The battle rages on

Print edition : September 20, 1997

Kutchi nomads begin their annual migration from the dry plains near Kabul to the lush valleys in eastern Afghanistan. This year, their traditional route was blocked just north of Kabul owing to fighting between the Taliban and Opposition forces, and they were forced to spend the summer in the desert.-JOHNMOORE / AP Photo: JOHN MOORE / AP

A Taliban fighter at an outpost about 35 km north of Kabul.-JOHNMOORE/ AP Photo: JOHN MOORE / AP

Burqa-clad Afghan women in war-ravaged Kabul on September 7.-SALAHUDDIN/ REUTERS Photo: SALAHUDDIN / REUTERS

The Northern Alliance forces led by Ahmad Shah Masood are now close to Kabul; their plan is to encircle it and dictate terms to the retreating Taliban.

THE battle for Kabul has been raging over the last two months. The Taliban forces are in disarray after the Northern Alliance forces, led by Ahmad Shah Masood, routed them in Mazhar-e-Sharif in May this year and forced them to retreat to Kabul. The Taliban's retreat was one of the fastest in modern Afghan history. Within a matter of days, its forces were back in Kabul, 400 km from Mazhar-e-Sharif. In the process, they lost some of their best fighters and a lot of military equipment. Although the Taliban has managed to hold on to Kabul despite the latest setbacks, knowledgeable sources from the region say that it is becoming increasingly desperate. The forces led by Masood are only 20 km away from Kabul, but according to sources close to the Northern Alliance, the Tajik general will not launch a frontal attack on the capital at this juncture. Masood's game plan seems to be to encircle Kabul and dictate terms to the enemy. The final push for Kabul is expected to take place just before winter sets in.

The Taliban, in an effort to strengthen its decimated army, has recruited teenagers from Pakistan's religious seminaries. According to highly-placed sources in the capitals of Central Asia, Pakistani fighters have a strong presence in the Afghan capital. Hundreds of Pakistani fighters were captured by the Northern Alliance forces along with Pakistan Air Force transport planes at Mazhar-e-Sharif in May.

From all indications, all is not well with the Taliban, which is getting increasingly panicky. According to reports from Kabul, hundreds of civilians are being rounded up on suspicion of being fifth columnists. Even within the hitherto united Taliban, serious differences have cropped up between the eastern Pushtuns and the southern Pushtuns. While the southerners hold key positions in the Taliban, the easterners feel that they are being used as cannon fodder. Resentment over Durrani tribesmen wanting to retain their monopoly over power in Kabul is especially strong. A split seems to be emerging between the Durranis in the west and the Kandaharis in the east.

THE recent round of fighting near Kabul has further affected the lives of the long-suffering people of Kabul and its surrounding areas. Artillery shells and rockets have caused substantial damage to civilian life and property. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, around 100,000 people have fled the Shamwali plain, the most fertile region in the country, and sought refuge in the capital, which itself has been reduced to near-rubble after a decade of non-stop fighting.

The Northern Alliance, for its part, is presenting - after a long period - a picture of cohesiveness. This was evident during the funeral ceremony for Afghan Prime Minister Abdul Rahim Ghafarzai, who died in a plane crash in the third week of August. Ghafarzai's funeral was attended by the leaders of all the factions fighting against the Taliban, including President Rabbani, the Uzbek leader Abdul Mallik and the Hazara Shiite leader Karim Khalili. The Northern Alliance is making a determined effort to widen its base and broaden its appeal in international circles.

The Pushtun leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is now based in Iran, has not been given a leadership position in the Northern Alliance. Although Hekmatyar, who hails from eastern Afghanistan, continues to wield considerable influence in the Bagram province, it is evident that he does not enjoy the complete trust of Masood and other key leaders of the Alliance. In retrospect, the exit of General Rashid Dostam, the Uzbek warlord, from the Afghan political scene has only helped in uniting the anti-Taliban forces. The Uzbeks constitute only 5 per cent of the Afghan population. The two major pillars of the Northern Alliance today are the Tajiks and the Hazaras. The Hazaras constitute over 50 per cent of the population in Mazhar-e-Sharif.

THE Northern Alliance continues to retain its credibility in the international arena. The international community appears to have finally come to the conclusion that the Taliban will never be able to rule Afghanistan on its own. Only a negotiated settlement can bring stability back to the region. This is something that the Northern Alliance and the Central Asian countries have been demanding. However, a few Western countries and multinationals appeared to have had an agenda of their own in trying to prop up the Taliban. Washington, in its efforts to encircle Iran with hostile neighbours, supported the Taliban Government in Kabul. International oil and gas companies, in their eagerness to deprive Iran of its legitimate stake in the oil and gas market, were involved in separate deals with the Taliban (Frontline, September 5).

This situation has, however, changed. The Clinton administration has, in a significant move, lifted the ban on a gas pipeline (being constructed by a Western consortium) that will pass through Iran.

The Taliban's refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden, who is on Washington's most wanted terrorist list, has also been a major irritant in the ties between the Taliban and the Clinton administration. Osama bin Laden has claimed responsibility for the blasts in the U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia, which claimed the lives of many U.S. soldiers. In fact, Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, has been openly supportive of Osama bin Laden.

The Taliban leadership may be reconciled to holding sway over a truncated part of Afghanistan - the area under their control contains the heroin-producing zone. Western analysts say that the American street value of the heroin produced in Afghanistan is $80 billion annually. In contrast, Saudi Arabia, one of the world's leading oil producers, exports oil worth about $40 billion every year.


Meanwhile, the United Nations is making yet another attempt to negotiate a settlement. The U.N. Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, was in Delhi in early September as part of a regional tour aimed at finding a solution to the problem. It is significant that Brahimi included New Delhi in his itinerary. Some of the countries in the region, notably Pakistan, are not in favour of including India in the peace initiative. Earlier Brahimi visited Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Iran.

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