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Can Unity Prevail Within the Northern Alliance?


The Northern Alliance, now flush with victory after its sweep of Northern Afghanistan and Kabul, is a coalition of regional groups each with its own leaders. The groups do not have a long history of trust and cooperation and at times have been staunch rivals. Analysts wonder if their current unity will last if they no longer have the Taleban as a common enemy.

The recent string of Northern Alliance military victories began when the anti-Taleban forces moved on Mazar-e Sharif. General Abdul Rahid Dostum and his fighters took the strategic town in Northern Afghanistan. Political science professor at Providence College in Rhode Island, Anwar Ahady, says General Dostum was not always with the Northern Alliance. "He is an Uzbek. He used to have an organization called the National Movement. He used to be with the communist regime, one of the most ruthless officers in the communist regime," he says. "But then towards the end of the Najibulla regime, he formed his own organization and he was instrumental in the formation of the Northern Alliance."

Other reports agree with Professor Ahady that General Dostum was ruthless when he served under communist ruler Najibulla, and say he had a reputation for treachery and extreme violence. But they say when he ran Mazar-e Sharif, he kept it free from random strife that was common elsewhere. Professor Ahady points out that General Dosum fled after the Taleban seized the town in 1998 and was living in exile until just a few months ago.

General Dostum was known to have differences with the Northern Alliance's legendary military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was assasinated in early September. Professor Ahady says they had recently patched up their differences and that is what prompted General Dostum to return from exile for the new anti-Taleban initiative.

Forces loyal to General Massoud were in the spearhead of the advance on Kabul, in recent days. Their military operations are under the command of General Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who was General Massoud's deputy and is described as a good soldier, but lacking his charisma. Professor Ahady says even among the Massoud fighters there are differences. But he says they seem to have cooperated in their push to the Afghan capital.

Another Northern Alliance leader, Ismail Khan, was governor of Herat in western Afghanistan. He was driven out of Herat by the Taleban in 1995, fled to Iran, but later returned and was captured. Ismail Khan escaped from prison last year and his troops are credited with retaking Herat this week. Profess Ahady says there was a longstanding rivalry between Ismail Khan and General Massoud. "There were strong differences between him and Mr. Massoud and when he lost Herat in 1995, later on he somehow blamed Massoud for losing Herat," he says. "So there is some sort of rivalry there too, and it is so separate and I'm afraid that the Northern Alliance may not really cohere."

Professor Ahady says the only thing uniting the various Northern Alliance groups is their opposition to the Taleban. And he wonders how long their unity will prevail once the Taleban is defeated. "These were ethnic minorities and they thought that the communist regime was too dominated by the Pashtuns and they formed an alliance against the communist regime of Najibullah. So, the unifying factor was opposition to the communist regime of Najibullah, even though Dostum himself was a communist and part of that regime," says Mr. Ahady. "Otherwise, they did not have any basis for forming an alliance, and that's why the Northern Alliance when it was formed in 1992, within three months of its formation, it disintegrated, and they started fighting between themselves. Only in the past few months has it been reunited." Professor Ahady says it would be unfortunate if Afghanistan disintegrates again into a pattern of different territories controlled by warlords vying for control.

The author of three books about Afghanistan, David Isby, does not take such a dim view. Mr. Isby, a Washington-based defense consultant, says regional control may not be so bad for Afghanistan, because he says a heavy-handed central government did not work under Soviet control or under the Taleban. "Now, with strong regional leaders, people their critics call warlords, remerging, it is likely the pendulum has swung the other way toward a decentralized Afghanistan. There will be a national entity," he says. "No one wants to break apart Afghanistan. It's not like the Balkans. ... Despite the many years of fighting, there remains a strong shared identity, both as Muslims and as Afghans."

Mr. Isby acknowledges that the Northern Alliance factions have a delicate coalition that runs the risk of breaking apart. He says the United States should play a role in preventing outside elements from trying to use the situation for their own purposes. For example, he notes that General Dostum has support from Uzbekistan, while Ismail Khan is supported by Iran, and Turkey and Pakistan also support different factions.