Afghans in exile consider future

Pashtuns in Pakistan want leadership role if the Taliban fall

War On Terrorism

November 12, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QUETTA, Pakistan - To Haji Abdul Ghafoor, the latest word from the war in Afghanistan is a case of good news-bad news.

The good news is that Taliban defenses appear to be crumbling in northern Afghanistan.

"We are happy," Ghafoor said, smiling.

The bad news is that the advancing army is the Northern Alliance, led by ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.

"We are worried," Ghafoor said, frowning.

As a member of the Pashtun - Afghanistan's largest ethnic group - Ghafoor feels a certain sense of entitlement when it comes to governing major portions of his homeland, especially the capital city of Kabul.

He ran the airport there, in 1972, during the reign of Afghanistan's former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, who is from the same tribe. Lately, he has been back in touch with the king, now living in exile in Rome, as one of many trying to figure out who will rule, and how it will be done, if and when the Taliban are vanquished.

So, while he'd like to see the Taliban exit the stage, Ghafoor doesn't want it to happen until his group has prepared properly for its grand entrance.

"We have still not gotten the signals we need from our elders in Afghanistan," he said. "The negotiations are still going on."

And with each day of delay, the no-talk, no-nonsense Northern Alliance creeps farther down another highway toward Kabul, in the heart of the so-called "Pashtun belt" draped across Afghanistan and western Pakistan.

While ethnic Pashtuns have provided most of the muscle for the Taliban, many have chafed under their restrictive rule. Pashtuns were long accustomed to a looser brand of tribal dominion from the days before 1979, when the Soviet invasion set off fighting that has never really stopped.

But as is the case with most prominent anti-Taliban Pashtuns, Ghafoor has sat out the most recent installment of his country's 22-year war, after the Taliban's push to power in 1996.

The past five years of watching his country's affairs from across the border in Pakistan have forced him to a more broad-minded view about who should govern, and that expansiveness was on display yesterday in his living room.

His six guests, there to discuss the issues of the day, included three Hazaras, a religious minority comprising about 20 percent of the Afghan population, and a component of the Northern Alliance. Like Ghafoor, they would like to return home with a stake in their governance, and he insists that that's OK by him.

"We are in touch with everyone," he says of his network of contacts in and out of Afghanistan. "There are Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek, Pashtun. They are all in touch with us."

In contrast with what the Northern Alliance has been able to accomplish in the past few days, such meetings have a distinct air of wishful thinking - men seated on carpets, nodding and sipping tea amid clouds of cigarette smoke, awaiting the latest word from couriers who slip across the border.

The hot topic yesterday was the continuing mission of Pashtun tribal leader Hamid Karzai, who for more than a month has been darting about southern Afghanistan as the king's envoy, trying to rally a political second front against the Taliban.

But Karzai also realizes that he is playing catch-up to the Northern Alliance, telling an interviewer yesterday on the British Broadcasting Corporation's Pashto-language service that, while happy that Taliban forces are in retreat, he hopes the Northern Alliance will go easy on Pashtuns in their newly conquered lands, even those who'd been fighting for the Taliban.

"The thing is," his brother Ahmed Karzai said last night in Quetta, "people are hoping they don't take Kabul. And that's my family's concern, too. It would be a big mess."

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