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

Unlikely Afghan Liberators

The US is undecided whether to throw its weight behind the potentially fractious Northern Alliance.
By Michael Griffin

"You cannot buy an Afghan," runs a local proverb, "but you can rent one at a very high price."


Just how high that price might be is precisely what worries the US as it weighs up the danger of risking the lives of its soldiers in the shifting and treacherous political terrain of Afghanistan.


In the past 10 days, three potential allies in the expected US military operation to dislodge the Taleban have all issued thinly-veiled threats to Washington not proceed with a unilateral invasion unless it was prepared to face the consequences.


Speaking last week at a memorial service for the assassinated Northern Alliance, NA, leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, ousted Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani told the US that if it did not reinforce the NA's onslaught against Taleban positions, it might have to contend with its forces as well.


He appealed to the international community to work with the NA, but he said he would not accept a government imposed on Afghanistan.


Similar warnings were issued by both Pakistan and the Rome-based former monarch, Zahir Shah, 86, who is being courted by the US to head a broad-based transitional government after the fall of the Taleban. But it is the NA threat which is most immediate.


The NA, which controls about 10 per cent of Afghanistan, also occupies Bagram military airbase, some 50 km from the capital, as well as positions in the Panjshir Valley and northeastern Afghanistan.


Though it claims to field around 15,000 battle-hardened veterans, the NA forces more likely number half that amount, many of them less than 16-years-old. Though well-supplied with ex-Soviet tanks and artillery, they lack airpower and have fought mainly rearguard actions since October 1999, under Massoud's astute leadership.


His assassination on September 9, allegedly by two Moroccans loyal to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network, effectively stripped the NA of both its most accomplished strategist and whatever image it enjoyed as the most resilient opponent of the Taleban.


Overall command of the NA now rests with General Fahim, a former head of intelligence in the Rabbani government, whose skills in the field are largely unknown, though he has been Massoud's second-in-command since the Taleban captured Kabul in 1996.


Massoud presided over a loose affiliation of commanders from the Tajik, Uzbek, Shia and Ismaili minorities, all of which are sure to have scores to settle should the largely Pashtun-based Taleban be overthrown.


The leading figure among them, the Uzbek Abdul Rashid Dostum, was formerly warlord over seven northern provinces, until the Taleban stormed his capital, Mazar-e-Sharif, in 1997. He subsequently went into exile in Turkey, before returning to Afghanistan to join the NA the following year.


Though a long-time ally of the NA's strong Shia representation, Hezb-I-Wahdat, led by Karim Khalili, the Soviet-trained general has a history of treachery, which included a mutiny against former president Mohammed Najibullah in 1992, which led to the mujahedin capture of Kabul in the same year.


As a former communist and head of the Jowzjan militia, which looted and butchered its way through Kabul during a two-year occupation of the city in the early Nineties, Dostum is loathed by Taleban and non-Taleban alike.


Though formerly allied with Rabbani, who is recognised by the UN as Afghanistan's president, he betrayed him by linking up with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, head of another Pakistani-backed Pashtun faction, Hezb-i-Islami, in 1994.


The threat of US intervention in Afghanistan is bolstering recruitment to these half-dormant factions within the NA, but Washington cannot decide whether they are likely to be allies, or simply enemies in waiting. By rearming them, the US risks paving the way for yet another round of in-fighting after their common enemy, the Taleban, has been destroyed.


And they are far from unanimous in supporting Zahir Shah, the former king, as the UN-recognised president, Rabbani, has bluntly dismissed any suggestion that the monarchy should be restored, while the Uzbek, Tajik and Shia have little loyalty to a Pashtun king who has spent the toughest years of the war in an Italian villa.


Michael Griffin is author of Reaping The Whirldwind - The Taleban Movement in Afghanistan, and is project coordinator of IWPR Afghanistan project.


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