The Northern players

Print edition : November 24, 2001

Former Afghanistan President Burhanuddin Rabbani with his one-time Defence Minister Mohammad Fahim Khan at a press conference in Kabul.-MARCO DI LAURO/ AP Photo: MARCO DI LAURO / AP

Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.-AP Photo: AP

Warlord Ismael Khan at a press meet in Herat, which fell on November 12.-BEHROUZ MEHRI/ AFP Photo: BEHROUZ MEHRI / AFP

The Northern Alliance, which has regained control over Kabul, is a coalition of disparate forces with a human rights record not substantially better than that of the Taliban.

THE new rulers of Kabul got a fresh lease of life thanks to September 11. The September 9 assassination of Ahmed Shah Masood almost sounded the death knell for the motley alliance he led (the United Front or the Northern Alliance). But then came the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Within days, the U.S. was looking desperately for an Afghan face to decimate the Taliban militia, the harbourers of its prime enemy, Osama bin Laden. War, almost a way of life for the past few generations of Afghans, gripped the land this time as never before. And even as the world was toying with the new power equations and just beginning to marvel at the tenacity of the Taliban, the 'student militia' abandoned the capital. Strode in the Northern Alliance that had been repeatedly told by its mentors to stay out of Kabul in order to allow scope for any future political manoeuvring. Of course it took nearly 40 days of relentless bombardment by the U.S. and its allies of the so-called front-line positions of the Taliban to facilitate the journey of the Alliance into Kabul.

The manner in which the Alliance leaders rode into Kabul and the assertive tone they have demonstrated since then make one wonder whether the U.S. was really serious in counselling them to restrain themselves from taking over the reins of Afghanistan.

The opposition forces have had fluctuating fortunes since their ouster from Kabul in 1996. Their resistance to the Taliban has ranged from dismal to spectacular over the half decade that the Taliban has ruled. Before September 11, all the factions of the Alliance together had control over less than 10 per cent of Afghan territory. Less than a month after Masood's death in a suicide attack, his forces were putting their act together to 'guide' the U.S. troops in their search for bin Laden.

In 1996 Masood surrendered Kabul to the Taliban without resistance. Ironically, his forces regained control over the historic city in quite a similar fashion in the third week of November. They were welcomed by loud music and men who shaved off their Taliban-mandated beards. This was perhaps an all-time high for the Alliance. But can it cash in on this and make long-term gains? The answer perhaps lies in what the Alliance really is and the image it is able to convey to the world when the Afghan pie is finally split.

Essentially, the United Front or the Northern Alliance is a coalition of disparate forces representing Afghanistan's ethnic and religious minorities. The National Islamic United Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, commonly known as the United Front, was formed in 1996 to block the Pashtun-dominated Taliban's northward march. It still falls short of a genuine Pashtun face that would give it a pan-Afghan identity that can ensure stability in any future set-up in Kabul.

The Front, however, supports the government ousted by the Taliban, the Islamic State of Afghanistan (ISA). The President of the ousted government, Burhanuddin Rabbani, remains the President of the ISA and is the titular head of the United Front. The real power of the Front remained with Commander Masood, the "Lion of Panjshir", who was the ISA's Minister for defence and who led a core of some 15,000 Tajik and Uzbek troops.

The precise membership of the United Front has varied from time to time, but at present it contains three main elements. The ethnic Tajik Jamiat-i-Islami-yi Afghanistan is led by Masood's successor General Mohammad Fahim Khan, former head of intelligence of the Northern Alliance. In the west-central Ghor and Herat provinces, Ismael Khan, a member of the Jamiat and former Herat Governor, is a key figure. The second main grouping is the Jumbish-i-Milli, led by former communist chief of the Afghan government's Uzbek militia, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who joined the Alliance earlier this year. The third main element is the ethnic Hazara Shia groupings of the Hizb-i-Wahdat, led by Karim Khalili and Haji Muhammad Mohaqiq. In addition, some of the commanders who were formerly under the leadership of the Pashtun leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are now fighting with the Alliance.

Jamiat-i-Islami-yi Afghanistan, one of the original Islamist parties in Afghanistan, was established in the 1970s by students at the Kabul University where Rabbani was a lecturer in the Faculty of Islamic Law. Rabbani's government-in-exile holds the country's United Nations' seat and has embassies in 33 countries, including India. His seat of government in Faizabad mostly depended on goods smuggled from Taliban-controlled areas.

Although Rabbani remains the official head of the Jamiat, Masood was the most powerful figure within the party. Both Rabbani and Masood are ethnic Tajiks (Persian-speaking Sunni Muslims) but from different areas. Masood's ethnic power base was in Parwan and Takhar provinces in the northeastern parts, where he established a regional administrative structure - the Supervisory Council of the North (SCN, or the Shura-yi Nazar-i-Shamali) - in the late 1980s. Masood's forces have received significant military and other support from Iran and Russia in particular. Since Masood's death, Fahim Khan has led the forces. He led the troops into Kabul and now heads the military and security committee that controls Kabul along with the Alliance's Interior Minister, Younis Qanooni.

Hizb-i-Wahdat-i Islami-yi Afghanistan, or Hizb-i-Wahdat (Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan), is the principal Shia party, and it enjoys support mainly among the Hazara ethnic community. Hizb-i-Wahdat was formed by Abdul Ali Mazari in order to unite eight Shia parties in the run-up to the anticipated collapse of the communist. government in the 1980s. Its current leader is Khalili. Muhaqiq, the leader of its executive council of the north, commanded the party's forces in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997. Hizb-i-Wahdat has received significant military and other support from Iran, although relations between the Iranian authorities and the party's leaders have been strained over issues of control. The party has also received significant support from local Hazara traders.

One of Dostum's key deputies was Abdel Malik Pahlawan. Their group took control of Mazar-e-Sharif in alliance with other groups in early 1992 and controlled much of Samangan, Balkh, Jowzjan, Faryab and Baghlan provinces. A coalition of militias, the Jumbish was the strongest force in the north from 1992 to 1997 but was riven by internal disputes. Since the fall of Mazar in 1998, the Jumbish has largely been inactive, although Dostum returned to northern Afghanistan in April 2001.

The Harkat-i-Islami-yi Afghanistan (Islamic Movement of Afghanistan) is a Shia party led by Ayatollah Muhammad Asif Muhsini. It allied with the Jamiat-i-Islami in 1993-1995 but never joined the Hizb-i-Wahdat. Its leadership is mostly non-Hazara Shia. Its most prominent commander is General Anwari. The group has enjoyed support from Iran.

The Ittihad-i-Islami Bara-yi Azadi Afghanistan (Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan) is headed by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf. During the war against the Soviet occupation, Sayyaf obtained considerable assistance from Saudi Arabia. Arab volunteers supported by Saudi entrepreneurs fought with Sayyaf's forces.

Some of the other faces of the Alliance that have made it to the international stage today include its Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, a medical doctor who has become its spokesman thanks to his fluency in Western languages. Hamid Karzai, official representative of the deposed King Zahir Shah, has been attempting to convene a Loya Jirga - tribal council - seeking to enable the King to be a rallying point of all the varied forces. A Pashtun, he is the chief of southern Afghanistan's Popolzai tribe.

The Alliance follows a milder form of Islam as compared to the Taliban. In Faizabad, as in the Panjshir valley, women can work and girls can pursue higher education. If the Taliban militia has a despicable human rights record, during Rabbani's reign, the Alliance was no better. Neither were the Alliance leaders able to unite the country when they held power briefly after the Soviet forces left. There is consensus among experts on Afghanistan that it was the brutalities of the warlords that gave birth to the Taliban. The situation in Afghanistan prior to the advent of the Taliban can be gauged from the fact that warlords from different areas had set up 80 illegal money collection posts between Jalalabad and Kabul, 22 between Taghb and Jalalabad, 24 between Kunar and Jalalabad and about 60 between Spein Bolak and Kandahar.

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) released in the first week of October a detailed backgrounder on the abuses by various commanders and their faithful and sought to caution the U.S.-led alliance about this. But the counsel appears to have fallen on deaf ears as the interest of the U.S. vis-a-vis the first war of the 21st Century lies elsewhere.

According to the HRW, throughout the civil war major factions of the Alliance were guilty of serious violations of international humanitarian law. These include killings, indiscriminate aerial bombardment and shelling, direct attacks on civilians, summary executions, rape, persecution on the basis of religion or ethnicity, the recruitment and use of children as soldiers, and the use of antipersonnel landmines. Many of these violations can be shown to have been "widespread or systematic", a criterion of crimes against humanity.

"The U.S. and its allies should not cooperate with commanders whose record of brutality raises questions about their legitimacy inside Afghanistan. Any country that gives assistance to the Afghan opposition must take responsibility for how this assistance is used," the HRW said. In particular it urged that no cooperation be extended to Dostum, Muhaqiq, Sayyaf and Pahlawan.

Abuses that were reported from an area controlled by a United Front faction in late 1999 and early 2000 include summary executions, burning of houses, and looting, principally targeting ethnic Pashtuns and others suspected of supporting the Taliban, as well as attacks on civilians between the fall of the Najibullah regime in 1992 and the Taliban's capture of Kabul in 1996.

"Not a single Afghan commander has been held accountable for human rights abuses. The time to break this cycle of impunity is now, and the United States and its allies will have the leverage to do it," the HRW said. But no one seems to be prepared to listen.