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9/11: Unholy alliance

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Unholy alliance

West's new allies include vitriolic anti-Americans, human-rights violators, former allies of Osama bin Laden and more ...

Thomas Walkom

freemasons, freemasonry

FALLEN LEADER: A portrait of assassinated Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massood looks out from bullet-shattered windshield


NORTHERN ALLIANCE: U.S officials are hinting they'll provide weapons to the estimated 15,000 troops of the alliance.


THE WEST'S NEW ALLIES: Northern Alliance troops form ranks at a former Soviet army air force base at Baghram.


EARLY DAYS: Ahmed Shah Massood gestures with outstretched arm as he rallies his followers at Rokkeh, north of Kabul.

THE WEST'S new Afghan friends in the war against terrorism and the Taliban are a curious lot. They include Islamic fundamentalists, vitriolic anti-Americans, human-rights violators, one-time allies of Osama bin Laden and soldiers of the former communist regime.

Officially, they are known as the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan. Unofficially, they call themselves the Northern Alliance.

The terror attacks on the United States have given them a boost in their five-year-old war against the Taliban, the hard-line Islamic regime that rules almost all of Afghanistan.

Already, U.S officials are hinting they'll provide weapons to the alliance's estimated 15,000 troops, on top of the non-military aid Washington has been giving since 1998.

Western journalists, too, have rediscovered the alliance and are busy reporting on what some are already calling Afghanistan's new freedom fighters.

But the history of the key players in the Northern Alliance suggests they may prove difficult allies in the U.S.-led war against terror. An uneasy coalition, bound as much by mutual hatred as by dislike of the ruling Taliban, their relations with one another over the past decade have been marked by treachery, backstabbing and a level of deviousness so profound that the word Byzantine cannot do it justice.

"They may not be perfect," acknowledges Mike Vickers, a former officer with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and now director of strategic studies for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgeting Assessments. "But the Northern Alliance does have some good elements."

At times, those good elements are hard to find.

Senior members of the alliance, including former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani and northern warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, a key ally of the Soviet Union during that country's attempt to occupy Afghanistan, have been cited by the U.S. for human-rights abuses.

Deputy-premier Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, the alliance's number two political figure, is a hard-line, vehemently anti-American Islamic fundamentalist who is so strict on the subject of separation of the sexes that, according to one Associated Press report, he won't even speak to women.

Yet another figure in the alliance, eastern warlord Haji Abdul Qadir, was Osama bin Laden's first sponsor in Afghanistan when the Saudi millionaire already wanted at the time by the U.S. for his alleged involvement in anti-American terrorist attacks fled to that country in 1996. At different times, both Rabbani and Dostum have found themselves in informal alliances with the Taliban and occasionally against each other.

At other times, the various factions have cheerfully massacred one another. In 1993, according to the non-governmental organization, Human Rights Watch, Rabbani's Society of Islam killed 70 to 100 members of the Hazara minority linked to the rival Party of Islamic Unity, another member of the Northern Alliance.

Two years later, according to the U.S. State Department, Rabbani forces under the command of Ahmed Shah Massood (celebrated by Western journalists as the "Lion of the Panjshir" until his untimely assassination last month) went on another anti-Hazara rampage "systematically looting whole streets and raping women."

As for the shifting loyalties of the Northern Alliance members, these are so numerous as to make the head ache.

In 1994, Rabbani's Society of Islam was informally allied to the Taliban in an effort to defeat the rival Party of Islam of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Islamic fundamentalist who, during the decade-long war against the Soviet Union, had been sponsored by the CIA.

A year later, Rabbani and Hekmatyar allied with each other to fight the Taliban.

And now Hekmatyar, in exile in Iran, is opposed to both Rabbani and the Taliban.

Dostum's career is even more complicated. From 1979 to 1992, he was allied with the communist government in Kabul. As that government was about to fall, Dostum switched loyalties to join the anti-communist mujahideen "freedom fighters."

When the various mujahideen factions had a falling out, he first allied himself with Rabbani to fight Hekmatyar. Later, he joined Hekmatyar to fight Rabbani.

By 1995, he was supporting the Taliban against both Hekmatyar and Rabbani. By 1996, he was allied with his two former enemies against the Taliban.

Up to now, the U.S. and other Western countries have kept a respectable distance from the Northern Alliance.

The United Nations recognizes Rabbani's Islamic State of Afghanistan as the legitimate government of the country. But except for India, Iran, Russia and a few Central Asian states, almost no one else does.

Neither Canada nor the U.S. has recognized any government in Afghanistan since 1979.

Then, there is the drug question. Until last year, about three-quarters of the world's heroin came from Afghanistan. Both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance used profits from opium production and drug smuggling to finance their war against each another.

Last July, in a move to win acceptance from the U.S., the Taliban banned opium production in the 95 per cent of Afghanistan it controls. While the U.S. was initially skeptical, it finally acknowledged this year that the Taliban proscription was working.

Much to the embarrassment of those who would support Rabbani's forces, however, the Northern Alliance merrily continues in the heroin trade.

According to the U.S. State Department, virtually the entire Afghan opium crop this year about 77 tonnes was grown in territories controlled by the alliance. Russian media report that the heroin manufactured from that opium is smuggled to Europe and America through neighbouring states such as Tajikistan.

To the outsider, the convoluted interrelations of the Northern Alliance might seem pure pathology.

But those who know Afghanistan say the alliance's history and indeed the history of the Taliban can be understood only in light of the country's tribal, ethnic and social divisions.

Afghanistan is a melange of peoples. The largest group, the Pashtun, who inhabit the southern parts of the country near Pakistan, are thought to comprise anywhere from 40 to 60 per cent of the population.

Tajiks, who tend to live in the northeast, form the next largest group. Smaller minorities include the Hazara of the west (roughly 15 to 20 per cent) and the Uzbeks of the northwest.

Unlike most Afghanis (who are Sunni Muslims), the Hazara tend to be Shi'ite, with links to Iran. Traditionally, the Hazara have also faced more discrimination than the other groups.

For more than 100 years, a Pashtun clan, the Muhammadzai, dominated the country and provided the kings, including the current exiled monarch, Mohammed Zahir Shah.

The Muhammadzai also provided the governing elite, which made efforts, often bitterly opposed by religious conservatives, to make Afghanistan more closely resemble the West.

(In 1926, one king who tried to follow Turkey's lead by requiring women to give up the burqa, or head-to-toe veil, was forced to flee the country).

"The government in Afghanistan was like a club for the Muhammadzais," noted Barnett Rubin, an expert on the region and head of New York University's Center on International Co-operation, in an interview with the U.S.-based Asia Society this year.

"This is why so many other newly educated elites who were not Muhammadzais resented them and became Islamists or radical nationalists or communists or Maoists."

Meanwhile, in the countryside, local tribal leaders and, to a lesser extent, local religious leaders remained powerful.

Tensions finally came to a head in 1973. The king was deposed by his cousin, Mohammed Daoud, who proclaimed a republic and began with the help of the U.S. and the Soviet Union to accelerate the pace of reform.

Daoud's move met instant opposition. Islamists including Rabbani, Hekmatyar and Massood fled to Pakistan to plot against the regime.

Pakistani authorities, alarmed by Daoud's support for carving out an independent Pashtun state in their country, eagerly welcomed the Islamist dissidents.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, other anti-Daoud forces, including many in the military, coalesced around what was, in effect, the Communist party.

In 1978, the more radical wing of the communists seized power in a military coup. Their ambitious social and land reform plans, as well as their murderous repression of political enemies, sent the country spiralling into chaos.

A year later, the Soviets invaded and installed in power the more moderate, pro-Moscow wing of the Communist party. That only worsened the crisis. It also brought the U.S. into the fray as chief sponsor of the anti-Soviet mujahideen.

Whatever peace had existed among the country's competing groups evaporated during the bitter 10-year war.

Nominally, the mujahideen were all friends. In fact, there was constant friction. Rabbani and Massood were Tajiks.

Hekmatyar and his forces were Pashtun. Hazaras gravitated towards the Shi'ite Party of Islamic Unity, now controlled by Karim Khalili.

In the northwest, the country's Uzbek minority under Dostum made peace with the Soviets and war on the mujahideen.

Not only were the Uzbeks different ethnically, they also were less militantly Islamic. (Dostum himself drove an armoured Cadillac and vowed he would never bow to those who banned whiskey).

The Soviets withdrew in 1989 and the communist government fell in 1992. It was at this point that the pent-up ethnic, regional and religious tensions spilled into view.

At one level, the complex series of alliances and betrayals among the mujahideen factions, the Taliban and Dostum's Uzbeks that characterize the past nine years boiled down to simple turf protection.

Each faction had its own base. The point was to oppose anyone who threatened it. For each faction, today's ally could always be tomorrow's enemy.

Vickers, the former CIA agent, acknowledges the difficulty of backing a Northern Alliance that isn't really an alliance.

But, he says, the U.S. doesn't have much choice.

"The Taliban is the central objective here. Air power won't deal with them. We will need ground forces.

"The question is: Whose ground forces? That's why the opposition looks attractive ....

"They may not be perfect. But the question is: Is it better to use them or to use Western ground troops?"

Ultimately, however, Vickers and other analysts say the problem the U.S. faces is political.

To Afghanistan's biggest ethnic group, the Pashtun, the Northern Alliance is a melange of old tribal enemies.

"It's not that they (the alliance) are horrible," says Vickers." You don't have to demonize them to see that (without a Pashtun component) it won't work."

Presumably, this is what the deposed king is supposed to offer: Mohammed Zahir Shah is Pashtun.

But the 86-year-old ex-monarch has been away from the action for 28 years and, as Vickers points out, the king's Muhammadzai clan was "not great to the minorities."

Still, there appears to be no other anti-Taliban Pashtun leader on the scene who is even remotely credible.

Would Afghanistan be better off with the Taliban replaced by the alliance?

Vickers, expressing the common wisdom, says it couldn't be worse.

But others point out that the position of women, for instance, is not expected to improve greatly under a Northern Alliance government.

They note that Sayyaf, in particular, tried to introduce his rigorous brand of Islamic law to the parts of Afghanistan he and Rabbani controlled well before the Taliban became a force.

In 1992, for instance, when Rabbani, Sayyaf, Massood and other mujahideen finally captured the country's cosmopolitan capital, Kabul, one of their first acts was to ban the use of female newsreaders on television.

Two years later, and still before the Taliban took Kabul, the United Nations reported that women in the capital were being told to quit their jobs and wear the full-length burqa.

Women who didn't comply were liable to be raped by members of the various mujahideen militias that prowled the city.

Ironically, Afghan women did better in Western terms under the communist government that the West so vehemently opposed. Still, as far as the war against terrorism goes, the welfare of Afghanistan is seen as secondary.

The point is to get bin Laden.

"I don't want more civil war," says Vickers. "But I suppose even chaos is better than what we have."

Further Reading:

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