Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Recent events in Afghanistan have taken even seasoned observers by surprise. Last Friday, the apparently weakened Northern Alliance opposition forces attempted to recapture the Taleban-held town of Taloqan, the northern capital of Takhor province.
The Taleban's capture of Taloqan, close to Afghanistan's border with Tajikstan, was a significant milestone in the civil war that has been raging since the mujahedin overthrew the pro-communist Afghan authorities in 1992.
The new counter-offensive raises the unwelcome spectre of the conflict spilling over the Afghan border.
Until last week, it seemed the Afghan civil war was reaching its final stages, with the Taleban finally managing to force the Northern Alliance out of its traditional strongholds.
Whether that would be a good or a bad thing is open to question. We could endlessly discuss the Taleban's 'medieval' ideology, their relations with the Osama bin Laden, a man the United States has branded an international terrorist, and the huge narcotic trade they tolerate and probably operate. But all this discussion wouldn't change one essential fact: that the Taleban enjoys the support of the majority of Afghanis.
Despite their obvious shortcomings, only the Taleban have been able to bring an end to the bloody in-fighting between mujahedin factions.
I began visiting Afghanistan in 1993. I know the horrors that resulted from the mujahedin's inability to share power. I know that more Afghans were killed in those years than during the entire 10 years of Soviet occupation. At the end of 1995, I visited the city of Kandahar a year after the Taleban had conquered it and made it their headquarters.
I mixed a lot with Afghanis. Many said they were pleased the Taleban were in charge, even those who did not support their harsh Islamic laws. "We've had twenty years of war," they said. "Now at last we're getting used to a peaceful life. You foreigners have never lived in a state of permanent fear. For you, it's difficult to understand."
Even with the fighting still continuing around Taloqan, the prospects of the Northern Alliance - as a military and political force - are not promising.
In Moscow, on September 29, a special envoy of the official Afghan president, Burkhanuddin Rabbani, one of the leaders of the Northern Alliance, said he was seeking Russian support for the opposition cause, and confidently predicted that there would soon be mass uprisings against the Taleban throughout Afghanistan.
Moscow, though, was sceptical. Though Russia has been a stalwart military backer of the Alliance, sources say it is no hurry to continue its generosity, believing the movement has been weakened by its own mistakes.
The Alliance is also suffering from internal conflicts. Rabbani and Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary anti-Soviet resistance fighter who served as Rabbani's defence minister, are embroiled in a bitter feud. Field commanders loyal to one refuse to take orders from the other.
But Massoud, a highly respected warrior, is unlikely to be cowed. Until recently, his reputation was such that the Taleban offered him a post as temporary leader of a northern "autonomous" state within Afghanistan.
The jury's out on what will happen over the winter. While the opposition forces are currently militarily secure, the Taleban have changed their tactics in the north by trying to win the 'hearts and minds' of the local population.
At the same time, the Taleban have also forged ahead with a diplomatic offensive aimed at acquiring international recognition. They have won over various supporters in Central Asia and even in the United States. Uzbekistan, for example, had a high-profile change of heart, and for several weeks now, has had direct contacts with Taleban officials in the Pakistani capital Islamabad.
The Taleban will thus be reluctant to continue waging war in the north of the country for fear of being accused by the international community of preventing a peaceful resolution of the conflict. For the same reason, the Taleban will think twice before advancing beyond the borders of Afghanistan.
The international community would be wise to accept the Taleban as a genuine power in Afghanistan. This would be a controversial move, but it would serve as a constructive influence on the movement, reducing its radicalism.
As for Massoud, even if he takes back Taloqan, he will have to show willing to compromise, or lose all political influence. Most other mujahedin, after all, are now languishing in exile.
Arkady Dubnov is a regular IWPR contrubutor.
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