Afghanistan, the Puzzle Palace

by Steve Perry

When Mazar-e-Sharif fell last Friday, U.S. war planners and pundits sent their warm regards to the brave boys of the Northern Alliance. Taking Mazar meant an allied supply route through the heart of the country, they burbled-a felicitous turn of events that stood to split the Taliban in half geographically and afford the opposition a leg up in what was sure to be a grueling series of battles in Kabul and elsewhere. When the Taliban fled Herat and Kabul over the weekend, the celebratory proclamations issuing from the U.S. grew more strained. By the time Kandahar began to crumble late Tuesday, George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld had to be rooting along with Mullah Omar as he took to the airwaves to beg Taliban troops for a show of resistance. It’s a rotten thing they’ve done by turning tail and scatting before the U.S. was prepared for the war to end.

If it has ended. The most immediate question is whether the Taliban are fleeing in disarray or mounting a strategic retreat from the cities into areas from which it’s easier to wage guerrilla war. I suspect the answer is a little of both. It now appears that the most serious blow struck in the U.S. bombing campaign was not to Taliban war materiel but to their communication systems. Numerous reports say it’s impossible for Taliban factions in different parts of the country to talk to each other except by horse-carried messenger. So it’s quite possible that what began as a strategic retreat from Mazar-e-Sharif cascaded into a panicked desertion of other Taliban centers when rumblings about Mazar began to circulate. As always there are the obligatory and unverified reports of mass defections; more concretely, London’s The Independent reported that the last remaining Taliban ambassador to Pakistan “shut up shop in Islamabad and roared off in his Japanese four-wheel drive to an unknown destination.”

The Taliban may seek to regroup in the mountains and fight a guerrilla war better suited to their strengths. In fact the gentlefolk at Stratfor, the military/strategic think tank, believe that’s exactly what they mean to do. If so they face dicey prospects. Supplies are the main issue. Having abandoned vital shipping routes not only in Mazar-e-Sharif but also Herat, Taloqan and Kunduz, they appear to be staking everything on the goodwill and assistance of sympathizers in Pakistan. In the words of Kim Sengupta, another correspondent for The Independent, “The Taliban believe they will receive reinforcements in this new war from across the Pakistani border from fellow Pushtuns and also fresh waves of international Islamist volunteers.” If not, they’re effectively finished. Afghan rebels fought for a decade against the Soviet Union, but they were armed to the teeth by the U.S. and others. Popular support is likewise a problem. There are signs that the Taliban is despised even by many of its tribal Pushtun brethren in the south. Indeed, the first word concerning the fall of Kandahar was that anti-Taliban Pushtun forces unconnected to the Northern Alliance had seized the local airport.

But part of the infinite charm of the place is that all this may change next week or next month. Conditioned by millennia of tribal and ethnic conflict, the innumerable factions that populate Afghanistan are accustomed to changing up their allegiances with a speed and sang-froid that would leave Machiavelli dizzy. Consider the case of Abdul Rashid Dostum, the drug-trading Uzbek warlord who is one of the three generals credited with taking Mazar-e-Sharif for the Northern Alliance. An excellent piece on the NA in Egypt’s Al-Ahram Weekly summarizes Dostum’s career thus: “A powerful player in Afghanistan, Dostum is a political chameleon, having changed from fighting alongside Soviet forces to taking up arms [against them] with the mujahedin to allying with infamous extremist, Pakistani favorite and former Prime Minister Gulbiddin Hekmatyar, to joining [the Northern Alliance] Dostum is a wild card, not unlike many of the [Northern Alliance] factions.”

Do tell. The most intriguing dispatch to appear in the American press in recent days was an analysis piece by Mansoor Ijaz in Monday’s Los Angeles Times. Ijaz, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that he was recently told by Pakistani fundamentalists in his acquaintance about a private meeting of Afghanistan’s loya jirga assembly that transpired in Peshawar, Pakistan several weeks ago. There the various factions “seriously debated” a reconciliation between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance to combat any coalition Afghan government headed by the deposed and decrepit former king, Zaher Shah. Ijaz adds this footnote: “Credible reports from the region indicate that Northern Alliance warlords are secretly supplying the Taliban with war munitions at hyperinflated prices in a bid to keep all their options open. After all, power, no matter how small a slice, is the all-consuming end for these notoriously shifty characters.”

It’s a lovely bunch of folks we’ve climbed in bed with. Funny no one outside the Middle East has thought to ask who they are. Nyier Abdou, the journalist who authored the Al-Ahram Weekly piece, observes that Americans and Brits “hear terms like anti-Taliban and think of a tightly organized, finely honed fighting machine, just waiting for its chance to do what is right.” To the contrary, he writes: The NA are “a loosely knit collection of former mujahedin commanders, Taliban defectors, regional leaders and foes-cum-friends.” Ethnically speaking they comprise, most visibly, elements of Uzbek, Tajik, and Hazara origin; many of their factions are traditional enemies to each other, and more significantly they represent minority groups in Afghanistan, where a plurality of the populace, 40 percent or so, claims Pushtun tribal roots, as do the leaders of the Taliban. The NA’s ethnic minority status is one of the reasons no one thinks they can head a viable governing coalition.

Another reason is that they are easily as brutal as the Taliban. Upon taking Mazar the NA made it a first order of business to execute a hundred or so Pakistani youths who had emigrated to the city to train as Taliban troops. And yesterday the UK tabloid The Mirror contained graphic descriptions of what happened to the Taliban stragglers and sympathizers who crossed their path in Kabul: “The Taliban fighters were beaten until their heads caved in. In a traditional Afghan symbol of victory, 10,000 Afghani notes were stuffed into their mouths, noses and what remained of their skulls. Other victims had cigarette butts up their nostrils or their limbs hacked away.”

But there were only a few dozen such casualties on day one in Kabul, so it was a moral victory of sorts for the West. The Northern Alliance has done much worse. When it controlled Kabul from 1992-1996, tens of thousands were slaughtered-drowned in wells, shut inside air-tight containers to smother, lined up and shot into mass graves. The Al-Ahram Weekly story notes that Human Rights Watch has “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 sympathizers.” Casts rather a different light on all those men in Kabul who shaved their beards, doesn’t it? One has to think a lot of them were simply trying to keep from being slaughtered as Taliban sympathizers.

So now what? The flight of the Taliban has left the U.S. in an awful mess. Whether they are licked or merely in hiding, they’ve left a vacuum in the seats of power. There is no semblance of a plan for a provisional government or for any peacekeeping force to hold the NA in check. It’s the Alliance’s ballgame for now, but they cannot hold the country ultimately. The longer they are allowed to remain, the hotter things will get for the U.S./U.K. axis and the Musharraf government in Pakistan. National borders notwithstanding, about half of Pushtuns live in Pakistan and half in Afghanistan, and neither country will stand for a government by the ethnic minority Alliance. Here’s Kim Sengupta of The Independent again: “Millions of ethnic Pushtuns, especially in North West Frontier Province, support the Taliban and vilify the Northern Alliance. Pakistan will have to reckon with their anger. Taliban commanders and their feared Arab comrades may take refuge in the rugged hills on the Pakistani side of the border, complicating the internal security problems there.” In fact there are several scenarios-a continued power vacuum in Kabul, popular outrage in Pakistan over the composition of a transitional government, or renewed guerrilla strikes by the Taliban-that could carry the war right across the border into Pakistan and topple the government there, affording us all a chance to find out firsthand just how fail-safe the components of their nuclear arsenal really are.

If there is a bright side to the past week’s events, it is that the Taliban retreat makes it much easier to carry food and medicine into Afghanistan-though it remains doubtful whether the U.S. will allow much of it to be distributed in the south, where it’s most needed, until the Bush administration is sure the Taliban is vanquished for good. Odds are the aid shipments will continue to be stinted. In the main, what the U.S. has purchased so far with its support of the Northern Alliance is a very large headache.

As for tracking down Osama bin Laden-remember him?-American officials admit their efforts have so far come to nothing. We can bomb all we like, but as a former secretary of the Army admitted on Fox News this morning, we won’t find Osama unless someone in his inner circle gives him up. CP

Steve Perry writes frequently for CounterPunch and is a contributor to the excellent cursor.org website, which offers incisive coverage of the current crisis. He lives in Minneapolis, MN.

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