SPECIAL REPORT

SHIFTING ON THE FLY

The U.S. decides to support the Northern Alliance

ARTHUR KENT October 29 2001
SPECIAL REPORT

SHIFTING ON THE FLY

The U.S. decides to support the Northern Alliance

ARTHUR KENT October 29 2001

SHIFTING ON THE FLY

The U.S. decides to support the Northern Alliance

BY ARTHUR KENT in Afghanistan

It's far from home, the battlefield is huge and challenging, and the enemy, Al-Qaeda, is frustratingly hard to target. But much more than the forbidding military aspects of the American assault on Afghanistan, the political atmosphere swirling around the campaign is arguably the most turbu-

lent ever encountered by U.S. war planners. Somehow they have to plot a course through the storm of Afghanistan, while a tempest brews between Pakistan and India over Kashmir, and all of this on the jagged edges of the maelstrom of Israel and the Middle East. As they dispatch aircraft to nearly a dozen Afghan cities and fighting fronts, and deploy special forces on the ground in the desert southwest of the country, American generals have to watch their backs: at any moment, they might be drawn into other, potentially more lethal, conflicts.

So it’s not surprising, after two weeks of bombing the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, that the Bush administration and the Pentagon appear to be, at best, improvising on the move: at worst, making things up as they go along. Witness Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Ele and his team were loath at the outset to cast the U.S. as the air force of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. To the extent that the Alliances objectives overlapped with those of the United States, defence department officials said, the two were cooperating. Nothing more.

But by Day 12 of the campaign, the daunting prospects of a drawn-out war in such an unstable global climate had caused the Americans to think again. Of the forces fighting the Taliban on the ground, Rumsfeld said: “They’re going to have some help with food, they’re going to have some help with ammunition, they’re going to have some help with air support.”

The first opportunity to deliver on that promise is the battle for the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. By Oct. 16, three small Northern Alliance armies, the strongest led by Gen. Ahmed Rashid Dostum, had fought their way to the perimeter of the northern city’s airport—a crucial asset to the deployment, in the coming weeks, of U.S. and coalition aircraft and ground troops. When Taliban forces counterattacked, U.S. warplanes pitched into the battle as never before. Military officials of the Northern Alliance, speaking to Macleans off the record, indicated that American advisers and forward air controllers—in effect, target directors who help sharpen the aim of pilots flying overhead—have been present on the Mazar front for nearly two weeks.

North of Kabul, too, American jets pounded the Taliban’s forward positions on the Shomali plain. Northern Alliance forces, poised on the higher reaches of this bleak and windy battlefield, are itching for the order to advance beyond Bagram airport, much

of which they already control, towards the capital, some 40 km to the south.

The Americans’ rethink about aiding the Northern Alliance was prompted by a variety of factors. Credible reports of mounting civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes on Kabul, Jalalabad and other cities began to cast a pall over the entire endeavour. The righteous avengers of the Sept. 11 attacks in America were beginning to resemble pitiless aggressors. Perhaps the worst foul-up was the bombing of a warehouse belonging to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The warehouse, not far from Kabul’s airport, was one of the best-known facilities of the Red Cross: almost any journalist or aid worker who has spent more than a couple of weeks in the Afghan capital in the past decade has been there, photographing or assisting in the distribution of food to the city’s destitute population. That the U.S. military could have made such a gross error, irrespective of the Pentagon’s assertion that Taliban military vehicles were parked around the structure, illustrates the lack of basic information, not to mention tactical discretion, that the Americans have used in conducting some attacks. Could the taking out of a few trucks and troop carriers warrant the burning of a winter’s supply of food and clothing? Not in the minds of those trying to preserve human life in this tortured country.

The international aid community has demanded a respite from the air campaign so that food and clothing can be delivered before winter snows close Afghanistan’s feeble road network. More than a half-million people, they claim, will die of starvation or exposure if the West’s anti-terror agenda continues to take precedence over the rescue of Afghan families.

As if these imperatives weren’t enough to convince the Bush administration to accelerate its campaign, the armies of India and Pakistan went to heightened alert over Kashmir, once again throwing up the prospect of war between two of the world’s less stable nuclear powers. And the assassination of Israel’s tourism minister presaged an upsurge of violence in the Middle East. Suddenly, the need for a swift result in Afghanistan became a higher priority.

At the same time, the Bush administration was feeling better about the Northern Alliance, which represents predominantly ethnic Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara people. Much of the credit goes to the recent smooth performance of the movement’s foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah. Speaking for President Burhanuddin Rabbani, still recognized by the UN as Afghanistan’s head of government, Abdullah promised that Northern Alliance forces would not make a headlong dash for Kabul, or try to dominate a government that would succeed the Taliban. Both publicly and in secret talks with U.S. officials, he stressed the Alliance’s willingness to negotiate a peaceful end to the war.

That’s exactly what the Bush administration wants to hear. Up

to now, its focus in assembling some kind of post-Taliban council or government has been refracted through Pakistan’s attempts to salvage its own position in its northern neighbour’s affairs. Grateful, perhaps excessively so, for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s permission to use his country’s airspace and limited facilities on the ground, the Bush administration accepted the help of Pakistan’s military intelligence service, the ISI, in recruiting key Afghan commanders from the southern Pashtun regions.

Considering that the ISI was very much a stepfather to the Taliban movement, most Afghans, particularly those opposed to the extremist regime, object to Pakistan’s continuing interference. But with Dr. Zalmay Khalilzad, senior assistant to U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, also advocating the PakistaniPashtun approach, the ISI has opened a new chapter of co-ordination with an old American ally. Macleans has learned that the CIA, through its station at the American Embassy in Islamabad, is conducting negotiations, using the ISI as intermediaries, with at least two influential Pashtun militia commanders who are seen as ripe for defection from their current allegiance to the Taliban.

Sources at the state department in Washington indicate that defectors such as these, augmented by Pashtun veterans of the U.S.backed mujahedeen resistance to the Soviets in the 1980s, are seen by the Bush administration as the best hope of achieving peace in Afghanistan once the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are eliminated. Some rebel elements of the Taliban regime might contribute to the process. To this end, a new phrase entered the lexicon of Afghan warspeak this past week: “moderate Taliban” was the term coined by Musharraf to describe these supposed partners-in-waiting for national reconciliation.

Abdullah was quick to object to that characterization. No such individual or group exists, he said, within the upper ranks of the Taliban. “If you’re a moderate person,” he told Macleans, “and if you’re a moderate Muslim, then you want nothing to do with the Taliban.” He ruled out any power-sharing arrangement with rebel factions of the regime. “Remember that for six years, they rejected negotiations. Even when it was clear that there was no decisive military result possible in Afghanistan, they continued to attack our people.”

Of course Abdullah, like Pakistan’s Musharraf, is pursuing a political agenda. But a quick tasting of opinion on the street—or village trail, in this case—reveals that Abdullah is not far out of step with his people. Twelve-year-old Zekriya just screws up her face with revulsion when asked about the Taliban. To help earn a few afghanis for her mother, she’s selling home-made potato pancakes in the bazaar near Rostok, in Takhar province, the town her family came to for refuge a year ago when the Northern Alliance lost control of the nearby provincial capital, Taloquan. “The Taliban soldiers came to our home and told us to leave,” she says. “We could see them burning our trees and fields as we walked away They wouldn’t let us take anything with us, and they beat my father. They took every afghani he had in his pockets.” A pretty, engaging girl, Zekriya has had experiences that give her a calculating, cynical air far beyond her years. “A dog is better than aTalib,” she says, “anyTalib.”

Aside from their unyielding stance regarding so-called moderate Talibs, the Northern Alliance will be trying hard to adopt an appealing posture for America and its allies. As the battle of Mazar shows, there can be no sure prospect of an early collapse of the Taliban’s military machine without the Alliance securing vastly increased U.S. air support. The static front line around the contested city of Taloquan, for one, cannot conceivably be altered by either the Northern Alliance or the Taliban garrison, which has long sought to break the year-long siege of the city. With its logistics and command and control structures badly affected by U.S. air strikes elsewhere in the country, the Taliban garrison in Taloquan is too weak now to mount an offensive.

But equally, the Northern Alliance hasn’t anywhere near the requisite advantage in men, tanks and artillery that would give a thrust through the Taliban lines even a remote chance of success. Unless, of course, some of the Taliban defences, particularly the 30 to 50 tanks and 200 heavy guns deployed along the 130-km-long front, were to be taken out from the air.

Mohammed Nawroz and Adel Shah, who crew a fairly wellmaintained Northern Alliance T-55 tank, claim that nothing can get past them, but that there’s not enough friendly firepower in the field to enable them to move forward from their mountaintop emplacement. Their Taliban foes stare back at them from trenches just 500 m away, sometimes waving or shouting abuse, or more often, popping off a few machine-gun rounds.

The exhaustion of this kind of static, wasting warfare is written

in deep lines on the face of the Northern Alliance commander in this sector, Pir Mohammed. “In the past, the Talibs were stronger,” he says, “but now they are dying.” He tries to sound confident, but this is clearly a man trying to cheer himself up. “For 43 days, we fought to hold Taloquan,” he recalls of the battle a year ago, “but it was no use. They have new arms and equipment from Pakistan. They have Pakistanis and Arabs and Chechens, who order the Afghans among them to fight, no matter how hopeless the conditions become.” Pir Mohammed and his men were cheered by the sound of U.S. jets over Taloquan this week.

Gunner Nawroz saw one of the warplanes, and heard two loud explosions from the direction of the city. But defeating the Taliban in Takhar province, and elsewhere in Afghanistan, will take more than just a passing interest from the Americans’ airborne command centres, the AWACs aircraft, now circling over the region.

The difference now is that a new ground component to the war against Al-Qaeda and its hosts has begun. With it, there’s a growing acceptance by the Americans that only the armies already in the field, surrounding stubborn Taliban garrison cities, can deliver the coup de grace to the regime. And in Mazar, Herat, Kunduz, Taloquan and most of all Kabul, those armies belong to the Northern Alliance. E3