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Robert Fisk: What will the Northern Alliance do in our name now? I dread to think - 9/11

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The Independent

14 November 2001 00:00 GMT

Robert Fisk: What will the Northern Alliance do in our name now? I dread to think...

'Why do we always have this ambiguous, dangerous relationship with our allies?'

14 November 2001

It wasn't meant to be like this. The nice, friendly Northern Alliance, our very own foot-soldiers in Afghanistan, is in Kabul. It promised – didn't it? – not to enter the Afghan capital. It was supposed to capture, at most, Mazar-i-Sharif and perhaps Herat, to demonstrate the weakness of the Taliban, to show the West that its war aims – the destruction of the Taliban and thus of Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida movement – were inevitable.

The corpse of the old man in the centre of Kabul, executed by our heroes in the Alliance, was not supposed to be on television. Only two days ago, Alastair Campbell's 24-hour Washington-London-Islamabad "communication centre'' was supposed to counter Taliban propaganda. Now Mr Campbell must set up his team of propagandists in Kabul to fight the lies of our very own foot-soldiers of the Northern Alliance.

Was it not the US Secretary of State Colin Powell who assured General Musharraf of Pakistan the Alliance would be kept under control, that the United Nations' envoy, Lakhdar Ibrahimi, would be allowed to construct a truly representative government in Kabul to replace the Taliban?

General Musharraf had promised his support to the United States – at the risk of his nation and his life – in return for American promises that Afghanistan would be governed by a truly representative coalition. Pakistan's air bases, its very support for the "war on terrorism'', was contingent on Washington's word that the Northern Alliance would not take over Kabul and impose its own diktat on Afghanistan.

Yesterday, the pictures from Kabul were almost identical to the videotapes of April 1992 when the pro-Russians and Communists were defeated. We saw the same jubilation by the non-Pushtu population. And within two days, Hekmatyar Gulbeddin began to bomb the city. The division of ethnic groups plunged the Afghan capital into civil war. Yesterday, the Alliance was supposed to wait on the outskirts of the city while the Americans attempted to construct a workable coalition. But for the present, Afghanistan – without the Taliban – is a country without a government.

What on earth is going on? And what, for that matter, has happened to Mr bin Laden? Are we driving him into the mountains – always supposing he is not already there – or are we pushing him into the tribal areas of the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan? For without a city, the Taliban themselves will melt back into their birthplace, the madrassa schools along the Pakistan border which created the puritan, obscurantist spirit which has inspired the rulers of Afghanistan these past five years.

The Northern Alliance is advancing, meanwhile, with all its baggage of massacres and looting and rape intact. We have so idolised these gunmen, been so infatuated with them, supported them so unquestioningly, pictured them on television so deferentially that we are now immune to their history. So, perhaps, are they.

General Rashid Dostum, our hero now that he has recaptured Mazar-i-Sharif, is in the habit of punishing his soldiers by tying them to tank tracks and then driving the tanks around his barracks' square to turn them into mincemeat. You wouldn't have thought this, would you, when you heard the jubilant reports of General Dostum's victory on Monday night?

Nor would you have thought, listening to the reports from Afghanistan yesterday, that the Northern Alliance was responsible for more than 80 per cent of the drug exports from the country in the aftermath of the Taliban's prohibition of drug cultivation. I have a ghostly memory of writing this story before, not about the Taliban but about the KLA in Kosovo, a guerrilla army which was partly funded by drugs and which, once its political aspirations had been met by Nato's occupation of the Serbian province went on to become "terrorists'' (our former Foreign Secretary's memorable description) inside Macedonia. True, Nato's wheel of fortune moves in mysterious ways but it's not difficult to understand how our allies – praised rather than controlled – follow their own agenda.

Why, I wonder, do we always have this ambiguous, dangerous relationship with our allies? For decades, we accepted the received wisdom that the "B" specials were a vital security arm of the Northern Ireland authorities on the grounds that they "knew the territory" – just as, I fear, we rely upon the Northern Alliance because it "knows the land".

The Israelis relied upon their Phalangist militia thugs in Lebanon because the Christian Maronites hated the Palestinians. The Nazis approved of their Croatian Ustashi murderers in 1941 because the Ustashi hated the Serbs.

Is this, I ask myself, why the Northern Alliance is our friend? Not because it is a loyal ally but because it hates the Taliban? Not because it opposes poverty and destitution and the destruction of Afghanistan under an Islamic regime but because it says it loathes Osama bin Laden?

There are brave men in the Alliance, true. Its murdered leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, was an honourable man. It's not difficult to turn our allies into heroes.

But it remains a fact that from 1992 to 1996, the Northern Alliance was a symbol of massacre, systematic rape and pillage. Which is why we – and I include the US State Department – welcomed the Taliban when they arrived in Kabul. The Northern Alliance left the city in 1996 with 50,000 dead behind it. Now its members are our foot soldiers. Better than Mr bin Laden, to be sure. But what – in God's name– are they going to do in our name?

Further Reading:

F.·.W.·. Magazine || 9/11: The Archive - The 'Lighter' Side of the New World Order?