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Key Afghan Ethnic Group Remains Wildcard

by Jim Lobe

No peace in Afghanistan without Pashtun support
[Editor's note: This story was filed November 2, before the Northen Alliance capture of Mazar-i-Sharif, Kabul, and other cities. While it written two weeks ago from this date, the analysis still holds valuable background not reported in the mainstream U.S. press.]

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- As U.S. warplanes batter the Taliban's military infrastructure, Washington may be losing the war for the hearts and minds of potential allies from Afghanistan's leading Pashtun ethnic group, especially in the Taliban's southern heartland.

With the George W. Bush administration well into its fourth week of bombing what it originally described as a "target-poor" environment, Afghanistan experts here and in the region said, the Pashtun population in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are being alienated by the heavy bombardment of homelands around Kandahar and by recent diplomatic manoeuvering to create a post-Taliban government.

"The bombing has strengthened (Taliban) resolve," Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author of a best-selling book on the Taliban, said by telephone from Pakistan. "Many people (in southern Afghanistan) are very angry at the bombing." With at least 40 percent of Afghanistan's population, Pashtun loyalties are critical to the success of Washington's current "war" on terrorism, according to Rashid and other experts.

Without Pashtun support, Washington will find it impossible to restore stability to Afghanistan, even if it succeeds in ousting the Taliban. Similarly, the U.S. military may find it much more difficult to root out Osama bin Laden and other leaders of his al-Qaeda network believed to be hiding out in Pashtun areas in the south, said these analysts.

"(You) need majority Pashtun forces to conquer Pashtun areas," said Anatole Lieven, a journalist currently with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here.

Pashtuns have long dominated Afghan politics, mostly at the expense of smaller minorities, notably Tajiks, who make up about 25 percent of the population and are concentrated in the north and in Kabul; Hazaras, who are strongest in central and western Afghanistan; with about 19 percent; and Uzbeks, with about six percent and concentrated in the north near the border with Uzbekistan.

These three minorities comprise about 90 percent of the Northern Alliance, a loose coalition of ethnic militias that has united against the Pakistan-backed Taliban.

Washington assumed from the moment Bush threatened military action in Afghanistan that the Alliance would rally behind it. Policymakers also recognized, however, that they needed Pashtun support in order to create a more broad-based movement to replace the Taliban and provide a degree of stability.

That political imperative set off a flurry of diplomacy designed to forge a Pashtun-Alliance coalition that could attract Pashtun leaders either alienated from or less zealous than the Taliban and its leadership.

The strategy appeared feasible, particularly after the exiled Pashtun king, Zahir Shah, and the Northern Alliance agreed to a political process beginning with the convening of a council of national unity, handpicked by the king and the Alliance, to assemble an interim government.

At the same time, U.S. and Pakistani intelligence agencies began wooing Pashtun chiefs and commanders in southern Afghanistan with money and promises of influence and power in any new government. They hoped such blandishments, coupled with nightly displays of U.S. might, would result in the swift collapse of the Taliban's authority in the Pashtun heartland.

Instead, according to the experts, this strategy appears to have collapsed.

Pashtuns watching Alliance retribution
Political efforts to forge a coalition have bogged down very quickly over key issues. Pakistan, home to some 10 million Pashtuns, has insisted on a price for its support of Washington's war: that Pashtuns, including "moderate" Taliban leaders, be given a major, if not dominant role, in any new government.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has tentatively agreed to this condition but it remains unacceptable to many in the Northern Alliance and to their foreign backers, including Iran, India, and Russia.

The choice of the 120 delegates to the National Unity Council has also proven problematic, according to Rashid, not least because of haggling by foreign sponsors over the body's precise make-up. In addition, most of the king's nominees have come not from the resident Pashtun community but from his own entourage. Some, like the king, have not even stepped inside Afghanistan for almost 30 years.

"The big issue is Pashtun representation," said Rashid. "It's a great opportunity, but there has to be room for them in this process." Washington also has undermined its own strategy, by refusing, so far, to provide meaningful support to those commanders who have entered the region from Pakistan on their own to turn local chiefs and warlords against the Taliban.

Last week, Washington's hopes suffered a major setback when the Taliban captured and then executed Abdul Haq, a celebrated Pashtun commander during the Soviet occupation who entered Afghanistan to enlist support for the king.

On Thursday, the Taliban engaged a contingent of guerrillas accompanying a second commander, Hamid Karzai, who is on a similar mission. Reports from the region said he had escaped and may have established control over a portion of Uruzgan province.

Meanwhile, Alliance commander Ismael Khan's forces are running out of essential supplies even as they push toward the city of Herat, according to Rashid.

The U.S. bombing, which has taken scores of civilian lives in Pashtun areas, also is helping the Taliban. "It is making it more difficult to attract anti-Taliban support," said Lieven, who has just returned from Pakistan.

In addition, the Pentagon's decision to provide direct aid to Alliance forces north of Kabul -- including Wednesday's and Thursday's carpet bombing of Taliban lines -- will likely persuade many Pashtuns that Washington now prefers an outright Alliance victory to a political solution in which Pashtun interests are protected.

A major test will be an anticipated assault by Alliance forces on Mazar-i-Sharif, near the Uzbekistan border.

If Alliance forces take the town and commit massacres against the Taliban and the Pashtun population there, the result would "have catastrophic consequences in the south and in Pakistan," said Lieven. He suggested that this week's deployment of least 20 U.S. Special Forces personnel to work with the Alliance near Mazar-i-Sharif might have been designed precisely to prevent such an occurrence.

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Albion Monitor November 15, 2001 (

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