No End to Afghan Fighting

Afghanistan is bracing itself for yet more fighting as the Taliban and the Northern Alliance shun peace talks.

No End to Afghan Fighting

Afghanistan is bracing itself for yet more fighting as the Taliban and the Northern Alliance shun peace talks.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

With neither side in the Afghan war showing much willingness to reach a compromise settlement, a peaceful resolution of the conflict seems as distant a prospect as ever.

Having won control of over 90 per cent of Afghan territory, the Taliban have striven relentlessly for a final military victory and have used peace talks as little more than a pause in which to regroup their forces.

The Northern Alliance, on the other hand, have been unwilling to accept the status quo and demanded political concessions from the Taliban, which the group sees as totally at odds with the military reality.

As a result, both sides have sought to resolve the conflict on the battlefield rather than round the negotiating table.

This became glaringly evident after the Taliban's capture of Talokan - the administrative centre of the Tahor province - in September last year. In losing this strategic point, the Northern Alliance was forced to relinquish control over supply routes to its bases just over the border in Tajikistan.

It was at this point that relations between Afghanistan and its neighbours began to change.

Tajikistan, a long-time backer of the Northern Alliance, regarded the Taliban's success as a serious threat to its own security. Other Central Asian and Commonwealth of Independent States, CIS, countries shared Dushanbe's concern. CIS collective security arrangements were stepped up. So too were efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the Afghan conflict.

At the same time, members of the commonwealth agreed to provide military, financial and political support for the Northern Alliance. Since the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU - which had launched raids into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in recent years - are reported to be enjoying the patronage of the Taliban, there was an added impetus to back Ahmed Shah Massoud's Northern Alliance forces.

The international community's attitude towards the Taliban also hardened. The United Nations selectively tightened its embargo against Afghanistan, with the aim of hitting the rebels rather than the Northern Alliance. The decision provoked a new round of fighting.

Masssoud's forces saw the move as giving carte-blanche to their anti-Taliban war, while the Taliban saw itself as set upon by the rest of the world.

The Islamic rebels' apparent objective is to expel Northern Alliance forces from provinces bordering Tajikistan. Diplomatic sources in the region suggest the main offensive will kick-off in early July, and that the Taliban has no intention of re-entering peace negotiations until their military objectives are achieved.

There are also reports that the Taliban leadership intends to break off contact with international mediators in the near future. At present, they're refusing to participate in any talks involving UN representatives, as it has "betrayed the interests of the Afghan people".

The Taliban's UN boycott makes any peace efforts by countries like Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan impossible. Neither Astana nor Bishkek can mediate without UN involvement.

At present, the Taliban are pushing north of Talokan towards the Tajik border. Massoud has managed to retain control of the Farkhar gorge, preventing the Islamic rebels from occupying Badakhshan - the last province held by the Northern Alliance.

The leader of the ethnic Uzbeks in Afghanistan, Abdurashid Dostum, who was expelled from the country by the Taliban three years ago, has recently renewed his alliance with Massoud and could show up in Jauzjan and Balkh provinces in the north-west.

Massoud hopes Dostum can raise fighters from the ethnic Uzbeks and organise attacks behind Taliban lines. The Northern Alliance has similar hopes of Karim Khalili, leader of the Afghan Shi'ites - his task would be to cut off Taliban supply routes to Kabul from the west.

It's hard to say whether the Northern Alliance will succeed in pushing back the Taliban. Well informed sources say the rebels are confident Massoud's new alliances will unravel. And past experience would suggest that they are probably right.

Arkady Dubnov is a journalist with Vremya novostei newspaper in Moscow

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