. Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Moscow-based defense analyst, says Russia has long been the Northern Alliance's main benefactor, providing arms, munitions, and air support. He says Moscow probably won't mind if the Northern Alliance cooperates with Washington, as long as such support remains limited:

"Russia, in fact, would actually be apprehensive if the Americans established too strong a presence in the region. And maybe they would be telling the Northern Alliance to, of course, cooperate with the United States, but maybe not cooperate that much -- especially not helping the Americans establish a base there."

Felgenhauer says that was the likely message Russian Chief of Staff Anatoly Kvashnin delivered to Foreign Minister Abdullah and the Alliance's new military chief Muhammad Fahim during a meeting in Dushanbe on 22 September.

Felgenhauer says such Russian fears of a U.S. presence in Afghanistan are heightened by talk that Central Asian states -- particularly Uzbekistan -- could be used as launching areas for a U.S. strike against Afghanistan. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has said he could not see "any basis for even hypothetical assumptions" that NATO would launch military operations from former Soviet states in Central Asia, many of whom are in a security pact with Russia.

Felgenhauer notes that if the U.S. wants to use the Northern Alliance, it will need Russian support:

"With the Northern Alliance, if the United States actually wanted to closely cooperate and actually sometimes fight together in the field with those guys, again Russian help is very paramount because if Russia cuts the supply line of the Northern Alliance, the United States can't really step in."

And if the Northern Alliance should succeed on the battlefield, they will need to reach out to Afghanistan's majority Pashtuns -- who make up the Taliban membership -- to strengthen its numbers. Ethnic Uzbeks, Hazaras, and Tajiks currently dominate the opposition. Felgenhauer says the chances of such an ethnic amalgam gaining support among everyday Afghans are slim at best.

That may be why the opposition is turning for help to the 86-year-old former king of Afghanistan, Mohammad Zahir Shah. A Northern Alliance delegation flew to Rome over the weekend to meet with the deposed king to discuss holding a "Loya Jirga" -- or assembly of Afghanistan's tribal leaders -- to name a transitional administration should the Taliban eventually be deposed.

In an interview yesterday with the Italian daily "La Repubblica," Zahir Shan said, "I am ready to go back to my country if that would help my people."

It appears the United Nations may back such a plan. Francesc Vendrell, the UN special envoy to Afghanistan, met with the former king on 23 September. Vendrell said later the convening of a Loya Jirga could help Afghans decide their own future:

"This could be an opportunity for the people of Afghanistan to finally determine freely their own future and have a better future than they have had for the past 25 years."

Signs the Northern Alliance is interested in coalition-building came today from General Bismullah Khan, one of the more powerful opposition figures since the assassination earlier this month of alliance leader Ahmad Shah Masood. Khan told the AFP news agency that the opposition could seize Kabul, but would not. Rather, he said, the opposition "wants a stable government [appointed by] all ethnic groups."

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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.