|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
8 - 14 November 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
My enemy's enemyIn the days before 11 September, the Northern Alliance was a frail coalition of tired-out warlords. But a shift in US perspective has refashioned these misremembered mujahedin as a formidable guerrilla force, writes Nyier Abdou
The patchwork of opposition forces that make up Afghanistan's armed resistance is as convoluted as the ethnic discord that plagues this war-torn nation. United solely in their hatred for the Taliban regime, many of these erstwhile rivals have a long history of enmity. Today, the dream of a representative government rises above dormant hostilities and the nagging rancour between factions has fallen away from the public eye.
The key northern city of Mazar-i Sharif, where the caliph Ali is buried, is a well-known place of pilgrimage
Since the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the struggle for power in this strategic Central Asian nation has continued, if not intensified. Unified by their desire to expel the Soviets and their puppet government and drawing on a steady stream of military support from the US, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China, the mujahedin were a formidable enemy. Once this goal was achieved, however, and support from regional powers and the US dried up, banditry and lawlessness took over. Warring factions jockeyed for power, leaving the leadership of Tajik President Burhanuddin Rabbani weak and occupied.
When the Taliban movement emerged as a group of militant religious students in 1994, its surprising military might and particularly harsh brand of Islamic fundamentalism became a new point of convergence. Again, warriors were asked to put their differences aside in the name of liberation, and thus was born the National Islamic United Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, commonly referred to as the United Front, or the Northern Alliance (NA).
A loosely-knit collection of former mujahedin commanders, Taliban defectors, regional leaders and foes-cum-friends, the United Front has seen some dark times in its struggle against the Taliban. In a statement earlier this month, the New York- based Human Rights Watch (HRW) singled out numerous groups and high-profile commanders in the Northern Alliance as party to gross human rights infractions, not only against Taliban fighters but against civilians and suspected Taliban sympathisers. Warning the US and its allies that a record of human rights abuses should not be rewarded with blind support, HRW noted that atrocities committed by some United Front factions were well documented. It added that some of the most harrowing incidents occurred in places controlled by the United Front as recently as a few years ago.
Casting about for a way to step up its campaign in Afghanistan, the US has become more willing to overlook past ignominies. As the US moves closer to the NA in its quest to topple the Taliban, objectionable episodes in the country's long-running civil war may be conveniently overlooked. Though it may seem surprising that the US would opt to back another group of rogue freedom fighters in the quagmire of Afghan conflicts, it is hard to see how the US could avoid turning to the Northern Alliance. NA commanders have been fighting in Afghanistan for decades and the US remains squeamish about using a large ground force, for fear that mounting casualties will make the war unpopular back home.
The more the US confers with NA leaders, the more legitimacy the alliance garners, and, consequently, the harder it becomes for Americans and other allied nations not to put their desperate faith in this collection of hardened fighters. Those unfamiliar with the history of Afghanistan and the tribal warfare that has ravaged the country hear terms like anti- Taliban and "Northern Alliance" and think of a tightly organised, finely honed fighting machine, just waiting for its chance to do what is right. Even the use of the sweeping, generic term "Northern Alliance fighters", now so common in news reports, is misleading, as the groups that make up the NA are disparate and far-flung, both in Afghanistan and beyond.
In fact, there is little to prop up the Northern Alliance's image as the "kinder, gentler Taliban" -- a way out of this mess that still leaves Afghanistan in local hands. Asked if the NA is nothing more than "the Taliban that wasn't", Tom Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, quipped that in many ways, they are the Taliban that "were", for the four years between the fall of the Soviet-backed regime of President Mohamed Najibullah in 1992 and the take-over of Kabul by the Taliban in 1996. Gouttierre stressed that the NA was "not much better" when it was in control of Afghanistan, noting that "they are the ones that are responsible for most of the destruction of Kabul." The havoc wreaked by tribal warfare in the capital and beyond was worse than anything seen in the decade-long Afghan-Soviet war, Gouttierre told the Weekly.
Gouttierre maintains that despite claims that they are ready to take back territory in a rush, the NA is not strong -- "we should not expect too much of them." He added, however, that their expertise is not to be discounted, as they know the territory and their morale is improving daily. Again referring to the NA's notorious infighting, Gouttierre said that he didn't believe the NA would be able to maintain a united front. "I don't expect that their unity will hold," he said.
Except for the relatively brief period of NA rule, Afghanistan has for the most part been ruled by Pashtun -- although it was only recently that the Pashtun ethnicity came to mean something in itself. Afghanistan is home to more than 13 million Pashtuns -- just over half the population. More importantly, the historical Pashtun heartland straddles Afghanistan and Pakistan, meaning that there are roughly the same amount of Pashtuns in Pakistan as there are in Afghanistan. The Taliban are Pashtuns, but so are most of the royalists surrounding the former king, Mohamed Zahir Shah, who briefly instituted a constitutional monarchy before being expelled in a 1973 coup.
A poster for slain NA leader Ahmed Shah Massoud
"The king himself always tried to downplay ethnic distinctions," explains Bernt Glatzer, an anthropologist who has worked in and on Afghanistan since 1968 and now works with the German Foundation for International Development. "During his reign [from 1933 to 1973], he tried to keep a balance between the ethnic groups." Although Zahir Shah is descended from the Mohamedzay Pashtun clan, he and his relatives were brought up in Kabul and were educated in Persian and French. They were alienated from Pashtun traditions. Essentially the last period of relative stability in Afghanistan, the reign of Zahir Shah is now remembered among most Afghans as "the good old days, when peace prevailed," Glatzer told the Weekly. Because of this, Zahir Shah holds significant symbolic power. A large part of non-Pashtuns see him as the only hope for bringing peace back to Afghanistan.
Not all Pashtuns are pro-Taliban. The Ittihad-i Islami-yi Azadi Afghanistan (Islamic Union for Liberation of Afghanistan), headed by Abdel-Rabb Al-Rasul Sayyaf, is a radical Islamist organisation. Sayyaf, a member of the strict, predominantly Saudi Wahhabi Islamic sect, has long been accused by the US State Department of promoting terrorism, but his Ittihad-i Islami still falls under the large (and forgiving) umbrella of the United Front -- the same coalition that is negotiating for military support and air cover from the US-led forces in Afghanistan today. The former mujahedin that make up the Shura-yi Mashriqi (Council of the East) are also Pashtun, and known for their heavy involvement in the drug trade.
Other anti-Taliban factions within the United Front basically divide along ethnic and religious lines: Jamiat-i Islami Afghanistan, the party of nominal President Burnhanuddin Rabbani -- who, although controlling less than 10 per cent of the country's territory, still holds Afghanistan's seat in the United Nations -- are Tajik. The late charismatic opposition leader and de facto head of the United Front, Ahmed Shah Massoud, was also Tajik, as were the members of his enduring Supervisory Council of the North. Massoud, who commanded the Panjsher Valley, was officially Rabbani's defence minister, but he was more than that for the various anti-Taliban forces.
Known as the "lion of Panjsher," Massoud was a formidable negotiator, a strategic commander and the face of Afghan resistance. His assassination on 9 September by suicide bombers, allegedly ordered by the Taliban, left a gaping hole in the United Front's leadership. In the days before the 11 September attacks on the US, the opposition forces seemed to be on their last legs. Most commanders were not even operating in the country and a complete Taliban victory in the North seemed imminent. But along with setting off a rapacious reordering of the world's geo-political map, 11 September changed everything for the United Front and Massoud's successor, Mohamed Fahim Khan.
Once at odds with Massoud and comprised of mainly Uzbek backers of the former Communist leadership, the Junbish-i Milli-yi Islami-yi Afghanistan (National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan) is shaped by its notorious leader, Abdurrashid Dostum. A powerful player in Afghanistan, Dostum is a political chameleon, having changed from fighting alongside Soviet forces, to taking up arms with the mujahedin, to allying with infamous extremist, Pakistani favourite and former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, to joining Massoud's United Front. Not to be discounted in the political landscape, Dostum is a wild card, not unlike many of the United Front factions.
In January 1994, the joined forces of Hekmatyar's radical Hizb-i Islami-yi Afghanistan (Islamic Party of Afghanistan) and Dostum's fierce militia sought to oust Rabbani and Massoud with a brutal attack on Kabul -- a move which escalated tribal conflicts and regional infighting to a full-scale civil war. According to Human Rights Watch, in 1994 alone, an estimated 25,000 Afghans -- most of them civilians -- were killed in devastating rocket and artillery attacks on Kabul. A significant portion of the city was damaged beyond repair.
Dostum, who went on to control a Northern stronghold from the regional centre of Mazhar-i Sharif, was a warlord in the true sense of the word. Whether conflict followed him, or it was he who was the follower one cannot know, but Dostum's power was at its peak in 1997, even as the Taliban closed in on most other parts of the country. Fabulously enriched by the drug trade and firmly backed by regional powers, Dostum lorded over his domain with an iron fist. While it was no paradise, Dostum's military mini-state was a relatively secure, moderately "liberal" island in a sea of chaos. Women worked, walked the streets freely and studied at university.
But Mazhar-i Sharif was to become the centre of one of the worst cycles of violence to plague the country's civil war. Dostum, betrayed by one of his commanders, was forced to flee as Taliban forces seeped into the city. In a twist of fate, however, the Taliban themselves were betrayed and thousands were allegedly sealed in, tortured and killed. When the Taliban finally did take Mazhar-i Sharif in August 1998, the killing was indiscriminate and fuelled by revenge. Again, thousands of civilians, most of them ethnic Hazara, died brutal deaths.
Hazara, who are predominantly Shi'a and, therefore, stand in stark contrast to the Taliban and other Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen groups, are undoubtedly Afghanistan's most ignored, and ethnically targeted, minority. Repeatedly singled out by the Taliban as "non-believers" and subject to historical and institutional discrimination, the Hazara generally support the Iranian-backed Hizb-Wahdat-i Islami-yi Afghanistan (Islamic Party of Afghanistan), led by commanders Mohamed Karim Khalili and Haji Mohamed Mohaqiq. The only other Shi'a party is the Harakat-i Islami-yi Afghanistan (Islamic Movement of Afghanistan), made up of mostly non-Hazara Shi'a who did not join Hizb-i Wahdat.
Civil war has thrown ethnic and religious identity into sharp relief in Afghanistan, but the breakdown of identity is a jumble of religious, cultural and tribal affiliations. But Glatzer, of the German Foundation for International Development, notes that to say that the anti-Taliban factions divide on ethnic lines is "not fully correct". Glatzer noted that so-called Tajiks are not actually an ethnic group. "The term 'Tajik' only means a Persian-speaking, Sunni non-Pashtun who also does not belong to any tribal group such as the Aymaq or Hazara." Tajiks around the country may have nothing more in common apart from their language, Glatzer explained. As if this is not confusing enough, some don't call themselves Tajiks, and some don't even speak Persian.
"The Hazara nowadays feel proud to be 'Hazara'," says Glatzer. "Before 1978 this term was rarely heard among them. Their long fight against Kabul governments and encroaching Pashtuns bound them together, so nowadays -- unlike 'Tajiks', they have a strong ethnic feeling."
Given some of the violent excesses of so many NA militias, one of the main concerns facing human rights groups and diplomats trying to hammer out a credible post-Taliban scenario is the potent fear that nursing the NA back to health may revive a sleeping dragon. The NA may have become very savvy at international political dealings, but ultimately, its forces are the same soldiers who have suffered under the Taliban or may have taken part in mass looting and violence during the civil war. Asked if he thought the NA would show restraint on the ground if it begins to take back key territories -- most significantly, Mazhar-i Sharif -- Glatzer was to the point: "Why should they show restraint? I am afraid they will not."
Glatzer insists, however, that there is a discernible difference between the Taliban and the NA. "The Taliban are more systematic in their ideology -- they have a clear agenda, and they are more disciplined, at least until recently. This does not mean they are more humane, perhaps to the contrary: the Taliban are brutal in their inhuman rigidity." As for the NA, they "will probably be brutal in their lawlessness and greed for loot."
South Asia expert Saeed Shafqat, Quaid-i Azam professor of Pakistan studies at the Southern Asian Institute of Columbia University, is quick to dismiss the NA's previous performance as "terrible", saying that the majority Pashtun are "very sceptical" about them. Shafqat notes that if Zahir Shah is to preside over a feasible government, it will have to be a broad coalition that has ample representation for Pashtuns in order to distinguish it from the formerly disastrous NA leadership that sought to marginalise and punish ethnic Pashtuns. "It was NA misrule that revived Pashtun awareness and identity," Shafqat told the Weekly. "What we often forget is that during the Afghan war, various factions and tribes of Afghans were mobilised in the name of religion -- including support from other Muslim countries."
Shafqat notes that while a generation of Afghans lost their lives in the war, a new generation grew up in the refugee camps around Quetta and Peshawar. "Who provided them [with] patronage and protection? The donor agencies provided financial support, but the real vacuum was filled by the religious parties," Shafqat said. "The Pakistani state, for various reasons, found it convenient to encourage and dispatch these religiously trained and motivated new generation of Pashtun Afghans to move through the south, restore law and order and eventually capture Kabul."
The intricate web of tribal linkages in Afghanistan are constantly evolving, but the US-led bombings have solidified support among Taliban supporters. Prolonged bombing and more civilian deaths would encourage further street protest in Pakistan and drive more ethnic Pashtuns onto the arms of the Taliban. The capture and execution of moderate opposition leader Abdul-Haq by Taliban forces last month will make things even more difficult, Shafqat warns, adding that it is also indicative of the fact that ground operations will be as nasty as the US alliance fears. "The Taliban may have more support among the tribes than was initially thought," says Shafqat. "The more defiant the Taliban, the greater the heat in Pakistan."
David Edwards, chair of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Williams College and author of two books on Afghanistan, admits that putting stock in a coalition of parties that banded together in adversity -- "calling themselves, rather grandly, the Northern Alliance" -- is both naïve and dangerous. "Ahmad Shah Massoud was able to wield this alliance somewhat effectively, or at least keep it together, but he's gone, and charisma really does matter in this context," Edwards told the Weekly. "What's keeping them together now, I suspect, is opportunity; if power actually fell into their hands, would they still cooperate?" Recalling the old rivalries of the early 1990s, Edwards rattles off a well- worn list of the usual suspects: "When they [the NA] had power, the very same parties that are now unified were at each other's throats. Hizb-i Wahdat was fighting with Jamiat and with Sayyaf. Dostum's Uzbek militia was fighting with Massoud, then with Hekmatyar's Hizb-i Islami. It's difficult to imagine that the present members of the alliance will get along now any better than they did before."
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