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Fraught by bad blood, the Northern Alliance is shaky at best
The Ottawa Citizen
Monday, November 19, 2001
Page: A8
Section: News
Byline: Levon
Sevunts
Column: Levon Sevunts in Khwaja Bahuddin, Afghanistan
Source: The Ottawa Citizen

The coalition is made up of five ethnically and religiously disparate groups united in their desire to topple the Taliban. Whether they can help govern Afghanistan remains to be seen.

Nine years ago people who make up the anti-Taliban coalition and have been fighting the Taliban shoulder-to-shoulder were literally at each other's throats.

Their bloody infighting, which killed at least 50,000 people and ruined half of Kabul, was one of the main reasons for the meteoric rise of the Taliban which caught the international community by surprise.

The sudden collapse of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan and their withdrawal from Kabul five years after capturing it once again has caught the international community off guard and confronted it with another political dilemma.

For the third time in the last nine years, the power occupying the country's capital and having the main military force on the ground enjoys very limited political and ideological support in much of the country as it struggles for international recognition.

The coalition, which successfully drove Taliban fighters from most of northern Afghanistan and is now fighting for control of the southern half, is made up of ethnically and religiously disparate groups united mostly in their desire to topple the Taliban regime.

It is composed of mainly non-Pashtun ethnic groups, although it hopes to capitalize on the presence in its ranks of several well-known Pashtun commanders to supplant the Pashtun-supported Taliban movement. The core of its military might is composed of some 25,000 Tajik and Uzbek troops, who until recently were cornered in northeastern Afghanistan.

The anti-Taliban coalition, the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, was created in 1996 after the Taliban took Kabul. It is known in the West as the Northern Alliance and is composed of five main groups:

- Jamiat-e-Islami, the driving force behind the coalition and one of the original Islamist parties of Afghanistan with support mainly among the Tajik community.

- Hizb-e-Wahdat, the principal Shia party in Afghanistan with support mainly among the Hazara people.

- Junbish-e-Milli Islami Afghanistan (Junbish), with support mainly from ethnic Uzbeks and former communist officials.

- Harakat-e-Islami, another Shia party, allied with Jamiat-e-Islami and consisting mainly of non-Hazara Shias.

- Ittihad-e-Islami Barayi Azadi Afghanistan, one of the Pashtun components of the anti-Taliban coalition.

The main military group and the ideological engine of the coalition is the Jamiat-e-Islami party led by the official head of the coalition, president Burahnuddin Rabbani.

Jamiat-e-Islami was created in the early 1970s by students at Kabul University, where Mr. Rabbani taught Islamic law. In the mid-1970s Mr. Rabbani had to flee Kabul after the leftist coup against the King Mohammed Zahir Shah. Mr. Rabbani founded a base in Pakistan and became one of the principal actors in the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989. Jamiat-e-Islami created one of the strongest guerrilla groups led by late Ahmed Shah Massood, the legendary Tajik commander, killed by suicide bombers posing as journalists just two days before the Sept. 11 attacks.

In 1992, sensing the collapse of the Communist government of president Najibullah, Mr. Massood cut a deal with Uzbek Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, Mr. Najibullah's main commander, who turned against the Communist president and allowed Mr. Massood's troops into Kabul.

Soon after Mr. Rabbani became the interim president and created the Islamic State of Afghanistan. His government was recognized by the international community and still holds Afghanistan's seat at the UN.

But Mr. Rabbani never managed to create an effective government and provide peace and security. Gen. Dostum's Uzbek militia went on a looting rampage, and the Shia Muslim Hazara people, instigated by Iran, attacked Mr. Massood's forces in Kabul. Moreover, Pashtun commanders, led by the infamous warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and infuriated by the loss of control of Kabul by the Pashtun tribes for the first time in 300 years, marched on the capital.

The fighting between Mr. Massood's Jamiat-e-Islami, the Hazara's Hizb-e-Wahdat, Gen. Dostum's Junbish and Mr. Hekmatyar's Hizb-e-Islami claimed more than 50,000 lives and eventually led to the meteoric rise of the Taliban movement.

Junbish, led by Gen. Dostum, was one of the main anti-Taliban factions and the strongest and most professional military force in northern Afghanistan. Between 1992 and 1997, Junbish controlled Mazar-e-Sharif, the largest city in the north. But due to internal disputes, it was eventually driven out of Mazar-e-Sharif, when Gen. Dostum's deputy, Gen. Abdul Malik Pahlawan, turned against him and let the Taliban forces into the city.

Gen. Dostum fled to Turkey and only returned earlier this year to join the anti-Taliban coalition.

Gen. Dostum's forces, once the best armed military force in Afghanistan, played the role of junior partner in the recent fighting for Mazar-e-Sharif. The attack was spearheaded by the forces of Commander Muhammad Ustad Atta who are loyal to the Jamiat-e-Islami.

But Gen. Dostum, despite his abysmal human rights record, might gather more influence and weight now that his former power base is again partly under his control.

The third group comprising the anti-Taliban coalition is the Shia Wahdat-e-Islami. Its armed forces led by Haji Muhammad Muhaqqiq played an important role in the capture of Mazar-e-Sharif. The group has always enjoyed the support of Hazara traders and the Iranian government. The Wahdat-e-Islami is a wildcard to watch now that the Alliance controls Kabul.

Ittihad-e-Islami, led by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a hardline Sunni fundamentalist and a well-known Pashtun commander who remained loyal to Mr. Rabbani, has so far been a junior partner in the coalition. Hashmitullah Moslih, an unofficial spokesman for the Alliance, said Mr. Sayyaf provided a kind of religious think-tank for the Rabbani government.

But after the death Abdul Haq, the influential Pashtun commander who was executed by the Taliban last month, Mr. Sayyaf's importance is likely to rise, especially now that the Alliance is now fighting in the Pashtun-dominated south of the country. "Sayyaf was the second most important Pashtun commander after Hekmatyar," Mr. Moslih said. Mr. Sayyaf, who lived for a long time in Saudi Arabia and is fluent in Arabic, is also likely to be used more to win the public relations war in the Arab countries.

However, Mr. Sayyaf's hard-line anti-Shia position might still cause problems for the Alliance. It was Mr. Sayyaf's troops that were sent into Hazara neighbourhoods in Kabul in 1993 to crash the Wahdat-e-Islami, after it attacked Mr. Massood's forces in the city. Mr. Sayyaf's soldiers went on a rampage, raping Hazara women and hanging people on lamp posts.

Despite all the bad blood that flows between different factions of the Northern Alliance -- or the United Islamic Front as they insist on being called --and despite the death of Mr. Massood, the coalition seems to have done a remarkable job in creating a unified military structure. It has a regular army, the Islamic Army of Afghanistan, which makes up the professional core of Alliance forces and has a traditional military structure.

Then there are regional warlords who usually have an irregular force of their own. Their responsibility is maintenance of law and order in the territories under their control.

Finally, there are the famous commanders such as Gen. Ismail Khan of Herat, Gen. Dostum or Commander Atta. They are responsible for developing the war strategy together with the minister of defence and then implementing it.

The Islamic Army and regional commanders are answerable to the minister of defence, Gen. Muhammad Fahim. In theory at least, Gen. Fahim gets his orders from president Rabbani, but it is not clear whether Mr. Rabbani holds any real power.

On the civilian side, the structure of the United Front government is much less developed. There are only four functioning ministries for defence, foreign affairs, refugees and finance, Mr. Moslih said.

While the UN struggles to take the initiative in the Afghani peace process and the regional powers -- Pakistan, Iran, Russia, India, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan -- jostle for influence in the new Afghani government, the biggest challenge facing the anti-Taliban coalition is to put in place some sort of administrative structure to restore a sense of day-to-day normalcy in Afghanistan.

Montreal Gazette reporter Levon Sevunts survived a Taliban raid that killed three foreign journalists, while he was on assignment in Afghanistan. He returned safely to Montreal last night.


2009 Levon Sevunts. All rights reserved.