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

Northern Alliance Rout Taleban

The Northern Alliance rout of the Taleban throws US Afghan plans into a tailspin
By Marcus Tanner

Only days ago Western strategists were bemoaning the failure of the Afghan opposition to take advantage of US air strikes to take ground off the Taleban.


Overnight the problem is that Northern Alliance's advance is, if anything, too rapid. In what observers describe as a rout, the Afghan opposition forces have broken out of their northern enclave to take almost half the country, pushing west to the key city of Herat and southwards to within about 15 km of Kabul.


The capture of Herat in western Afghanistan was a huge gain for the opposition, far more important than the earlier seizure of Mazar-e-Sharif in the north. The oasis city, around 150 km from the Iranian border, is one of the country's five largest cities and bestrides a vital transit and goods route.


Retaking it opens the way for the opposition to seize Kandahar in the south, the power base of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taleban's supreme leader.


But while the US and its allies have applauded the advance, the imminent fall of the capital raises as many problems as it solves.


Until last Saturday, Washington held firmly to the position that the Uzbek and Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance should not alienate the majority Pashtun community by moving beyond minority strongholds in the north and west into Kabul itself.


This view reflected the determination in Islamabad, the Taleban's former sponsor, that the anti-Pakistan opposition coalition should not become the sole force in a post-Taleban government.


The scale of the Taleban's collapse, however, has forced the US to rethink policy on the hoof in order to reflect rapidly changing facts on the ground.


A shift was already visible on Monday, when the US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged it might now be difficult to stop the Northern Alliance if they tried to seize the capital. "We don't have enough forces on the ground to stand in their way," he said.


The Northern Alliance interior minister was also rowing back on their earlier promises. On Monday, Yunos Qanooni said while his forces would abide by a pledge not to enter the capital, specially trained "police units" who were not soldiers could be sent in. The distinction was not clear.


America's anxiety about the prospect of a Northern Alliance government installing itself in Kabul was also reflected by the decision to stage an urgent meeting in New York between Secretary of State Powell, his Russian counterpart and ministers from six frontline states.


The meeting would be followed by the despatch of a new US envoy to the Northern Alliance, James Dobbins, who would hold talks on a new government in Kabul with America's partners in London, Rome, Ankara and Tashkent - the last stop a concession to Uzbekistan's new strategic importance in the Afghan conflict.


Part of this concern is fear that the Northern Alliance may grossly embarrass the US war against the Taleban by subjecting Kabul to the same kind of violence and looting its forces perpetrated when they last ruled the capital in the early Nineties, following the Soviet withdrawal.


Aside from these human rights and public relations concerns, the US needs to balance its own war aims against the Taleban with the regional goals of supportive powers, all of whom have different ideas about who should dominate Kabul.


On the one hand, the US has to be seen to listen to Pakistan, in order to bolster the shaky, pro-US military government against its hardline Islamist opponents at home. Islamabad bitterly opposes the Northern Alliance replacing the pro-Pakistan Taleban in Kabul, hence its demand that "moderate" Taleban members must be included in any new government.


Moscow, on other hand, is a close ally of the Afghan opposition, largely because of the threat the Taleban poses to several secular ex-Soviet regimes in Central Asia and its own hold on Chechnya. Hence Moscow's insistence that the Taleban must be totally excluded.


Russia's standpoint is largely backed by India, which faces a similar Islamic insurgency movement in Indian-ruled Kashmir.


Even the US administration often appears split, with Secretary of State Powell leaning more towards Pakistan's position out of concern to keep the allied coalition in place, and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld articulating a position more in line with Russia.


Thus far, the Northern Alliance has been able to claim its military advances enjoy popular support. The opposition troops fighting at Herat were led by Ismail Khan, the city's former governor, who insisted there was no love for the Taleban in Herat. "The people hated the Taleban because of their cruelty," he said recently.


"They have abused Islam to abuse their own people. I can say that about 80 per cent of people have turned their backs on the Taleban."


That may be true for Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat. But it is less likely to hold good for Kabul and the south, where the Pashtuns remember the Northern Alliance as an alien force responsible for spectacular misgovernment in the early Nineties.


The US and its allies have banked on a measured military advance by the Northern Alliance dovetailing with the slow assembly of a broad-based opposition government in exile, in which the Afghan opposition would form only one component.


The dramatic collapse of the Taleban regime in Kabul - and the prospect of a power vacuum in the capital, or a Northern Alliance takeover - throws all those plans awry.


Marcus Tanner is an historian and a regular IWPR contributor