What Comes After the Taliban?

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GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP

Opposition Northern Alliance of Afghanistan member Yanus Quanun

Afghanistan's peasant warriors have a long history of fighting shoulder to shoulder against a common foe. The problem is getting them to stop turning their guns on each other once that foe has been vanquished. And that's a dilemma the U.S. and its allies may be inheriting as they move to strike against Osama Bin Laden's Taliban hosts.

The Taliban's refusal to hand over Bin Laden has made attacks on the Taliban's military power an unavoidable component of the campaign to neutralize the Saudi terrorist and his Al Qaida network. And it's safe to anticipate that such attacks may critically weaken the Taliban's grip on power, leaving the allies to contemplate the challenge of helping to fill the power vacuum of a post-Taliban Afghanistan. The challenge is nothing if not daunting.

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How reliable are the Northern Alliance?

The West's natural military ally against the Taliban are the battle-hardened legions of the Northern Alliance (or United Front, as it prefers to call itself). The UF still controls between 5 and 10 percent of Afghanistan and its nominal political leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani, still holds Afghanistan's U.N. seat as the head of the country's recognized government despite being overthrown by the Taliban in 1996. But while the UF may be the most important fighting force ranged against the Taliban, it offers little by way of an alternative government.

The United Front is an alliance of convenience among widely divergent groups ranging from veteran anti-Soviet mujahedeen to commanders of the former Soviet-backed regime — a series of Uzbek, Tajik and Hazari militias based on ethnic lines, united mainly by an enmity to the Taliban and the majority Pashtun ethnic group they represent. Other than that alliance of convenience, they are extremely wary of one another. And nobody is going to make the mistake of calling them "the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers," as President Reagan famously said of their mujahedeen forebears in the 1980s.

The 'Great Game' of pipeline politics

Afghanistan's location at the heart of Central Asia, where the central geopolitical question remains the route by which the lucrative Caspian Sea oil pipeline will run to the ocean, gives Russia, Iran and Pakistan a compelling interest in influencing the future of their Afghan neighbors. The Russians, through their clients in the former Soviet Republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, have supplied arms and on occasion even air support to the Uzbek and Tajik militias, while Iran has supported their fellow Shiite Hazaras in the west. But Pakistan, erstwhile sponsor of the Taliban and currently the West's most important ally in efforts to take down Bin Laden and his Al Qaida network, is hostile to the idea of a United Front takeover, insisting instead that an administration that replaces the Taliban must reflect Afghanistan's ethnic balance. (As Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, the Pashtun constitute some 40 percent of the population compared with 25 percent Tajik and 19 percent Hazara.)

As the U.S. moves to muster the widest possible alliance against Bin Laden's Taliban hosts, that leaves Washington treading warily to maintain a delicate balance among its allies both outside and inside Afghanistan.

The Western coalition's primary task of locating and neutralizing Bin Laden and his forces will be made considerably easier if the Taliban disintegrates, as a number of analysts suggest it may in the face of even limited military action by the West. The Taliban's remarkable rise to power was assisted in no small part by direct support from Pakistan, which has now been withdrawn. And its rapid march on Kabul was facilitated by the defection of many field commanders loyal to Rabbani who sensed a shift in the political winds. It is widely expected that a similar dynamic may work against the Taliban once it comes under concerted military pressure. And Pakistan is now reportedly working to court moderate Taliban elements opposed to protecting Bin Laden in the hope of ensuring a majority Pashtun (and perhaps, by extension, Pakistan-friendly) component in a new government.

Is it good to be the King?

Rather than seeking to resolve the question ahead of time, the U.S. and its European allies have sought instead to forge consensus among the various anti-Taliban factions over a process for determining a future government. Rather than Rabbani — whose tenure is remembered as an era of corruption and vicious civil war in which tens of thousands of civilians were killed as rival factions battled for control of the capital — the West has enlisted the help of the former king, Zahir Shah, who has been living in the suburbs of Rome since being deposed in a 1973 coup. Western strategy appears to have combined a sharp increase in aid to the United Front with the matchmaking of a political alliance between them and the king. Intense negotiations last weekend produced a "Supreme Council for National Unity," under whose direction the king will call a traditional assembly of all of Afghanistan's tribal leaders, political parties and others to forge a consensus-based transitional government.

But even if the Taliban is easily dispatched, the transition plan is riddled with perils. The relationship between the United Front and the exiled king has the look of a forced marriage, and even within the UF itself some key players are as renowned for their treachery as for their fighting ability. The fearsome Uzbek leader, General Rashid Dostum, for example, has switched sides more than once over the past decade. And the authority of a monarch not seen in Afghanistan in 28 years (most of the fighters were not born when he went into exile) may not amount to much as old foes and their regional sponsors square off for a new roll of the political dice.

Nation-building in the rubble

The rubble that is Kabul today is a stark reminder of the pitfalls of trying to govern a land unrivaled in its unruliness, and it may be a long time before Afghanis are willing to believe that a transitional government is anything more than a temporary, tactical option for forces that have been fighting one another for more than a decade.

The future of Afghanistan had not been much of a concern in the West before September 11. But the campaign against Al Qaida has become, necessarily, a campaign to overthrow the Taliban, and that draws Washington and its allies inexorably into the battle to shape the wounded country's political future. Remaking Afghanistan may yet turn out to be the mother of all "nation-building" exercises — a form of intervention that sends chills through Washington's national security circles. But as complex and daunting as the challenge may be, it may also be an unavoidable aspect of "draining the swamp" that has nurtured Al Qaida's global terrorist enterprise.