Too speedy an advance

Afghanistan: U.S. clients make military gains for which they are not politically ready.

November 13, 2001

THE COLLAPSE of Taliban rule in non-Pashtun parts of Afghanistan adds urgency to the effort to create a broad-based alternative capable of winning acceptance and establishing stable interim government.

Two months of frantic networking has not kept pace with the U.S. bombing that enabled the Northern Alliance offensive now gathering momentum.

More victories can be expected in the north, center and west of the country where Uzbeks, Tajiks or Hazaras predominate. There the Taliban, all young Pashtun, have been unwelcome rulers, hostile to local custom and language.

But that would not give the Northern Alliance entry to the Pashtun belt running along the border with Pakistan. Tajik and Uzbek warlords left a trail of atrocities there and in Kabul in the early 1990s. They would be as unwelcome as the Taliban have been in Herat and Mazar-e Sharif.

The U.S. and British governments have warned their Northern Alliance clients not to enter the great ethnic mosaic of Kabul until an interim regime is ready. The danger is that as Northern Alliance forces invest Kabul, the Taliban may melt away, leaving an anarchic void. The Northern Alliance would then enter the capital, ready or not.

So far, the hope of establishing a fit partner to the alliance from the Pashtun two-fifths of the population rests on the valiant Hamid Karzai. This pillar of the old establishment has been eluding Taliban hunters, rekindling clan loyalties in the name of the exiled king.

The difficulty in cobbling an Afghan alliance mirrors the challenge to Secretary of State Colin Powell. He must keep Pakistan, protector of the Pashtuns, on the same page with India, Iran, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, sponsors of the Northern Alliance. The United States needs them all (Iran indirectly) for war and for the subsequent peace.

Aged King Mohammed Zahir Shah in Rome, the Northern Alliance and former Pashtun leaders in Pakistan all talk the game of broad-based coalition. But not to each other in the same room.

Washington needs to bang heads. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, are trying to assemble appropriate Afghan representatives somewhere in Europe in the next few days.

Afghanistan won't wait. It may soon split in two. The forces the United States supports will win it all eventually. They must be up to that responsibility. They were not in the early 1990s, and they are not ready now.

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