Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bin Laden May Fall Victim to Afghan Betrayal

Pashtuns once loyal to Osama bin Laden may turn on him following the rout of the Taleban
By Shiraz Paracha

Perhaps for the first time in his 20 year association with Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden and his foreign comrades are tasting the bitterness of changing Afghan loyalties, as the might of the Taleban collapses like a house of cards.


Bin Laden had previously been largely spared the duplicity and treachery that other foreigners have experienced.


In the late Eighties, he left Afghanistan buoyed by the defeat of the Soviet Union. He did not witness the appalling internecine conflict between greedy and power hungry mujahedin groups which followed.


In the mid Nineties, when bin Laden returned to Afghanistan from Sudan, the Taleban were gaining control of country, bringing peace and stability.


Under the Taleban, whose brand of Islam he shared, he and his Arab, Pakistani, Central Asian and African comrades helped to keep Pashtun rivalries at bay.


But with the US assault and Pakistan withdrawing its support for the Taleban, Pashtun followers of the student militia have started defecting, making life even more difficult for people such as bin Laden, who had planned to launch an ideological war against the West from Afghanistan.


The Taleban has been far less fearsome than the media in the West has portrayed them. The events of the last week prove that. They did not have an effective military chain of command; they also lacked equipment, resources and planning capabilities. The Taleban's military capability seems to have severely hampered as Pakistan cut off supplies of fuel and spare parts. Hundreds of Pakistani military men providing technical expertise also withdrew and the financial backing from Saudi Arabia was no longer there.


It was, however, the old Afghan tradition of changing loyalties which sank the Kabul regime. Many in the administration and even in the military did not share the Taleban's philosophy but they were on the side of the student militia because it was the dominant force in the country.


A few outmoded Soviet MIG fighters in the Taleban air force, for example, were flown and maintained by pilots from the communist-era who have little or no loyalty to the Taleban.


Indeed, from Afghanistan's only official radio station, Radio Sharia, to day-to-day government affairs, the Taleban relied on technocrats who were not at one with the regime. In 1996, the student militia did not "take over" the country militarily, rather they forged alliances with local commanders and heads of clans.


The Taleban did not enjoy the support of their own people, especially the enlightened and liberal citizens of Kabul, who had suffered human rights violations at the hands of the regime.


The Taleban themselves were a loose conglomeration of Pashtun tribes, which could easily splinter once it became clear to the clan leaders that the student militia could not stand US might.


The not-so-distant history of Afghanistan teaches us that the allegiance of the tribes can be easily bought. Pashtuns have long been been easily divided. From the "Great Game" of the 19th Century to the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, Pashtuns have been easily divided.


In the 19th Century, the French, the British, the Russians, the Prussians and the Persians all enjoyed their loyalty - and also suffered their deceit.


In the Eighties, some tribes supported the communist regime, others becoming paid mercenaries of the CIA. The same seems to be happening now.


It would now be harder for bin Laden to stay in hiding, as Afghanistan is no longer a safe place for him. He seems to have very few options.


It doesn't look as though he can trust many people. Growing tensions among some Taleban and bin Laden's Arab colleagues along with the American financial reward for his capture will certainly increase his troubles.


Nonetheless, he is still a threat to his enemies. His few thousand, mostly non-Pashtun, followers would perhaps lay down their lives to prevent anyone getting at bin Laden, who has become a legendary figure among many Muslims in the region, especially the youth.


There should be little doubt that whatever his eventual fate, from the southern coast of India to the Hindu Kush mountains, in the north-west, people in South and Central Asia will ultimately be unified by a hatred of the perceived imperialist designs of the US unless it works hard to establish peace and stability in Afghanistan.


Shiraz Paracha is South and Central Asia editor for a London-based news service. Between 1987-1998 he reported from Peshawar on Afghanistan, North West Frontier Province and the Tribal Areas of Pakistan.