As U.S.-led attacks continue to target -- and weaken -- Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia, world attention is increasingly focusing on what kind of government Afghanistan could have if the Taliban regime falls and whether any elements of the Taliban could play a role in it.
Prague, 24 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In recent days, Afghanistan's ruling Taliban has come under increased military pressure from both U.S. air strikes and the opposition Northern Alliance.
U.S. jets struck along the militia's Kabul front line for a third day yesterday. At the same time, strikes against Taliban troops were reported around the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where the militia faces a Northern Alliance offensive.
The leader of the offensive near Mazar-i-Sharif, ethnic Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, told Reuters yesterday his forces were locked in fierce battles with Taliban fighters. There was no immediate independent information about the battles.
The increased pressure on the Taliban is making ever more pressing the question of what kind of government would follow in Afghanistan if the ruling militia were to collapse. It also is raising the issue of whether -- in the interest of making any new administration as broad-based as possible -- a new government could include those elements of the Taliban regime perceived as moderate.
Several of the parties to the Afghan conflict have made clear statements in recent days that they do not see any role for the Taliban or its members in a post-crisis Afghanistan.
Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said late last week that Tehran wants to see all of Afghanistan's ethnic groups represented in a future coalition government. But he said the coalition should not include a place for the Taliban: "We think that the Taliban did not leave behind a good record. Naturally we don't agree that any of the Taliban's elements should have a participatory role in Afghanistan's future government."
Iran and Russia have long provided military aid to the Northern Alliance, a loose grouping of armed groups opposing the Taliban. The groups primarily represent Afghanistan's ethnic minorities: Tajiks, Uzbeks, Persian-speaking Heratis, and Shiite Muslim Hazaras.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has also been unequivocal in rejecting any role for the Taliban in Afghanistan's future. Speaking on 22 October in Dushanbe, he said that he and Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov back the internationally recognized Afghan administration of Burhanuddin Rabbani, which was toppled by the Taliban in 1996.
"We presume that the position of the legitimate, internationally recognized government of the Islamic state of Afghanistan -- [i.e.,] that the Taliban movement should not be represented in the future government -- is well-grounded."
Similarly, representatives of Afghanistan's former king, Zahir Shah, also have ruled out a role for the Taliban. The ex-king, deposed in 1973, is considered by many to be the best rallying point for any future broad-based ruling coalition.
Zalmai Rassoul, a top aide to the former king, said early this week that a future coalition cannot include the Taliban, even those elements that might be considered moderate. He spoke in reference to any Taliban participation in a council that the ex-king and the Northern Alliance agreed to form this month to work toward creating a post-Taliban government for Afghanistan.
"There is no moderate Taliban [official]. All the Afghan people who deserve to be in this council will be represented. The people represented in this council are based on the regions -- not based on groups or parties or other sectors. They are representatives of the Afghan people."
But even as most of Afghanistan's neighbors -- and the former king -- apparently have ruled out any future role for the Taliban, Washington has signaled it could see room for moderates defecting from the militia to join a future government.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said while visiting Pakistan earlier this month that the Taliban leadership of Mullah Omar has disqualified itself from future rule in Afghanistan because they "have destroyed this country." But Powell left open the possibility that other Taliban elements would be integrated into a new government.
That is a position that could please Pakistan, the sole nation that recognizes the Taliban as Afghanistan's government even as it supports the U.S.-led war on terror. Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has said he expects moderate Taliban leaders to play a crucial role in any new administration in Afghanistan.
As the two opposing camps of thought consider what role -- if any -- moderates among the Taliban might play in Afghanistan's future, there are increasing reports that some among the Taliban's leadership are putting out independent feelers to the West.
Last week, Britain's "Financial Times" reported that Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, the Taliban foreign minister, had made contact with former King Zahir Shah. Muttawakil is widely regarded as among the Taliban regime's more moderate leaders.
That report came shortly after Muttawakil traveled to Pakistan for other secret talks. Senior Pakistani officers who later revealed that Muttawakil had visited Islamabad said that the Taliban official had appealed for an American bombing pause in Afghanistan.
The officers, who were not identified in press reports, said that Muttawakil asked for the time-out to allow moderates in the Taliban government to persuade Mullah Omar to agree to a formula for the handover of accused terrorist Osama bin Laden.
But even as such reports of possible splits in the Taliban's leadership repeatedly surface, the same officials who are sometimes considered moderates often send highly mixed signals to the West.
This was the case recently with another senior Taliban official, Jalaluddin Haqqani, who also visited Pakistan this month. Haqqani is responsible for tribal affairs in the 90 percent of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban.
Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman Riaz Mohammad Khan said that Haqqani discussed a post-Taliban government while in Islamabad last week. But in local media interviews, Haqqani said he and the rest of the Taliban will fight America to the death. Haqqani told Pakistani newspapers, "We are eagerly awaiting the American troops to land on our soil, where we will deal with them in our own way."
That may mean that figuring out who the Taliban moderates are may be as difficult as deciding the question of whether or not they should play a role in any future Afghan government. And for now, at least, both issues look far from being resolved.