Maclean’s SPECIAL REPORT

WAITING FOR UNCLE SAM'S HELP

Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance needs U.S. aid to turn the tide

ARTHUR KENT October 22 2001
Maclean’s SPECIAL REPORT

WAITING FOR UNCLE SAM'S HELP

Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance needs U.S. aid to turn the tide

ARTHUR KENT October 22 2001

WAITING FOR UNCLE SAM'S HELP

Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance needs U.S. aid to turn the tide

ARTHUR KENT

Last Sunday marked the close of the first week since history’s greatest superpower began trying its hand at the art of war in Afghanistan. With tangible evidence of progress as thin on the ground as high-value targets of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda quarry, it’s tempting to reach for the history books and start thumbing through the feats and follies of Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan or the 19th-century English and 20th-century Soviet empires, to see how these past masters, too, came to regret trying to redesign the nature of this extraordinarily wild frontier.

But that would be premature. Because in the case of the Taliban, the Bush administration has picked a fight with an adversary whose time—as the first defections from its ranks last week demonstrated—is already up. After only two days of bombing, it was not only the improving aim of the Taliban’s enemies, the Northern Alliance, but also weak knees among many of its own allies, the tribes and local militias Mullah Omar and his cohorts have relied upon for their staying power until now, that set off the beginnings of a meltdown—a rot from within the extremist regime.

But questions remain: will the U.S.-led coalition agree to let the most seasoned, capable ground forces in the theatre, and the only ones with real knowledge of Afghanistan, play a full role? And will those forces, the Northern Alliance, be in a position anytime soon to capitalize fully on the blast waves that have shaken the Taliban?

On both counts, the answer’s a stuttering maybe. The Bush administration’s tepid attitude towards the Northern Alliance reveals Washington’s preference to look to Pakistan for significant, perhaps decisive, influence in shaping a post-Taliban government. And, true to form, Pakistan’s military has been bad-mouthing the Northern Alliance as grasping, unrepresentative warlords whose return to power in Kabul would trigger further conflict.

Shah Alum, now a dapper Northern Alliance official, was formerly a field commander in one of the toughest sectors of the battlefront in Takhar province, the district of Khalifghan. Late last week he said, “We have received no new equipment from the United States, not a single bullet. The Americans are following their own plan: they’re only bombing the cities, not targeting the Taliban on the front line where it would help us gready.” Despite reliable reports of substantial advances by Northern Alliance forces in several remote provinces of the country, made possible by defections among formerly pro-Taliban forces, the Alliance had still not received enough in the way of weapons and offensive co-ordination with the Americans to give them the decisive advantage they currently lack.

For example, the Northern Alliance’s leading commander in the West, Ismael Khan, appears to have secured two provinces that will be key to the drive to capture his main objective, the city of Iderat. Ismael Khan had been poised, since this past summer, to take both provinces, Badghis and Ghor, and his seizing of the initiative created by the U.S. attacks confirms his longstanding reputation as the biggest, most effective anti-Taliban player in the northwest.

Further to the east, other Northern Alliance commanders have won strategic advantage, if not complete control, of another two provinces, Samangan and Baghlan, that will be vital in any final assault on the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. In the former, the coaxing away from the Taliban of some 1,200 local fighters enabled Northern Alliance forces to cut off the only remaining road connection to Mazar from Kabul, the capital, in the south. In neighbouring Baghlan province, Alliance groups from the northeastern homelands of the slain commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud, successfully deployed new artillery, purchased from Russia earlier this year, to push the Taliban farther north towards their other main urban stronghold in the region, Kunduz.

While neither Mazar nor Kunduz will be a pushover for the Northern Alliance, the Taliban garrisons in the two cities are now completely cut off from Kabul. Resupply is impossible, and communications with the leadership in both the capital and Kandahar, far to the southwest, has reportedly been badly disrupted by U.S. air strikes. But against this, the tortuously slow process of waging offensive warfare on Afghanistan’s hostile terrain, and the prospect of winter snows fast approaching, means there will likely be no swift, sure conquests of the three northern cities for the Northern Alliance.

Every rocket round, cannon shell and belt of ammunition for light machine-guns must be hauled over mountain tracks that will soon succumb to winter rains and sleet. Mud and ice-slick rock will frustrate the armies scrambling across the landscape: all of them are now desperate to secure the best position possible before Afghanistan’s heavy snows bring autumn fighting season to a halt.

As isolated and threatened as Taliban forces might be in the north, their enemy on the ground was not yet receiving the weaponry, transport, food or clothing— „ much less operational support—that would make I dramatic advances possible before winter. While U.S. transport planes have begun regular flights in to airbases in Uzbekistan, there were no visible signs of large-scale movements of arms or equipment across the border to Northern Alliance-held territory.

In Dushanbe, the Alliance’s military attaché and his staff met for two days last week with U.S. and Russian delegations, and a highly placed source at the Northern Alliance embassy in the Tajikistan capital told Macleans that the Americans in particular are signalling that more support will be forthcoming. As astonishing as it is that the Pentagon launched its air war prior to consolidating any kind of working relationship on the ground, its potential allies in Afghanistan are speaking softly and carefully. Rather than shouting their disappointment at getting the cold shoulder militarily, Northern Alliance leaders are gently, but publicly, reminding the Americans that no ground operations against either the Taliban or Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda can hope to be successful without the help and participation of alliance forces.

Their dilemma was personified last week by the visit of the Northern Alliance’s president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, to Dushanbe. Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov rolled out the red carpet for the Rabbani entourage, perhaps hoping to remind anyone watching from the outside world that the leader of his country’s principal Afghan ally remains a head of state—recognized, still, by the United Nations as president of his country, although he has been forced since the Taliban’s seizing of Kabul in 1996 to live in his shrinking dominion in Afghanistan’s mountainous northeast.

These have been hard years for Rabbani and his people. The smooth and handsome Tajik features of the young professor who rose to leadership of his moderately fundamentalist Jamiat Island party in the late 1970s now look pale and drawn. The dark beard that once framed his friendly, open smile is now as white as any snowfield in the Hindu Kush. But his eyes remain bright and hopeful, and he skilfully walked a political tightrope when he faced a gathering of journalists in Dushanbe. (This was no mean feat: some of those impatient, grumbling reporters had been waiting two weeks for a place on one of the infrequent helicopter flights into Afghanistan.)

Rabbani said he approved of the U.S. air strikes, but stressed that civilians mustn’t be targeted. In careful diplomatic language, he noted that he and his military leaders are still waiting for more help from Washington. He let it be known that the Northern Alliance realizes it hasn’t yet been fully taken in to the American’s game plan, and on this point, Rabbani let his indignation get the better of him. He reminded reporters that he and his defence minister, Ahmed Shah Massoud, had warned the U.S. for seven years about the dangers posed by the Taliban regime.

For those who have watched firsthand the Afghan tragedy unfold over the past two decades, there was a sense of déjà vu in the auditorium. The spectacle of one of the country’s best, most respected leaders waiting in vain for understanding and aid from the outside world is nothing new. Another Afghan who constantly ran up against Western indifference in his lifetime was the man who would have undoubtedly drawn quicker, surer support from the U.S. for the Northern Alliance: Ahmed Shah Massoud. The famed guerrilla leader once told me: “The Americans talk about assistance, but they haven’t done anything practical to help reduce the suffering of my people.” Massoud said that in 1986, 15 years before his assassination—by suicide bombers of the same terrorist organization that wrought havoc in New York City and Washington. Back then, he was bemoaning the fact that he was the last resistance commander fighting Soviet occupation forces to receive heatseeking Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. This, despite many Soviet generals acknowledging him, even then, as unquestionably the best of their mujahedeen foes. Then, as now, Massoud’s fighters and people placed a distant second to Afghan groups and personalities favoured by Pakistan, America’s pushy, stubbornly expansionist middleman in Washington’s adventures in Afghanistan.

As Rabbani made clear last week, the predominantly ethnic Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara people represented by the Northern Alliance have no desire to rule disproportionately over the mainly Pushtun south. Rabbani reiterated his support of the Rome process centred on the former king of Afghanistan, Mohammed Zahir Shah, a Pushtun, who offers at present the only feasible mechanism for drawing together the disparate peoples of the country. The Northern Alliance, Rabbani says, is prepared to do more than its share of the fighting, provided his people are granted a representative role in a future government.

In a region where intransigent, preposterously dogmatic factions have caused strife from Chechnya to Sri Lanka, and from the Middle East to China, the professor-turned-president presents a modest and rational, if only partial, alternative for Afghanistan. But, like trying to determine exactly when the first big snowfalls will choke down on these mountainous battlegrounds, judging when or if the Bush administration will wrap Rabbani’s Northern Alliance fully in to its war plan remains guesswork.

At the same time, the lack of any quick, visible victories leaves one thing clear. Without large-scale ground assaults on fortified Taliban cities and positions, the American phase of the Afghan war could well be every bit as long and cold, as bloody and costly, as any of the tragic military misadventures that preceded it.