Hopes rise among Afghan opposition

Northern Alliance says Taliban can be beaten with help of U.S., Russia

October 01, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan - A leader of the Afghan opposition to the ruling Taliban regime said yesterday that his forces have been strengthened by fresh military support from Moscow, increased contacts with Washington and the expectation that the United States will soon launch a military attack.

Predicting that a U.S.-led attack could take place within days, Abdullah Abdullah, minister of foreign affairs for the Northern Alliance, said any strike should be powerful and decisive.

"For years, our people have suffered under terrorism and factionalism," said Abdullah, whose coalition has been fighting the Taliban for control of Afghanistan for the past six years. Now, he said, there is a chance to rally all of Afghanistan's tribal factions around one goal. "The objective should be the eradication of terrorism in Afghanistan," he said.

A few weeks ago, the Northern Alliance's prospects looked dim. The Taliban had pushed the fractured group - also called the United Front - into small pockets of Afghanistan, the war was at a stalemate and two men posing as journalists used a bomb to assassinate the group's charismatic military commander.

After the hijackers' assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, though, the Northern Alliance suddenly had a powerful potential ally. The United States suspects Osama bin Laden of masterminding the attacks and accuses the Taliban of sheltering him and his terrorist networks.

Now, the Northern Alliance says there are thousands of deserters from the ranks of the Taliban. Some refugees from the Afghan capital, Kabul, say the Taliban leaders are rounding up people suspected of opposing them and throwing them into prison or killing them.

In talking with reporters yesterday, Abdullah would not explain how the 15,000 guerrillas and the world's sole superpower might work together.

Despite reports that U.S. special forces are operating inside Afghanistan, he said none are in areas controlled by the United Front.

Abdullah faced awkward questions yesterday about comments from other coalition leaders. One said he would turn and fight against the United States if American forces were to remain in Afghanistan after the Taliban is overthrown. Another reportedly said that the number of contacts with Washington has dwindled in recent days.

"We have to discuss it between ourselves," he said.

For the Northern Alliance, any military cooperation with the United States carries risks.

Not only would such a coalition anger militant Muslims outside Afghanistan, it could undermine support within the country among people who fear that the United States might try to take control of the country. Afghans fought a bloody war against occupying Soviet forces from 1979 to 1989.

Washington could use the support of Afghan Muslims to defend itself against accusations that it is waging war on Islam. And it might find the National Alliance useful as a military ally, even though the group has relatively few troops and controls less than 10 percent of the country.

But Washington must balance such potential benefits against the risk of being blamed for further misery in Afghanistan if the coalition were to disintegrate after assuming power.

Afghanistan is suffering from prolonged drought. Many Afghans have fled their homes, fearing a U.S. attack. Aid officials have warned of an impending humanitarian disaster.

Abdullah assured reporters that the National Alliance is working to ensure a unified post-Taliban Afghanistan. Coalition leaders, he said, met again Saturday with Afghanistan's exiled king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, in Rome.

Abdullah's comments followed a meeting here yesterday with Francesc Vendrell, the personal representative of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to Afghanistan.

Vendrell met with the king last week in Rome. In brief comments yesterday, Vendrell said the United Nations wants "a situation in which we leave the Afghan people the opportunity to decide their own future."

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