The Taliban have fallen, but Afghanistan's troubles are far from over
Dr. Saleem Qureshi
professor of Middle East politics at the University of Alberta's Department of Political Science
The Americans had not quite disposed of one monster they created, i.e., Osama bin Laden, before they created a new one, i.e., the Northern Alliance in Kabul. With American firepower decimating the Taliban, the Northern Alliance victory was inevitable. Against American and Pakistani wishes, the Northern Alliance has entered Kabul under the faint excuse of filling the power vacuum.
The Taliban have been pushed to the southeast, their ethnic stronghold, with Kandahar as their seat of power. Kabul has easily fallen to hostile or foreign forces many times, but that has given little advantage to the occupying power. The Taliban, pushed to the south, have no place to run. Their leader, Mullah Omar, and Osama bin Laden both know their fate if captured alive. They are, therefore, going to put up the most resolute resistance they are capable of and would prefer to go down fighting. After all, the status of a martyr is far more glorious than that of a captured prisoner. Defections and bribes cannot be discounted, but it seems unlikely that the Taliban will give up quietly. A period of turmoil and warfare not only in the south of Afghanistan but in and around Kabul seems to be the most likely outcome.
The Americans told the Northern Alliance to stop short of Kabul and wait for broad-based coalition to emerge and take power. This coalition was supposed to provide representation not only to the factions in the Northern Alliance but also to the Pushtuns, who constitute almost half the population of Afghanistan. As it is, the Northern Alliance demands half the representation in the future coalition government.
The Northern Alliance is seen as mainly a Shii coalition between the Tajik and the Hazaras, periodically joined by the brutal, ruthless and totally mercenary General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the 47-year-old Uzbek warlord. The titular head of the Alliance is Burhanuddin Rabbani, the 61-year-old Tajik, whose government occupies the Afghan seat in the UN. The brutality and the ruthlessness of the Alliance during its control of Afghanistan between 1992 and 1996, was such that the Taliban were easily able to topple the Alliance. The Northern Alliance differs from Taliban only marginally in the enforcement of highly restrictive 'Islamic' lifestyle. To expect the victory of the Northern Alliance to usher in an era of tolerance and openness will be a real leap of faith.
If the Americans were really serious about Kabul and the Northern Alliance, they needed to put their own soldiers on the ground. Air power can destroy but it cannot occupy land -- to accomplish that you need to have your own force on the territory. What are the Americans going to do with Northern Alliance occupying Kabul? Will they use arms or force to compel the Alliance to withdraw and wait for orders from Washington? This is one of those headaches that has been created by a superpower that seems to embark on major projects without fully working out the implications and consequences of its actions. It seems most likely the unity of the Northern Alliance will be subjected to the stresses of each faction trying to maximize its advantage at the expense of the other unavoidably leading to infighting. The suffering of the people will be blamed on America for creating this situation.
There has been a great deal of talk about creating a broad-based government, giving representation to all the various factions, ethnicities, tribes, sects, etc. If there was an opium dream, this has to be at the top.
Afghan society is and has been tribal, authoritarian and undemocratic, with a deep seated culture of violence. Issues and conflicts are resolved by raiding, fighting and bribing rather than by discussion, deliberation and consensus building. A broad-based government under the leadership of the deposed King Zahir and based on the co-operation of factions whose history is more of competition and conflict will not work. Of all the times, this is one of those when a truly strong ruler is needed to force the various warlords and tribal factions into submission. Such a ruler needs to be a Pushtun in order to secure the support of the largest ethnic group in the country. Such a ruler needs to have a strong army and a full treasury. Such a ruler must never be any other power's proxy or surrogate. Such a ruler must be a man of great physical strength, political fortitude and enthusiasm for Afghanistan. Such a ruler must also win the confidence of the people. Will a broad-based government with the old king at its head work? Unlikely. The candidates on the horizon don't fill the bill.
As a matter of pure speculation, it may just be possible, particularly because of the exhaustion and suffering of the people, that the leadership of the UN for a transitional period may be acceptable -- if it comes to Afghanistan not as a proxy for America or Pakistan. The UN will have to have a strong mandate given to the Secretary General. The peace-keeping force will have to be entirely Muslim, under Muslim command and not from any of the countries that have been accused of meddling in internal Afghan affairs. Such a force could be drawn from Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Turkey, Morocco. This will be only a temporary measure but will have to be of sufficient length to work for restoring the infrastructure and agriculture, providing a measure of peace and security to the ordinary Afghan and a stake for him in the maintenance of a stable Afghanistan.
After that the Afghans can decide how and by whom they want to be governed.
(Dr. Saleem Qureshi is a professor of Middle East politics at the University of Alberta's Department of Political Science.)