Can the Northern Alliance Control Kabul?

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Northern Alliance soldiers ride through a village on the outskirts of Kabul

The Taliban no longer rule Afghanistan. But neither the fundamentalist militia, nor their Al Qaeda guests, have yet been beaten. Rather than put up a fight to hold onto the capital, Taliban forces retreated from Kabul overnight Monday, and by Tuesday morning a Northern Alliance advanced guard had entered the city. Initial reports suggested the Alliance had simply sent in a policing force to prevent an outbreak of chaos in the vacuum left by the Taliban's departure — Washington has repeatedly urged the Alliance to keep its forces out of Kabul, to avoid antagonizing the Pashtun Afghans who predominate in the south and their key regional ally, Pakistan. The Alliance ostensibly remains committed to allowing a U.N.-mandated international force to assume control over the capital, although some factions will certainly be tempted to make the best of the opportunity to seize power presented by the Taliban retreat.

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The Alliance's lightning offensive, which began at Mazar-i-Sharif late last week, has changed the strategic equation in Afghanistan over a matter of days. Where American pundits had been fretting over the ability of U.S. air power to dislodge the Taliban, the Northern Alliance finally stepped up to their role as the all-important infantry component of the campaign. Before September 11, they'd been the beleaguered remnants of the first post-Soviet government, outnumbered and outgunned by the Taliban and fighting simply to survive in a tiny sliver of land along Afghanistan's northeastern border. Two months later, thanks largely to U.S. air and logistical support, it controls half the country and appears to have effectively ended Taliban rule.

But despite suffering heavy losses in various battles in the north, the Taliban appear to have retreated from Kabul rather than having been routed. That leaves the rump of the movement now heading for its Pashtun heartland, where the political-military equation is somewhat reversed — while the Northern Alliance was on home ground clearing the Taliban out of the north (and even, to some extent, Kabul itself), the south may be beyond its reach. The Alliance is composed primarily of ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras, and is viewed with hostility even among anti-Taliban Pashtuns.

Taliban officials insist they have simply made a tactical withdrawal from those parts of the country they are least able to defend from the twin onslaught of the Northern Alliance and the U.S.air power. That's certainly a plausible defensive strategy in light of the strength of the forces ranged against them, but some correspondents close to the action have described a chaotic collapse, in which many Taliban commanders and troops simply fled their positions, leaving the more ideologically-motivated Pakistani, Arab and Chechen volunteers to fight and die — some of them reportedly after surrendering. Indeed, Western audiences may wince a little as firsthand tales from the battle front paint many of the proxy warriors of the Northern Alliance as no less brutal than their Talib enemies. But in Afghanistan, neither locals nor foreigners have ever fought by the Queensberry rules.

The tide has turned on the Taliban, and turned quickly. U.S. air support has helped the Northern Alliance reclaim half of the country in less than a week, opening the way for Russian logistical support that will likely prevent a Taliban comeback in the north for the foreseeable future. And now that they're no longer the masters of all Afghanistan, many local warlords and even Pasthun tribal leaders currently aligned with the Taliban may be inclined to switch sides.

And yet the turning of the tide raises new political dangers, most evident in the fact that the U.S. is working very hard to restrain the Alliance from actually capturing Kabul. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Sunday the U.S. could not stop the Alliance seizing the capital because it did not have sufficient troops on the ground to do that — but there was no question of the desirability of keeping them out. Foreign observers agree that the one thing Kabul residents fear more than the totalitarian Taliban is the return of the Northern Alliance — tens of thousands of civilians died there in the crossfire of factional battles the last time elements of the Alliance controlled the capital. Fear of the Northern Alliance storming the capital might actually rally Pashtuns behind the Taliban, potentially creating a protracted civil war in which the international community would be obliged to keep the peace.

President Bush himself has personally pleaded with the Alliance not to advance on Kabul, and Alliance spokesmen insist that they'll stay out of the capital. Some spokesmen, that is. Local commanders have been quoted as saying quite the opposite, and the truth is that the Alliance remains deeply divided within its own ranks. Many of its Tajik elements on the Kabul front support the return to power of President Barnharuddin Rabbani, ousted by the Taliban in 1996 — a scenario repugnant not only to the Pashtuns and their Pakistani backers, but even to other factions of the Northern Alliance. But Russia, set to become the quartermaster-in-chief to the Alliance, has already pledged to back Rabbani's return, and it may yet take some furious geopolitical horse trading to prevent a seizure of Kabul.

If Afghan war is a chess game, then even Kabul is not the king — while ceding control of the capital signals the end of Taliban control of the country, the movement is not yet destroyed. For that to happen, anti-Taliban forces would have to capture Kandahar, too. Washington had feared that if Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance before a viable anti-Taliban coalition had support in the south, the retreating Taliban might find considerable support for fighting on. Much now depends on efforts by the U.S. and other international powers to broker an agreement on a post-Taliban regime — efforts that have so far produced little consensus among either the Afghan combatants or their regional sponsors. The military campaign to replace the Taliban has suddenly raced ahead of its political dimension. And that means the most important battles of the coming weeks may be fought quietly on the diplomatic and political fronts.