Kunduz - a Poisoned Chalice

The fate of the besieged city of Kunduz could play a decisive role in international efforts to establish a government in Afghanistan.

Kunduz - a Poisoned Chalice

The fate of the besieged city of Kunduz could play a decisive role in international efforts to establish a government in Afghanistan.

Northern Alliance military commanders today, Friday, reiterated their preference for a negotiated surrender of the Taleban and non-Afghan forces still holding out in Kunduz, the last northern city to withstand the US-backed, anti-Taleban offensive.

It came as Northern Alliance political leaders prepared to descend on Bonn next Monday to discuss the future government of Afghanistan.

Just how and when Kunduz falls will be critical to those international negotiations in Bonn, because the manner and timing will say much about the Northern Alliance's intentions and credibility as a responsible governing force.

The ten-day siege of Kunduz, which once boasted 300,000 inhabitants, appears to be racing towards a bloodthirsty climax, with alliance commanders threatening to execute all of the estimated 2,000 foreign Taleban supporters holed up the city's schools and mosques.

However, under a surrender agreement negotiated in Mazar-e-Sharif between General Rashid Dostum and Taleban commander Mullah Faizal, the 12,000 Afghan fighters in the city were to have been disarmed and given safe passage back to their home villages in southern Afghanistan.

That agreement quickly fell apart today, as alliance interior minister Yunus Qanuni said, "We have been forced to choose a military solution. Our forces are advancing. We hope by tomorrow we will have secured Kunduz." A few hours later, however, alliance commanders told the BBC that any military offensive was delayed till further notice.

This unproductive to-and-fro over the fate of the city and its defenders owes more to the pitfalls of international diplomacy - and the lethargy induced by beginning of the fasting month of Ramadan on November 17 - than any military stalemate on the ground.

Kunduz has emerged as a poisoned chalice, both for the Northern Alliance and for the US and UN. Alliance leaders understand only too well that the fall of the city to their forces could lead to the massacre of non-Afghan fighters, loyal to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, even if they instruct commanders to take them prisoner.

The hatred of "foreign forces" is particularly strong among the Uzbek and Hazara members of the alliance, whose communities in Mazar-e-Sharif and the Hazarajat were the victims of excessive brutality under Taleban rule in which al-Qaeda fighters collaborated.

On Monday, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld effectively gave the Northern Alliance carte blanche to kill al-Qaeda fighters when he said, "My hope is they will either be killed or taken prisoner." He added, "Any idea that those people should be let loose on any basis to bring terror to other countries and destabilise other countries is unacceptable."

Killing the foreign fighters trapped in Kunduz may be entirely acceptable to the alliance's military commanders as well.

But any hint of human rights violations by the alliance on the eve of the Bonn talks with representatives of ex-king Zahir Shah will summon up memories of the atrocities committed during the 1994-1996 regime of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, and raise again the issue of the fitness of the Afghan opposition to participate in the post-Taleban government.

Interior minister Yunus Qanuni, who heads the Northern Alliance delegation in Germany, and foreign minister Dr Abdullah Abdullah have been at pains since the events of September 11 to draw a clear distinction between the Jamiat-i-Islami party that controlled Kabul from 1994-1996 and the multi-ethnic and cross-party United Front that now seeks a dominant representation in the Afghan government.

Since the US bombing commenced on October 7, Northern Alliance troops sought to improve their image by switching from the traditional fighting gear of ragged shalwar kamees and trainers to new camouflage uniforms and boots, thanks to a 30-million-US-dollar military assistance programme from Russia.

Similarly, alliance soldiers entering Kabul have demonstrated an unaccustomed sensitivity to the city's population that took veteran observers of Afghanistan's armed factions by surprise.

A bloody conclusion to the siege of Kunduz would also suit Pakistan's designs. General Pervez Musharraf has expressed persistent hostility to the prospect of a Kabul government dominated by the Northern Alliance, even after his preferred objective of a "moderate" Taleban wing failed to emerge. Any evidence of alliance atrocities would further fuel Pakistan's continuing efforts to manipulate the shape of the new government in Kabul.

Despite arming and sustaining the Taleban's march to power, Islamabad still claims the moral high ground when it comes to commenting on Afghan politics. Pakistani foreign minister Abdul Sattar today warned, "no peaceful resolution to Afghanistan's problems was possible if human rights were violated".

Kunduz is, first and foremost, a Pashtun city marooned in a sea of ethnic minorities with strong motives for seeking revenge against its citizens, many of them seen as collaborators with both the Taleban and the al-Qaeda fighters. Indian sources say it may also contain up to 1,000 members of the Pakistani regular army, fighting with the Taleban not as jihadi volunteers, but as an expeditionary force.

According to defence sources quoted by the Hindustan Times, two Pakistani low-flying helicopters landed in the heart of Kunduz on Thursday night to pick up two army officers of brigadier rank, along with some of their troops. The operation was apparently planned by Pakistan's Special Services Group. Earlier, CNN reported a Pakistani airforce plane landing in Kandahar to carry out a similar mission.

In such circumstances, the Northern Alliance is probably wise in playing for time over the fate of Kunduz and its trapped population of fighters.

Michael Griffin is IWPR Afghanistan project director.

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