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US Military Attack Could Cause Taleban Split - 2001-09-29

Since the terrorist attack earlier this month on the United States, Taleban authorities in Afghanistan have resisted pressure to surrender Osama Bin Laden and members of his al-Qaida organization. There have been few signs of any divisions within the Taleban on the issue of surrendering those accused of the terrorists acts. But some analysts say as the threat of U.S. military attack grows, divisions in the Taleban may split the movement.

Just a few days ago, Secretary of State Colin Powell disclosed that the United States and its allies were looking for what he described as "fissures" within the Taleban. Mr. Powell said he and others in charge of catching Osama bin Laden and members of his al-Qaida organization were exploring ways of working with elements of the Taleban who might cooperate with the international community.

So far there have been few signs that anyone in the Taleban wants to cooperate with Secretary Powell. But some Pakistani political analysts like retired General Talat Masood, who now writes a newspaper column, say that could change when and if a military attack against terrorist targets in Afghanistan begins.

He says that could create a political vacuum, allowing dissenting elements within the Taleban to take charge.

"What one would hope for is that once this land and air operation takes place, that there would be a possibility that moderate Taleban elements, which are opposed to the present regime, could emerge," General Masood said. "Also along with them the other forces who are opposed to the Taleban could form sort of a united coalition under the aegis of King Zahir Shah, or some symbolic figure would bring in a [loya jirga] [grand assembly of elders] and initiate a political process."

Mr. Masood and other analysts say the Taleban leadership is closely tied to so-called "Arab Afghans," fighters who came to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight Soviet troops and then stayed. The "Arab Afghans" are also closely tied to Osama bin Laden - many reportedly belong to his al-Qaida organization.

Mr. Masood says the grip of the Arab Afghans will likely be broken if and when a military attack begins - making it easier for moderate elements within the Taleban seize the political initiative.

"Once the operation starts the Arab elements that have penetrated the Taleban, and which become very powerful, they will be on the run," he said. "And as they would be on the run, it is possible that the Taleban who oppose them, would be able to reassert themselves in policy making as well."

U.S. officials like Secretary Powell say their main objective is finding Osama bin Laden and his supporters, not overthrowing the Taleban. Many analysts say that is a wise policy.

The Director of the Area Studies Center at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University, Rasul Bakhsh Rais, says the Taleban are Pashtuns, the ethnic majority of Afghanistan, and overthrowing the Taleban could create unimaginable chaos.

"They represent Pashtuns, they represent a viable Pashtun force. Here we have to focus on the Pashtun character of the Taleban and remove the fundamentalist extremist element of the Pashtuns," says Mr. Rais. "By doing that we can link them with the Pashtun tribal leaders and Pashtun nationalism, and make them a viable force that can covert this foe into a partner for the future political structure inside of Afghanistan."

U.S. officials say they are concerned about long-term stability in Afghanistan and do not want to see Afghanistan's long-running civil war resume on a large scale.

Secretary Powell says if the Taleban were to comply with international demands to hand over Osama bin Laden, then Afghanistan could go back to where it was before the September 11 attacks, with the Taleban running the country for "better or worse."