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

Rush to Fill Afghan Power Vacuum

International officials are in a race to stabilize Afghanistan following the Taleban withdrawal from Kabul.
By Paul Iredale

Afghanistan's puppetmasters, the politicians and international officials who watched and waited as the US-led air offensive built pressure on the Taleban, are having to scramble to fill the power vacuum left by the sudden collapse of the Kabul regime.


The speed of the Taleban withdrawal, after weeks in which the air campaign appeared to be making little difference on the ground, has caught them by surprise.


They are likely to rally round United Nations proposals to create a broad-based multi-ethnic government within two years. But how this will gel with the US-led operation to root out Osama bin Laden, the alleged architect of the September 11 terrorist attacks and his al-Qaeda movement, remains to be seen.


The need for a peacekeeping force in Kabul and other major cities, to ensure there is no repetition of the violence and brutality that characterised the Northern Alliance's last occupation of the capital, is urgent and may result in the temporary deployment of British and US troops.


Afghanistan's neighbour Pakistan, which has been a supporter of the Taleban, is particularly keen that the Northern Alliance should not be let loose in Kabul and needs to be mollified.


The Northern Alliance has denied reports, given credence by UN officials, that it killed more than 100 Taleban recruits hiding in a school in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, and clearly London and Washington want to avoid any further incidents like this.


Both the US and Britain are preparing to send troops to Afghanistan, but they are likely to want a UN force to eventually take over. The UN Security Council is today, Wednesday, considering a British and French drafted resolution to "encourage" countries to help "ensure the safety and security of areas of Afghanistan no longer under Taleban control".


Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN's special envoy for Afghanistan, told journalists in New York that an all-Afghan policing force was preferable, but would take too long to organise, and instead suggested a "coalition of the willing".


Turkey has agreed to contribute to the force, and diplomats have said it could include contingents from Jordan and Malaysia, along with European nations. Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has said he also wants to be a part of it.


The UN is also hurrying to organise the long-discussed meeting of the leaders of Afghanistan's factions with the exiled King Zahir, who retains support from the Pashtun majority, to discuss the country's future.


The meeting, due within days in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, will convene a "provisional council" of the various Afghan interests, chaired by a figure of national unity such as Zahir, to set up a transitional administration tasked with drafting a new constitution.


The UN plan also involves calling a Loya Jirga, or Grand Council of Afghan leaders, to approve the programme. This would bring tribal leaders from the Pashtun south and east, the homelands of the Taleban, together with the minority Uzbeks and Tajiks from the north.


It remains to be seen what will happen to the Taleban, and to their large numbers of foreign militia, following the retreat from Kabul. Their leader, Mullah Omar, has urged his scattered fighters to stand and fight, warning that if they do not they will be "like a slaughtered chicken which falls and dies."


The Taleban appear to have ceded most of the territory outside its Pashtun heartland, but it retains strong support across that area, as well as across the long porous border with Pakistan.


Groups of foreign Taleban fighters, from Pakistan and other Middle East and Asian Muslim nations, are reported to have withdrawn to the eastern city of Jalalabad, a hub for al-Qaeda training camps, and to Kandahar, the Taleban stronghold in the south.


The Taleban may choose to regroup and fight on, but if it does not, its foreign supporters could prefer to slip across the border into Pakistan.


The military government in Islamabad, which already has huge problems with fundamentalists, will want to avoid this. Pakistan's support is crucial to the success of any proposal for the future of Afghanistan, and the visit to Islamabad on Wednesday of the interior minister of Iran, another of Afghanistan's neighbours, underlined the pressure to take advantage of the changed situation.


Paul Iredale is an IWPR editor