Afghanistan: New Freedom, New Fears

  • Share
  • Read Later

Citizens of Kabul cheer Northern Alliance fighters

The first faint sliver of the new moon over Afghanistan Saturday will signal the onset of Ramadan, but this year the holy month may be a time both of fasting and fierce fighting. The Taliban negotiated away their last stronghold Friday, Mullah Omar reportedly handing the city over to two Pashtun warlords and heading for the hills. Thousands of Taliban fighters, many of them foreign volunteers, remained under siege at Kunduz in the north, with the Northern Alliance threatening to launch a bloody assault by nightfall Friday if they fail to surrender. The era of Taliban power is plainly over, but the next chapter of Afghan conflict may have already begun as rival anti-Taliban factions stake competing claims for power — and the Taliban itself tries to regroup for a protracted guerrilla campaign.

U.S. special forces are reportedly operating freely in southern Afghanistan, engaging retreating Taliban and al Qaeda forces — and Washington had its best news of the campaign so far with the reported death of Bin Laden's Number 3, Mohammed Atef, in a bombing raid near Kabul. British and French forces have already entered Afghanistan too, to prepare for a role in peacekeeping and relief efforts.

The volunteers at Kunduz may be more inclined to fight to the death, knowing well that the difference between surrender and defiance may simply be the difference between a heroic death and a humiliating one — even though many of their Afghan Taliban comrades may simply surrender. For the movement's surviving leadership, a retreat for the mountains and a protracted guerrilla campaign appears to be the only survival option facing the battered militia, even as a number of its senior leaders were reportedly captured by opposition forces Friday. They've also shrewdly handed over the southern cities to rival Pashtun forces rather than fight them, hoping the bond of ethnic solidarity against the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras of the Northern Alliance may be invoked at some point in the future, particularly if the Pashtuns are alienated from the political outcome of the post-Taliban era. And that remains a distinct possiblity.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Over in Kabul, post-Taliban freedom appeared to be something of a mixed blessing. There was music on the streets again, women could shed their burkas and even return to work, and men could finally shave off their beards. But control of the capital by the Tajik forces of the Northern Alliance was being questioned, both by traditional Pashtun rivals and an international community concerned to ensure a broad-based government in Afghanistan, and even by some of their Northern Alliance partners — some 1,000 Hazari troops from the Alliance marched on the capital Thursday, to ensure a share of power for their own group.

Complicated as it will certainly be, the future has already begun. British marines took control of Bagram airport north of Kabul Thursday, to pave the way for humanitarian flights — and also military deployments to expand efforts to snare Osama bin Laden and the rest of al Qaeda's leadership cadre. There was no word Friday on their whereabouts, but plenty of speculation — including Iranian reports that he may have already slipped into Pakistan. U.S. special forces are roaming the south, engaging in firefights with retreating Taliban fighters and gathering intelligence on the possible whereabouts of their leaders. And local Pashtun warlords, eager to stake their own claim in a new political dispensation, are wresting control of most southern towns from the Taliban.

After the Taliban, what?

The ouster of the Taliban is prompting a growing power struggle among its enemies, north and south. Although they're committed to negotiating a broad-based inclusive government, the Northern Alliance have taken control of the capital, and are looking to set the terms of political negotiations. The Alliance has invited all groups except the Taliban for talks in Kabul, a slap down of Pakistan's suggestion that "moderate Taliban" elements have a role in a future government. (The Alliance believes "moderate Taliban" is an oxymoron, and is hostile to any Pakistani influence in Kabul.) And while the U.S. had hoped to see the exiled King Zahir Shah return and take the leading role in convening a new government, Northern Alliance leader Burnharuddin Rabbani made clear Tuesday that the king could return, but as a citizen rather than a sovereign. Pakistan

More ominously, though, former President Burnharuddin Rabbani had planned to return to Kabul Wednesday to take political charge of areas liberated by the Northern Alliance — although Rabbani desires reinstatement as the president of Afghanistan, he would be fiercely opposed by most Pashtun (the largest ethnic group). Even his Uzbek and Hazari allies in the Northern Alliance are not keen to see the Tajik Rabbani back in charge. Most Kabul residents remember his tenure as a nightmare of infighting between rival factions during which tens of thousands of Afghanis were killed. Alliance forces have already divided the capital into separate zones of control for different ethnic factions, and the northern group's internal divisions remain potentially explosive — one thousand Hazari Northern Alliance soldiers were reportedly marching on Kabul Thursday in a bid to underline their claims on a share of power.

The danger of a new civil war is not only confined to Kabul. Local warlords appear to be grabbing for power all over southern Afghanistan in the wake of the fleeing Taliban, warily eyeing one another as they stake their own claims. The international community is, not surprisingly, working frantically to get a U.N.-mandated security force and transitional regime installed. Western powers, supported by Russia and Iran, backed a Security Council plan adopted Wednesday night to authorize a mission to Afghanistan that includes a two-year transitional government backed by a multinational peacekeeping force, composed of troops sent by such Muslim nations as Turkey, Jordan, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

The perils for Pakistan

The Northern Alliance are the de facto rulers in Kabul right now, and that may be more than a little alarming, not only to the Pashtun but also to Pakistan, erstwhile patron of the Taliban and now Washington's key regional ally. Pakistan wants a friendly (and predominantly Pashtun) government in Kabul, while the Northern Alliance is antagonistic to Islamabad. And even as local, regional and global powers scramble to arrange a power-sharing formula for a new regime in Kabul, it's worth remembering that the Taliban are bloodied but not yet beaten — they've surrendered most of their territory without much of a fight, and could potentially regroup to wage a guerrilla campaign from the mountains. While they're unlikely to recover lost cities, they could sustain a low-intensity war for years. So despite the liberation of Kabul, it's too early to tell whether Afghanistan's agony is finally at an end, or simply about to open another chapter.

The fall of the Taliban leaves the U.S. having to carefully mediate between the competing interests of its key allies in the Afghan theater. On the one hand, Washington is concerned to accommodate the interests of Pakistan's General Musharraf, who took a massive political risk in supporting the U.S. war effort. On the other, it can't afford to alienate the Northern Alliance forces that have served as its infantry in the war to unseat the Taliban. And there are clearly volatile conflicts both within the Alliance and among the anti-Taliban Pashtun warlords in the south.

There's no question of peace being at hand — the U.S. will sustain military pressure on the Taliban at least until Al Qaeda is crippled. But its diplomatic priority now may be to ensure that freshly liberated Kabul doesn't become the prize in an all-new Afghan civil war.