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Few political movements have come so far so fast. A month ago, the Northern Alliance was clinging on by its fingertips in a few strongholds amid the crags of the Hindu Kush mountains. Today, it is master of Kabul, seems about to take Kunduz and is preparing to attend talks with other Afghan leaders in Bonn on Monday. The aim is to set up an interim government for Afghanistan, uniting all factions and ethnic groups.
The conference is unlikely to succeed. The Northern Alliance is not eager to share power. Its leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, newly arrived in Kabul from the mountain fastness where he has lived for the last few years, says the meeting in Bonn will be “symbolic”. He wants substantive talks about sharing power to take place in Afghanistan, probably in Kabul, under the guns of his triumphant soldiers.
And it is the guns which will count. They are the symbol of the new Afghanistan just as they were of the old. Stalin’s wartime jibe about the importance of the Vatican – “How many divisions has the Pope” – is wholly true of Afghan politics. Plans to bring back King Zahir after 28 years in exile will founder on the fact that he has no armed force at his command. Even if he were to return, he would be a puppet in somebody’s hands.
The problem facing the Northern Alliance today is similar to that which faced the Taliban until a few days ago. Its base is too narrow for it to hold on to the power it has seized. The Taliban was able to capture 90 per cent of Afghanistan because of Pakistani and Saudi backing. The Northern Alliance has been able to make its great advances this month only because of the US air offensive.
The Northern Alliance was extraordinarily skilful in seizing the opportunity presented by the devastating attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 11 September. Just two days before, it had lost Ahmad Shah Masood, its military leader, when two assassins, pretending to be television journalists, blew him up during an interview.
But within days of this disaster, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the suave opthalmologist who is the foreign minister of the Northern Alliance, was arranging for helicopter loads of journalists to be ferried to the Panjshir valley just north of Kabul. In a world hungry for news about Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance received massive publicity. It has never looked back.
It was an incident over the Japanese pick-up truck I hired, soon after reaching the Panjshir, to take me to the different battlefronts, that brought home to me how weak the Northern Alliance really was. The truck and its driver cost $100 a day, the high price being fixed by the Northern Alliance Foreign Ministry. The arrangement worked. The driver was good and the pick-up did not break down on the horrible Afghan roads.
One day, however, a dozen angry soldiers arrived at the house I had rented with some other journalists. Their commander, a tough-looking man in his thirties called Abdul Rashid, explained the reason for their fury. He said the truck I was using belonged to him. He had captured it personally from the Taliban in a battle three years before. The money he received from me paid for food for himself and 40 men he commanded.
“We have no other income,” Abdul Rashid said. “Without the money for the truck we will starve.” It turned out that the reason he was so angry was that the Foreign Ministry wanted as many people as possible to benefit from the money being paid by foreign journalists. They intended to supply me with a different driver and vehicle. The commander wanted me to join him in a joint protest to the Foreign Ministry, something I refused to do.
Men like Abdul Rashid, after years of war and poverty in the mountains, will not easily share power with anybody. And it is local military commanders such as him, like knights in the Middle Ages in Europe, who are the building blocks of political power in Afghanistan. It is the defection or sudden neutrality of these professional soldiers, who have often fought since their early teens, which determines the outcome of battles in Afghanistan.
In such a militarised society, stability is difficult to achieve because the threat of armed force is always just beneath the surface. It is exacerbated by deep ethnic divisions. The Pashtuns, on whom the Taliban relied, make up 42 per cent of the population. The Tajiks (25 per cent) and the Uzbeks (8 per cent) generally stand behind the Northern Alliance. Massacres, particularly around the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, have exacerbated ethnic hatreds over the past five years. Already the Hazara, Shia Muslims of Mongolian ancestry, who make up 19 per cent of the population, are protesting at the Tajik takeover of Kabul.
But there are also some reasons for optimism. Afghans are intensely war weary. There is a deep desire for a normal life at every level. Afghans with university education complain that their children are barely literate because the schools have been destroyed. In the fertile lands of the Shomali plains north of Kabul, the fields watered by rivers flowing out of the Hindu Kush, local doctors say that 80 per cent of the children are malnourished.
Afghans know that they now have an unprecedented opportunity to obtain foreign aid, but that this requires some form of civil peace.
The external pressures on Afghanistan should also be less. The Northern Alliance may exaggerate the degree to which the Taliban was a catspaw of Pakistani intelligence – but only by a little bit. Iran and Russia, the traditional backers of the Northern Alliance, will also want to expand their influence, but this is likely to be pacific. Neither wants a confrontation with the US.
Power in Afghanistan is fragmented and will remain so. Even villages behave like independent republics. A foreign peace-keeping force might help to reduce the friction between different parties, armies and ethnic groups. But, as the UN discovered in Somalia, failure to be seen as wholly neutral would have disastrous results.