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Dateline: A Look At the Afghan Opposition - 2001-10-11

The Northern Alliance is a coalition of groups opposed to the rule of Afghanistan's Taleban. These groups hold Afghanistan's seat at the United Nations. They also appear to be a primary beneficiary of this week's American-led attacks against military installations of the Taleban and al-Quida, the organization led by alleged terrorist, Osama bin-Laden.

The Pentagon says it is "reaching out" to all anti-Taleban opposition groups as part of its campaign to destroy the al-Quida terrorist network and its Taleban supporters in Afghanistan. VOA Pentagon correspondent Alex Belida reports Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the Bush administration is even trying to win over elements in the Taleban itself. "Even as we conduct these strikes, we are not only engaged in a massive humanitarian effort for the Afghan people," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "But we are reaching out to a range of Afghan groups on the ground in the north and the south, as well as Afghan exiles and disaffected elements within the Taleban who are opposed to the Taleban's policy of turning their nation into a haven for foreign terrorists."

Mr. Rumsfeld and other administration officials have made clear repeatedly that Taleban leaders allied with the al-Quida terrorist network must be toppled from power, Mr. Belida reports. But they appear to be exercising strict care not to ally the administration only with Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, the opposition group that is perhaps the best known in the country because it host the only western reporters in Afghanistan.

A Pentagon official indicates there is U.S. concern about what might happen in Afghanistan were the Northern Alliance to seize power. This official suggests the group's members largely from minority ethnic groups might engage in mass reprisals rather than focus on restoring stability to the country. The official offers no additional insight into Pentagon concerns. But his comments coincide with release of a new report by Human Rights Watch. The monitoring group says all major factions in Afghanistan have repeatedly committed serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law. Heron Amin, a spokesman for the Northern Alliance, says the Alliance welcomes help from the United States and its allies to remove the Taleban and Saudi-born Osama bin Laden. Mr. Amin describes the United Front of which the Northern Alliance is a part as a 'legal entity represented by all the members of the United Nations except Pakistan.'

"As a legal government, we've purchased arms from Russia, from India, and other countries also Iran. But we've knocked on a lot of Western doors to get support," he said. "And at least now they've realized that this is a common enemy and it's time for it to go. Pakistan must stop intervening in Afghanistan so that with the participation of the former monarch of Afghanistan, King Zahir Shah, as a unifying figure head, not as reestablishing the monarchy in Afghanistan. We can go about establishing the loya jirga, the traditional assembly, to go towards a transitional set up that would be fully representative of all ethnic groups in Afghanistan."

Mr. Amin says that if the Afghan opposition is successful in installing its own government, it would move toward democracy. "Indeed, we're going toward democracy, and we want a pro-democratic government in Afghanistan, one that will respect the rights of women," he said. "In fact, our legendary commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud under whom I fought, made it very clear that Afghan women should not only have the right to vote but be able to elect themselves to office. The only adversary we have is the Taleban. With the cutting of their relations with Pakistan, I hope the Afghans can come together. It is going to be an arduous and difficult journey for us, but I can tell you, 22 years of war and neglect have produced the kind of conditions we see in Afghanistan today."

Stephen Biddle, Professor of National Security Studies at the U.S. Army War College, says American support for the Northern Alliance offers several benefits. "In a lot of ways, the ideal outcome from the U.S. standpoint would be to have the Northern Alliance or some successor indigenous opposition to the Taleban, quite possibly consisting of disaffected members of the Taleban itself, take military action, remove that regime, and construct a successor regime," he told VOA's Rebecca Ward from his office in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. "Not only would that remove the prospect of having to have large American ground forces exposed to guerrilla action in Afghanistan but it also helps to establish the political legitimacy of the successor government. It's far better that that be done by the people of Afghanistan than by the United States on their behalf. On the other hand, I think it's very likely the United States is not going to allow bin Laden and al-Qaida to operate in Afghanistan. Whatever level of intervention is needed to prevent that from happening I think eventually will occur." Thomas Gouttierre, director of the University of Nebraska's Center for Afghanistan Studies, the only institution of its kind in the United States, says although the Afghan opposition lacks political cohesion, they share a common enemy. Gouttierre: I think they are unified in their objectives and their desire to work with the U.S. and other coalition forces in getting to the terrorists and to dismantling the Taleban military installations.

VOA: What do you think the chances are of being able to undo the Taleban, as it were?

Gouttierre: I think the best prospects for that [result] are for the Taleban itself to start peeling away and imploding. I think the most important thing for the United States in this particular campaign is to remember that any suggestion that what we're doing is directed towards restoring the Northern Alliance to a position of power in Kabul would be a destabilizing effort. In terms of how others throughout the country might see what we're doing there.

VOA: Is that primarily because many of the members of the so-called Northern Alliance are not ethnic Pashtuns?

Gouttierre: No, although that is a part of it. I think the Northern Alliance, particularly under President [Buranuddin] Rabbani, bring with them a considerable amount of baggage. Because of the period that followed the fall of the last Soviet-supported government of Najibullah [former Afghan president subsequently executed by the Taleban in 1996] in 1992 and up to that period when the Taleban took over Kabul in 1996.

VOA: Reducing much of Kabul to rubble.

Gouttierre: That's right. The Northern Alliance wasn't responsible for all of that. There were also individuals like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who at that time was outside of the Alliance. He is even more culpable. But, I think there's a very important role for members of the Alliance to play. But I think the whole concept that the Alliance could gain control of Kabul and rule the country is not possible. There needs to be a grand national assembly called in which the members of the Northern Alliance surely have a role. The Afghans should determine the traditional form of government that should proceed from this point. And we need to go into a new period in which future is determined by the most proportionally democratic process available to Afghans. That is this meeting of the grand national assembly, which called loya jirga in Pasto. VOA: And this would be convened by the King.

Gouttierre: Well, people say that it would be convened by the king. He certainly is the person with the highest credibility at this point. But we have to remember that the King is 88 years old. As king before, he was remembered as a benevolent and kindly guy who helped more Afghanistan along on a progressive path. But he's not remembered for his decisiveness or dynamism.

VOA: How important is the loss of Massoud?

Gouttierre: I think it's significant, but primarily for military considerations. He certainly was the most able of the commanders throughout this 23-year period. And he is the individual who would have been the most helpful to the United States and it coalition in these days to come. But, one has to hope that outstanding commanders from the Northern Alliance can step into the shoes left empty by Ahmad Shah Massoud's death. But we have to remember the Hazara Confederation. They are very able fighters . VOA: Does it seem to you as if the days of the Taleban are numbered?

Gouttierre: It would seem that way. The Taleban are very, very dependent upon external resources to sustain them. And the primary source was the Pakistani military.

VOA: What are the most important things the U-S lead coalition can do at this point?

Gouttierre: I think it's absolutely essential that we avoid in all of this fighting in population centers. It's unfortunate that the office of the United Nations was hit in Kabul. We need to make sure we are picking our targets very wisely. And the other thing is that it's very important for the United States to continue the humanitarian assistance."