Pashtun rising in the south, U.S. says

New Afghan rebels allay fears of rule by the Northern Alliance

War On Terrorism : The World

November 15, 2001|By Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman | Mark Matthews and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The emergence of new anti-Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan yesterday eased fears in Washington that the Northern Alliance would try to impose its rule on the country and prevent formation of a broad-based government.

A day after fleeing the capital, Kabul, Taliban forces showed signs of losing control over key areas of the south - their main stronghold and the home of Afghanistan's dominant Pashtun ethnic group, according to reports from the region.

Vice President Dick Cheney, in Washington, said the Taliban "is in retreat virtually all over the country."

In London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Parliament: "It is now clear that the Taliban have been decisively defeated across Afghanistan."

While Northern Alliance forces are now operating in about half the country, many of Afghanistan's two dozen or so Pashtun tribes in the south are now rising up against the Taliban, the Pentagon said.

"Anti-Taliban opposition groups in southern Afghanistan are rebelling against Taliban control," said Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "It's not clear to us whether they have, in fact, taken the airport at Kandahar," the spiritual and military center of the Taliban regime.

Until yesterday, the war on the ground had been fought almost solely by the minority Northern Alliance, with substantial help from American air power.

At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher said the apparent breakdown of Taliban control in the south meant that "other Pashtun leaders are emerging in the southern areas as well."

There are, he said, "a number of Afghan leaders that have important roles in this process, and our intention is to work with all of them as we and the United Nations and others try to help them put together political arrangements in the future."

Since taking over Kabul on Tuesday, the Northern Alliance has acted as if it intends to set itself up as Afghanistan's ruling body, in defiance of demands by the United States, its allies and the United Nations that the country's new government be broadly representative of all ethnic and political groups except the Taliban.

The alliance, composed of minority Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras, has occupied ministry buildings, and its civilian leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani, has announced his intention to go to Kabul. He also has said that Afghanistan's exiled king, Zahir Mohammad Shah, whom the West views as a central unifying figure, would be welcome back only as a citizen.

"The whole [Northern Alliance] government's sitting there" in Kabul, said Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "It's a frontal attack upon the American strategy. The ability to operate in the south is grossly affected by this."

But a senior U.S. official said: "Just because they got to Kabul first doesn't mean they're going to be the government. There will be others who emerge in coming days who deserve a seat at the table, too."

The sweeping success of the Northern Alliance has caused alarm in neighboring Pakistan, which fears the group will launch bloody attacks against Pashtuns and create a government unfriendly to Pakistan. The Taliban, with whom Pakistan had good relations until Sept. 11, come from the Pashtun ethnic group.

Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, spoke by telephone yesterday with Blair, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Diplomatic sources said American officials assured Pakistan that the United States would act to restrain the Northern Alliance and that U.S. special forces, already in Kabul, had been instructed to "keep an eye" on alliance behavior.

U.S. officials played a lead role yesterday in drafting a U.N. Security Council resolution that includes what one Western diplomat called "a sharp reminder" to the alliance not to pre-empt efforts to set up a broadly representative government.

U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is preparing to summon leaders of most Afghan factions to a meeting, probably in the United Arab Emirates, to begin forming an interim two-year government. Believing that Afghans are capable of governing themselves with outside support, he derailed earlier proposals to install a large U.N. administrative apparatus to run the country.

Meanwhile, the United States and its allies are wrestling over what kind of international security force should be sent to areas abandoned by the Taliban. The latest plan calls for U.S. and British forces already in the region to be dispatched as needed to keep order, to be supplemented later by troops from Germany, Turkey, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Jordan, diplomats said.

Despite what appeared to be the near-defeat of the Taliban, Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld cautioned that the war is far from over.

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