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Islamabad Courts Northern Alliance

Pakistan is seeking a rapprochement with the Northern Alliance in a bid to retain some influence in Afghanistan
By Shiraz Paracha

Attempts by Islamabad to mend fences with the Northern Alliance may be jeopardised by the Afghan opposition's harsh treatment of Pakistanis who fought with the Taleban.


Pakistan wants to improve relations in order to retain some influence in Afghanistan. Following its abandonment of the Taleban in the wake of the September 11 outrages, Islamabad is hoping to persuade the alliance to reconsider its rejection of several pro-Pakistan Pashtun groups from plans for future broad-based government.


A rapprochement with the Northern Alliance, however, will not be easy as many in the Afghan opposition will never forgive Islamabad for backing the Taleban.


Iran, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, UAE, are helping Islamabad establish contacts with the Afghan opposition.


Tehran has been facilitating communications between Pakistan and Ismail Khan, an Iranian-backed commander of Northern Alliance, who is holding Herat, a key town on the Iranian border in western Afghanistan.


Turkish officials are said to have played a similar role in getting another Afghan opposition leader, the Uzbek military chief, General Rashid Dostum, to speak to Islamabad representatives.


Dubai, meanwhile, has hosted talks between Burhanuddin Rabbani, the self-appointed president of Afghanistan and head of the Northern Alliance, with officials of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence, ISI.


But the targeting of Pakistani members of the Taleban in recent weeks could unravel these attempts to improve ties between Islamabad and the Northern Alliance.


Incidents such as the killing of scores of Pakistanis at Qala-e-Jhang prison near Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, the disappearance of hundreds of others, and the fact that Northern Alliance commanders are demanding ransoms for those who they've captured, will stir unrest in Pakistan and put General Musharaff under pressure to distance himself from the Afghan opposition.


Pakistan has long been at odds with the Northern Alliance because it is opposed to anyone other than the Pashtuns holding power in Afghanistan.


In the Seventies, however, it suited Islamabad's purposes to support the alliance's late leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. He and two other Afghan dissidents, Rabbani and right-wing extremist Gulbadeen Hykmetyar, were given shelter in Peshawar.


Pakistan saw the three as playing an important part in their plans to organise resistance to Kabul's backing for the idea of Pashtunistan - the creation of a new Pashtun state - and to support their efforts to counter the Soviet threat.


Although Massoud, a Tajik, became a commander of one of the seven groups formed by the CIA/ISI in the early Eighties to fight the Soviets, his relations with Pakistani intelligence were never smooth. And he eventually broke with them because he felt they favoured Hykmetyar, a Pashtun.


But years after Soviet forces left Afghanistan, Massoud and some of his Maoist friends sought to establish ties with neighbouring nations, especially Pakistan. The Northern Alliance leader sent his envoy, Jamiat Ullah Jalal, to Islamabad in 1993.


Jalal approached the newly elected government of then prime minister Benazir Bhutto, delivering a letter from Massoud congratulating her on her re-election and and expressing his willingness to have friendly relations with Pakistan. The overture, however, was rejected.


When his efforts failed, Massoud turned against Pakistan. Some there blamed him for an attack on the Pakistani embassy in Kabul and the highjacking of a bus full of school children from Peshawar to Islamabad.


After being rebuffed by Pakistan, Massoud sought support from the Russians, while Islamabad promoted the predominantly Pashtun Taleban.


Following the events of September 11, Pakistan's Afghan policy took a U-turn. Having abandoned the student militia, Islamabad is now trying to secure its interests in Afghanistan by re-establishing contacts with Rabbani in a bid to persuade him to reconsider the exclusion of Pakistan-backed Pashtun groups from international efforts to create a new government 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.


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