As U.S. bombers pound Taleban forces, the Northern Alliance appears poised to advance on the key Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. It is crucial to take the city before winter sets in, but questions remain about the Alliance's military ability and the cooperation of its fractious groups, a problem that has thwarted past efforts. There are varying opinions about the anti-Taleban northern forces that are an integral part of U.S. strategy.
When U.S. Army general Tommy Franks was recently asked to what degree the Northern Alliance can be trusted, he replied, "Well, we're not sure."
The opinion of the general, who commands U.S. forces in and around Afghanistan, is widely shared.
With some 15,000 troops, the Northern Alliance is outnumbered by the Taleban's 40 thousand fighters. In addition, the groups that make up the Alliance have failed to act together, stalling their advance to Mazar-i-Sharif.
An assortment of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and others have separate agendas and are backed by different nations. A leading Pakistani journalist and author, Ahmed Rashid, says their infighting led to a humiliating retreat at the hands of the Taleban three weeks ago.
Participating in a recent discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Mr. Rashid noted the alliance has made some progress toward unity. "The Tajik faction of the Northern Alliance is the most disciplined," he said. "It is the most organized, and most significantly, it is under political control rather than military control. And I think this is very important because the other sections of the Northern Alliance remain very much military organizations."
Some of these military organizations raised havoc in the past when they vied for control of Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew. In the process, they destroyed half of the capital, Kabul, allowing the Taleban to come in and restore order.
Among other groups, Human Rights Watch has warned against a repetition of these past atrocities if the Alliance takes control of various cities.
The Pashtun population is in particular danger, says Anatol Lieven, a British reporter now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The most important role for U.S. and British forces on the ground in the next few weeks and months may be not so much to go after the Taleban. It may be to control our own allies."
If Alliance members start to take revenge on the mostly Pashtun Taleban, says Mr. Lieven, massacres could result that undermine the U.S. war effort. Afghans do not want the warlords back under any circumstances, says Patricia Gossman, a consultant on human rights. "Certainly, that is the fear I heard expressed from Afghans when I was in Kabul last year," he said. "The only thing they feared more than the Taleban was the return of these characters."
Patricia Gossman says those who have committed war crimes should not take leadership positions in any new government.
Now is the time to plan for that government, says Ahmed Rashid. "I think it is very critical that the United States, the United Nations and other forces work to try to build at least an emergency committee for Mazar so that Mazar does not become the fiefdom of one or two commanders, and we go back to the kind of horrendous 1992 situation, where Kabul and other cities were divided by three or four factions," she said.
Mr. Rashid says the United States needs the Northern Alliance to win the war, and the Alliance needs the United States so as not to lose the peace.