Northern Alliance troops were reported to be moving south through the Afghan countryside towards Kabul on November 11, two days after their capture of Mazaar-e Shareef from Taliban forces. The military operation to take Mazaar-e Shareef was led by General Abdul-Rashid Dostum, one of the most brutal and notorious of the Alliance’s military commanders. The capture of the city had been preceded by intense American bombardment of Taliban military positions, and Western sources claim that the Alliance’s troops had been directed by British special forces officers.
Although western news agencies reported that Dostum’s return to the city was greeted with musical celebrations, with women discarding their burqas and men queueing outside barbers’ shops to have their beards shaved, other commentators have pointed out that Dostum’s rule of the city in the mid-1990s was characterised by appalling brutalities, and that serious atrocities had been committed by both sides when control of the city switched between them three times in 1997 and 1998.
After the city’s fall, there were conflicting signals from Western leaders about their preferences for the Alliance’s future strategy. Speaking in London, British defence secretary Geoffrey Hoon said that they were wanting the Northern Alliance to press on to take Kabul. George W. Bush, speaking in Washington during a visit to the US by Pakistani leader general Perwez Musharraf, said, “we will encourage our friends to head south... but not into Kabul itself.”
The Northern Alliance’s capture of Mazaar-e Shareef comes at a good time for the West, which is becoming increasingly desperate for positive news. The news value of the West’s supposedly surgical air-raids soon faded; even the Western media could not disguise the fact that Afghan casualties are mounting, and observers are realizing that much of the US’s campaign — such as the much-publicised special forces raids on targets near Qandahar on October 19 — consists of publicity stunts staged for television cameras, rather than any substantial operations.
It has also become clear that their hopes that the Taliban would collapse under attack and that the situation would quickly be resolved were not to be fulfilled. At the same time, the increasing delay was resulting in questions about Western strategy from commentators and other political leaders. The capture of Mazaar-e Shareef is of strategic significance, opening access to northern Afghanistan for Western troops operating out of Uzbekistan and freeing Alliance fighters to reinforce their positions north of Kabul, yet it does not necessarily weaken the Taliban’s main positions in the south and east of the country. As we go to press, the Alliance is following its capture up with the taking control of major swathes of territory in the north of the country. How far this will continue before hitting Taliban resistance – or whether the Taliban stand might collapse altogether – remains to be seen.
The capture of Mazaar-e Shareef is significant also as a success for the military strategy that the West would like to follow: Afghan troops doing the work on the ground, supported by Western air-power. Whether this strategy will work against better-consolidated Taliban positions remains to be seen.
The confusion over the strategy for Kabul is probably genuine. The West would prefer Kabul to be taken over by ‘moderate Talibans’ rather than being militarily captured by the Northern Alliance. For one thing, the battle for Kabul could be long, bloody and show up the limitations of the Western military forces. It could also lead to massive civilian casualties, which (and this is the West’s main concern) would provide the Taliban with ample propaganda material to use against the West. Finally, a military conquest of Kabul by the Northern Alliance would put them in a strong position in post-war Afghan politics, whenever that may be.
Musharraf has repeatedly said that a Northern Alliance government in Afghanistan is unacceptable to Pakistan, and Washington has promised Islamabad that this will not happen (for what that is worth). But the West also has other, more pressing reasons for not favouring an Alliance victory. It wants to be able to control Afghanistan’s future government almost completely. The Northern Alliance has a long history of close ties with Russia and the Central Asian states. Russia and Islamic Iran — which also has an established relationship with the Northern Alliance — would both prefer to minimise the US’s regional influence. The US would prefer to be dealing more directly with a weaker Afghan regime. It would also be difficult, in view of the Northern Alliance’s record, for the West to portray its government as a reforming, modernizing, democratic, restructuring force in Afghanistan, although it could no doubt do so if it had to.
Officially the West’s position is that it is focusing on the military campaign for the time being, and is not worrying much about Afghanistan’s future governance for the time being. In fact, this is a thin disguise for the truth that its plans for a “broad-based” Afghan government are not coming together. On November 5 the US State Department announced the appointment of James Dobbins, a former adviser of Bill Clinton, as US envoy to Afghan opposition groups. Two days later Afghan sources said that Dobbins, Paul Bargani, the British ambassador to Uzbekistan, and Zalmai Khalilzad, Bush’s adviser on Afghanistan (an American diplomat born in Afghanistan), were arranging meetings with Northern Alliance leaders and groups associated with former king Zahir Shah — known as the Rome Peace Process (RPP) — to help them work towards a political coalition to form a post-Taliban government in Kabul.
A meeting between the Western advisers, RPP leaders and Alliance representatives is reportedly scheduled to be held in Istanbul as Crescent goes to press. A similar meeting was due to have been held in late October, but the Alliance representatives did not turn up. Officially, this was because they had other concerns and could not get to Istanbul at the time, but it is thought that they prefer to improve their military position as much as possible and then talk from a position of strength.
The West’s plan for a ‘broad-based’ Afghan government has also been weakened by the failure to find ‘moderates’ within the Taliban. Last month there were reports that Mutawakil Wakil, the Taliban’s foreign minister, and Jalaluddin Haqqani, the Taliban’s military commander, had visited Pakistan for some days, meeting with Pakistani officials and Pakistan-based Afghan leaders. Both turned up in Qandahar on October 16 after several days out of sight, and have shown no subsequent signs of weakness in their anti-American stance. If they were in Pakistan (Haqqani did not deny it when asked indirectly about his trip by a Pakistani journalist) it may have been to rally support for the Taliban rather than to negotiate with its enemies. Former mujahideen leader Abdul-Haq, who had lived in Dubai for many years and had close ties with Western governments, also claimed to have contacts with ‘moderate Taliban’, but his mission to Afghanistan to establish contacts with them ended with his capture and execution.
The West’s favoured plan is for a Supreme Council of National Unity, based on the traditional Afghan loya jirga (tribal council), convened by Zahir Shah and including representatives of the Northern Alliance, ‘moderate Talibans’ and others. The composition of this Council was supposed to have been discussed at the Istanbul meeting in late October that did not take place.
One meeting that did go ahead was a gathering of about 800 Afghan leaders in Peshawar, convened by Pir Saiyed Ahmed Gailani on October 25. Gailani, a relative of Zahir Shah, had earlier travelled to Rome to meet the ex-king, and claimed to have had his approval to call a council meeting in Pakistan to endorse Zahir Shah’s return to the throne. However, this meeting was boycotted even by Zahir Shah’s own officials in Pakistan, who suggested that Gailani was following an agenda set by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), who would want to influence the make-up of the Supreme Council.
More than a month after beginning the attacks on Afghanistan, the US appears to be little closer either to a military victory against the Taliban, or to overthrowing them. While pressure for a quick result is growing, the Americans appear increasingly bogged down in the sort of military and political quagmire that has confounded numerous foreign invaders of Afghanistan over the centuries. The US’s military might and political weight may yet prevail, but the Afghans — both the Taliban and the West’s supposed allies — are giving them a far harder time than either London or Washington can have expected.