Envoys, military at odds in war

While armed forces aid Afghan alliance, diplomats oppose it

Unprecedented complexity

War On Terrorism

October 28, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As the United States military provides on-again, off-again support for Afghanistan's multi-ethnic Northern Alliance, diplomats are working to prevent the alliance from eventually seizing power.

The uneasy U.S. relationship with the alliance, a collection of rebel groups from minority Afghan tribes, typifies a recurring tug-and-pull between diplomacy and the military effort in America's 6-week-old anti-terror campaign.

The alliance's immediate battlefield requirements at times run counter to coalition-building and a long-term effort to stabilize the war-ravaged nation.

The problem won't diminish over time, even if the U.S.-led campaign succeeds in toppling the Taliban government, destroying the local infrastructure of the al-Qaida terror network and possibly capturing its leader, Saudi exile Osama bin Laden.

It will take "exquisite diplomacy" to move on to future phases of the anti-terror campaign, including breaking up al-Qaida's worldwide network, targeting other international terror groups and perhaps bringing down the regimes that support them, such as Iraq's, said Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser in the first Bush administration.

"This is as complicated a war as the U.S. has ever been in. Every step we take in one direction, we potentially antagonize someone else," Scowcroft said.

The strange-bedfellow relationship with the Northern Alliance is necessitated by the absence of other key partners that the United States could use in driving out the Taliban - and by a well-founded reluctance in Washington to commit U.S. ground troops on a grand scale to a drawn-out war in Afghanistan's mountains, plains and cities.

The United States has been unsuccessful in its attempts to foster large-scale defections from the Taliban. Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon last week that he was surprised by the tenacity with which the Taliban were clinging to power.

Neither has a significant fighting force emerged among opponents of the Taliban within the Pashtun ethnic group, Afghanistan's largest, making up 38 percent to 45 percent of the nation's 25 million people. One hope, exiled Pashtun leader Abdul Haq, was executed Friday by the Taliban.

The Northern Alliance, despite its claim to represent a world-recognized Afghan government, inspires little confidence as a force that would be capable or worthy of leading a postwar Afghanistan.

Also, though elements of the alliance have the backing of regional powers such as Russia, Iran, India and the five Central Asian republics, it is opposed by neighboring Pakistan, the principal U.S. ally in the region.

`Anti-West' views

Under the titular leadership of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former professor at Kabul University, the alliance is a grouping of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazzara tribesmen and warlords who were clinging to control of less than 10 percent of the country before the U.S.-led military campaign began three weeks ago.

Peter Tomsen, special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992, said Rabbani has a record of being "very anti-American and anti-West." He publicly supported Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf war in 1991 and was among the "rejectionists" who attended a conference to oppose the 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians, Tomsen said. Rabbani also has bad relations with the Tajiks, his alliance partners.

The alliance's charismatic military chief, Ahmed Shah Massood, was fatally wounded by Arabs posing as journalists Sept. 9, two days before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Though united in their opposition to the Taliban, alliance members have fought among themselves in the past. Their four-year rule of Afghanistan from 1992 to 1996 left behind a trail of human rights abuses, including rape, torture and widespread killing of civilians, and extensive destruction in the capital, Kabul.

2 records of abuse

The State Department's human rights report for 1995 made little distinction between the scale of abuses carried out by the Taliban and those carried out by factions loosely under alliance control.

"The various armed factions were often responsible for assassinations, indiscriminate lethal shelling of civilians, torture, rapes, looting and kidnappings for ransom," the report said.

During an attack by Massoud's forces on a Kabul neighborhood occupied by ethnic Hazzaras, who practice the same Shia form of Islam that most Iranians do, "Massoud's troops went on a rampage, systematically looting whole streets and raping women," the report said.

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