Pakistan has warned the United States against allying with the coalition of groups known as the Northern Alliance, who are currently fighting the Taleban in northern Afghanistan. It objects in part because its rival, India, is supporting the Alliance. This points up the difficulty of bringing together disparate groups and nations for a successful assault on the Taleban.
Pakistan is essential for any attack on the Taleban and has been cooperating with the United States. But Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdus Sattar warned against U.S. assistance to the Northern Alliance, now supported by Iran, Russia and India. That, he said, is a recipe for disaster.
This complicates U.S. strategy because the groups making up the Northern Alliance are engaged in battle with the Taleban and would obviously be useful. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says they can be a lot of help, especially if broadened with other elements of the opposition. They know the lay of the land and appropriate targets.
But there are problems of ethnicity, says Anwar Ahady, professor of political science at Providence College in Rhode Island. The Northern Alliance is composed of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, who together comprise more than half the population of Afghanistan. Some 40 per cent are Pashtuns, which includes the Taleban.
"If the United States is not very careful in the sense of having another force that would represent the Pashtuns in this struggle against the Taleban, I think that it would be rather unpopular," he said. "The Pashtuns are very apprehensive about the Northern Alliance getting real support from the West and taking control of the country."
Some Pashtuns are rallying behind the exiled Afghan King Zahir Shah, who is now in Rome. Given the brutality of the regimes that followed the king's departure in 1973, Professor Ahady believes he may now be the most popular figure in Afghanistan.
But he is 87, adds Mr. Ahady, and his followers are not well organized. They would like to convene a grand council of Afghanistan's various groups to put together a post-Taleban government agreeable to all.
That concerns Iran, says Alam Payind, director of Middle East Studies at Ohio State University. Tehran, which is supporting the Northern Alliance, is wary of the king, any king. "Iran does not like the revival of monarchy in Afghanistan, so to speak, because that would have an implication for Iran," he said. "The children of the Shah of Iran are still very active, and there are a lot of Iranian monarchists in other parts of Europe and in the United States."
Mr. Payind says Iranians, along with Pakistanis, are already maneuvering for influence in a post-Taleban Afghanistan. He says neither wants a strong nationalist in charge. "Iran wants a government which will be very closely allied with Iran. Pakistan wants a government which will be very subservient and allied with Pakistan against India," he said. "So they both have their own agendas. I hope their agendas will be parallel to the agenda of the coalition."
Then there is the question of the Taleban, usually described as a fiercely united group impervious to foreign influence. Maybe not, says U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. There are a number of Taleban factions that would like to get rid of Osama bin Laden. The United States is reportedly in touch with them.
On a visit to Afghanistan, Michael Rubin of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy found that bin Laden is largely used for domestic purposes; that is, supplying outside troops for the war against the Northern Alliance. "That is what the Taleban gained from Osama bin Laden," he said. "It has nothing to do with hospitality or anything else. That said, most people in Afghanistan do not particularly support the Taleban any more, nor do they particularly care for Osama bin Laden, who is about to bring even further suffering to Afghanistan."
Professor Ahady expects some Taleban to break away, but they will have to assume another identity. "By that time, the Taleban will be so much discredited that it will be very difficult for even a rather moderate faction to cling to the history of that movement, because Afghanistan is going to be punished, largely because the Taleban have not provided very prudent leadership, even to this minute, completely unrealistic," he said.
The Taleban are on the verge of attack and possible defeat, says Professor Ahady. Yet they continue to make implausible demands of the United States. In their self-imposed isolation, he believes, they have lost touch with reality.