Afghan Northern Alliance makes a dangerous friend

October 17, 2001|By S. Frederick Starr

WASHINGTON -- Is our enemy's enemy necessarily our friend? Not in the case of the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban coalition that controls less than 10 percent of Afghanistan's territory.

Despite massive aid from Russia and Iran, this resistance movement seemed to be on the verge of collapse even before Osama bin Laden's hitmen killed its charismatic field commander, Gen. Ahmed Shah Massoud, only days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America that put the alliance back in the picture.

Now it is preparing to launch its own attack on Kabul, with or without a U.S. nod.

Shouldn't the United States welcome a takeover of the old Afghan capital by indigenous Afghan forces hostile to the Taliban?

Not really, considering the record of those forces as rulers and, more important, the symbolic message such a victory would send to the largest and most pivotal group in the Afghan population, the Pashtuns.

The Northern Alliance ruled a broad swath of Afghanistan's far north for several years after the Taliban gained control of the rest of the country in 1996.

Its Uzbek leader, Rashid Dostum, unleashed on his headquarters city, Mazar-i Sharif, a wave of craven brutality and human-rights abuses that compares with the Taliban's worst antics.

The Taliban cold-bloodedly massacred more than 100 Shiite Afghans shortly after a similar massacre by the Northern Alliance of Taliban supporters. Dostum followed these events from the comfort of his new villa, replete with indoor swimming pool.

Like the Taliban, the Northern Alliance has been actively involved in the production and distribution of opium. Unlike the Taliban, however, the Northern Alliance has made no effort to stop the traffic. Delegations sent by the U.N. and U.S. drug control agencies confirmed that the Taliban cut the cultivation of opium poppies by more than half in 1999-2000, and without a penny of international aid for compensatory payments to farmers. Far from doing the same, the Northern Alliance has taken advantage of the resulting shortfalls and rising prices to increase trafficking.

Like the Taliban, the Northern Alliance has aided and abetted terrorists. One of the three terrorist groups singled out by President Bush in his address to Congress was the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), now renamed the Islamic Party of Turkistan.

In two successive years, several thousand IMU guerrillas crossed from northern Afghanistan via Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan, Kazakstan and Uzbekistan. While supported actively by bin Laden, the IMU also gained the cooperation of the Northern Alliance, through whose territory it moved back and forth with impunity.

Tajiks in the Northern Alliance welcomed the IMU's targeting of Uzbekistan and also benefited from the IMU's close involvement with the drug trade. The IMU used $100,000 to bribe Russian troops nominally defending Tajikistan's borders against the IMU.

Probably the only thing positive that can be said of this sinister alliance among warlords from Afghanistan's north is that they oppose the Taliban. But even if they were squeaky clean, the biggest problem is they were funded and armed by the Russians, with help from Iran.

To most Afghans, and especially to the Pashtuns, whether they support or oppose the Taliban, the association with the Russians is a kiss of death. After all, the Russian invasion caused the slaughter of up to 1.5 million Afghans between 1979 and 1989.

The Northern Alliance's seizure of Kabul would reignite all the national passions that brought down the Red Army. And such a backlash would not be confined to Afghanistan. The 16 million Pashtuns in Pakistan would also take up arms, sowing instability in a nuclear power in ways the world has never seen. Pakistan's hostile neighbor, nuclear-armed India, could not stand idle in the face of such a threat.

In short, a successful Northern Alliance assault on Kabul could drive all Pashtuns back into the arms of the Taliban, turning against the United States tens of millions of people on whose good will the success of the American campaign depends.

Indeed, even the perception that the United States is cozying up too closely to the Northern Alliance could have this effect. Only by keeping our fingers off the scales and remaining above the intra-Afghani fray can we hope to play a decisive role in the final political resolution in that country.

Does this mean we should avoid contact with the Northern Alliance? Not at all. The alliance has an important role to play, along with other groups throughout Afghanistan.

More to the point, it is crucially important that each of the ethnic groups from which the Northern Alliance gains strength be fairly represented in any future Afghan government. Fortunately, both Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld are keenly aware of these realities. The challenge will be to make sure that general principles continue to guide our actual operations at both the military and diplomatic levels.

This won't be easy, for there is a big distance between the cup and the lip.

S. Frederick Starr is chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.