Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 3   No. 11 Table of Contents
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November 2001 

What's Next for Afghanistan?
by Julie Sirrs

Julie Sirrs was an Afghan analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency from 1995-1999. She is currently a consultant focusing on Afghanistan and the surrounding region. She has made four trips to Afghanistan in recent years, one of which involved filming the documentary "Abandon All Hope, Welcome to Afghanistan," which was shown on MSNBC.

Over the last few weeks, the Taliban's seven-year sway across Afghanistan has collapsed, and the militia is left barely clinging to power in its home base in the southern city of Kandahar. With the Taliban's downfall come new concerns for the United States and others who have an interest in making sure Afghanistan remains stable, not only to prevent terrorists from reestablishing an enclave there, but also to forestall humanitarian disaster and regional instability. To that end, it is most pressing now to have a better understanding of who will govern Afghanistan -- and how.

The "Northern Alliance" (United Front)

Burhanuddin Rabbani
In the rapidly changing events in Afghanistan, the forces of the United Front -- more commonly, though incorrectly, known as the Northern Alliance -- have suddenly catapulted to a position of strength in negotiations for forming a more broad-based government. Yet much about the Northern Alliance and its leaders remains obscure. The Northern Alliance is comprised of six factions: Jamiat-i Islami (Islamic Society), largely Sunni and Tajik; Mashreqi Shura (Eastern Council), predominantly Sunni and Pushtun; Hezb-e Wahdat (Unity Party), primarily Shi'ite and Hazara; Jumbash-e Melli-ye Islami (National Islamic Movement), largely Sunni and Uzbek; Ittehad-e Islami (Islamic Union), predominantly Sunni and Pushtun; and Harakat-e Islami (Islamic Movement), mainly Shi'ite and non-Hazara.

The following is a brief "who's who" of the Northern Alliance's leadership to help in sorting out the names now at the forefront of news in Afghanistan:

Burhanuddin Rabbani

President of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, ousted by the Taliban from Kabul in September 1996. His government is still recognized as legitimate by the United Nations, Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, and much of the rest of the world, though not the United States or Pakistan. Rabbani is a former theology professor at Kabul University and has headed the Sunni Jamiat-i Islami (Islamic Society) resistance group since before the Soviet occupation. He is a Tajik originally from Faizabad in northeast Badakhshan province.

Mohammed Qassem Fahim

The Commander in Chief of the military forces of the Northern Alliance, a position he assumed after the assassination of Ahmed Shah Masood, the renowned resistance leader. Fahim had served with Masood since the beginning of the Afghans' struggle against the Soviets. He served as the minister of security in the mujahideen government which ruled in Kabul from 1992-1996. After Kabul fell to the Taliban, Fahim became Masood's deputy commander for the northern areas around Taloqan. He is a Sunni Tajik originally from the Panjshir Valley.

Abdullah Abdullah
Abdullah Abdullah

The Islamic State of Afghanistan's Foreign Minister since 1997, Abdullah was originally trained as an ophthalmologist, but joined Afghan resistance leader Masood in 1983. His father's side of the family are Pushtuns from Kandahar, while his mother's side are Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley. He is a Sunni.

Abdur Rashid Dostum

An Uzbek originally from the city of Sherberghan in northern Jowzjan province, Dostum headed a militia loyal to the communist regime during the Soviet occupation, but then helped to topple it in 1992. He has a long history of making and breaking alliances, both with the mujahideen government and the Taliban. He has been with the Northern Alliance since April 2001 after returning from exile in Turkey. His power center has traditionally been the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif and he heads the Jumbash-e Milli-ye Islami (National Islamic Movement). Though Dostum is a Sunni Muslim, he is the most secular member among the Northern Alliance's leadership.

Karim Khalili

The head of the Hezb-e Wahdat (Unity Party), Khalili is an ethnic Hazara and a Shi'ite Muslim from the central province of Bamiyan, home to the ancient Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban earlier in 2001. Khalili assumed the leadership of Wahdat after its previous head, Ali Mazari, was killed by the Taliban in 1995. Khalili continued to resist the Taliban in central Afghanistan after the militia took over the area in 1998.

Mohammed Mohaqiq

The top leader of the Wahdat Party in Mazar-e Sharif, where he ruled in coalition with Dostum and Atta (see below) until he was ousted by the Taliban in 1998. A Hazara and a Shi'a, he remained active in the resistance against the Taliban. He is now part of the coalition which is again ruling Mazar-e Sharif.

Ismail Khan
Atta Mohammed

A member of the Jamiat party originally from Mazar-e Sharif, Atta ruled that city in coalition with the forces of Dostum and Hezb-e Wahdat. He remained in Afghanistan fighting in the northern areas against the Taliban after being ousted from Mazar-e Sharif in mid-1998. Though a Tajik, Atta is married to a Pushtun from a prominent family in Mazar, who smuggled him out when the Taliban took over. He is a Sunni.

Ismail Khan

A prominent Sunni Tajik resistance leader from Herat in western Afghanistan with ties to Rabbani's Jamiat party. Khan was the governor of Herat, Farah, and Nimruz provinces before the Taliban took over those areas in mid-1995. He was later captured by the militia in 1997, but escaped from prison in 2000. After recuperating from his captivity, he returned to western Afghanistan to fight against the Taliban in early 2001.

Haji Abdul Qadir
Sayyed Hussein Anwari

Anwari is a Shi'ite from the Harakat-e Islami (Islamic Movement) party of Sheikh Mohammed Asef Mohseni. During the mujahideen administration in Kabul, Anwari was the minister of labor and has remained with the Northern Alliance ever since. Ethnically, Anwari is a sayyed, a group which traces its lineage back to the Prophet Muhammed.

Haji Abdul Qadir

Qadir is a Sunni Pushtun and leads the Mashreqi Shura (Eastern Council) party within the Northern Alliance. Prior to being ousted by the Taliban in 1996, Qadir headed the Shura -- a multi-faction coalition government ruling the four eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Laghman, Konar, and Nuristan -- from his base in Jalalabad. During the Soviet occupation, Qadir was a prominent commander within the Hezb-e Islami (Islamic Party) headed by Yunis Khalis. Qadir is a brother of recently-assassinated Abdul Haq.

Hazrat Ali

Hazrat Ali has been the Mashreqi Shura's top commander in the field against the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan. He is an ethnic Pashai and a Sunni, originally from the city of Dareh-ye Noor in Nangarhar province. He is now chief of police for the Mashreqi Shura.

Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf

Sayyaf leads the Ittehad-e Islami (Islamic Union) and currently serves as a deputy to Rabbani. Because of his fluency in Arabic and his conservative Islamic views, Sayyaf was a one-time favorite of Saudi Arabia within the Afghan resistance in the 1980s and consequently hosted a number of Arabs during the war against the Soviets. With the rise of the Taliban, however, Sayyaf remained on the side of the Northern Alliance and was consequently abandoned by his one-time Arab supporters. Sayyaf is a Sunni Pushtun from the city of Paghman, near the capital, Kabul.

Additional Contenders for Power

These Northern Alliance leaders -- having risked their lives, in many cases for years, in resisting the Taliban -- are unlikely now to yield power in any significant degree to those who have either cooperated with the Taliban or remained safely in exile. Mohammed Es'haq, the Northern Alliance's Washington representative, however, has stated that the alliance must expand its base, particularly to include Pushtuns from the south, or else "Pakistan will interfere as it has always done."1 This sentiment was borne out by Foreign Minister Abdullah who, upon entering Kabul, immediately extended an invitation to all parties (aside from the Taliban) to come together to form an interim government and convene a Loya Jirga (grand assembly) to establish a more permanent transfer of power.2

Almost certain to be included among those outside the Northern Alliance in the country's new government is Hamid Karzai, a Pushtun from a prominent family around Kandahar, the only individual from southern Afghanistan who succeeded in instigating an uprising against Taliban rule in its final days. Karzai is close to the former king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, and also has maintained good relations with the Northern Alliance over the years. Karzai will likely assume a ministerial post in a future government.

Somewhat less clear is what role former king Zahir Shah may ultimately play. Dr. Abdullah, the Northern Alliance's main arbiter on matters of foreign affairs, has stated that the former king is welcome to participate in the future government, possibly as a neutral, interim figurehead.3 Powerful figures in the alliance, however, particularly those close to Rabbani, point out that in over twenty years of war, the king has done little to endear himself to the people. They complain, for instance, that Zahir Shah never once visited the refugee camps in which millions of Afghans live in neighboring Iran or Pakistan.

Afghans interviewed inside the country also express some resentment that those who have been living in comfortable exile for decades are now attempting to return to the country to replace the very people who have been doing the fighting and dying.4 These sources note the reluctance of the exiles to visit Afghanistan in recent years. Typical of this reluctance is that these same would-be rulers balked at returning to the country to convene a council for determining an interim government. Instead, the meeting was held in Germany. Furthermore, while the people around the former king are generally well-educated and thus potentially valuable for the country's future, they also tend to be considerably more liberal than those who remained behind. This likely makes them less palatable to the general population.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar
In the past, successive Afghan governments were dominated by Pushtuns, who comprise 38% of the population.5 Yet the non-Pushtun ethnic groups over the past two decades have become accustomed to greater autonomy and are mindful that the country's freedom from both the Soviets and the Taliban owes much to their efforts. Now armed, it would probably be impossible to re-impose the sort of Pushtun-dominated government that some Pushtuns and their foreign supporters seem to hearken back to fondly.

Instead of reaching out to the exiles, the Northern Alliance will likely focus its energy in accommodating Pushtuns inside Afghanistan. Yet even if successful, some malcontents who could be manipulated from abroad will likely remain. Chief among the individuals in this category is the former mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Sunni Pushtun who headed his own faction of the Hezb-i Islami (Islamic Party). Not satisfied with his appointment as prime minister by the mujahideen government in 1992, Hekmatyar laid siege to the capital until the arrival of the Taliban. After forming a brief alliance with the Kabul government in summer 1996, he later fled the city as the Taliban approached in September of that same year, eventually settling in Tehran. He appears now to have left Iran and is again attempting to establish a foothold in Afghanistan.

Signs of Promise

While this situation seems to be setting Afghanistan up for the same sort of factional fighting which has wracked the country in one form or another for the past twenty years, significant developments in the relatively recent past make such a repeat less likely. First among these is that the Northern Alliance's leaders generally appear to have realized that their previous failure resulted in part from not cooperating better with each other. At least as far back as 1998, Ahmed Shah Masood -- whom his successors now wish to emulate -- recognized that more strenuous efforts should have been made to maintain a broad base within the Kabul government from 1992-1996.6 The Northern Alliance's announced plan is to cede power to an interim government (in which its members would likely have prominent positions), which would rule for approximately two years, at which time elections -- with both male and female suffrage -- would take place.7 Even after elections, the groups represented by the Northern Alliance are likely to predominate since they comprise approximately 75% of the population.8

Additionally, since being ousted from power by the Taliban, the groups and individuals who once opposed each other have suffered enormous -- in many cases, personal -- losses. They agreed to form and maintain their alliance prior to September 11 when their future inside Afghanistan looked particularly bleak as the Taliban gradually gained ground against what little territory remained under Northern Alliance control. Most importantly, though each of these leaders could have lived quite comfortably abroad, they were willing to risk death by staying inside and working together.

Regarding the issue of ethnicity, the outlook is not as hopeless as some would portray it.9 Overall, the various ethnic groups have coexisted in relative harmony over the two and half centuries in which Afghanistan has existed as a country. Though most past governments were dominated by Pushtuns, such rule was not generally brutal and was largely decentralized. Already, multi-ethnic governing bodies have been established in areas taken over recently by the Northern Alliance including Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif, and Jalalabad. Various Afghan leaders have expressed an interest in the Swiss style of government, in which different linguistic groups share power equitably, though they also admit to not knowing the full details of that system.10

The Northern Alliance also already appears to have largely succeeded in correcting a past problem which occurred during certain periods in some areas during the mujahideen's rule, that of maintaining law and order. A police force of several thousand was among the first to enter Kabul in the early morning hours of November 12. By noon these men -- trained in human rights law and paid better than the average soldier to curb bribery -- were directing traffic, rounding up weapons, and keeping the peace.11 This force is another legacy of Masood, who was sensitive to criticism that his government in Kabul had not done a better job of ensuring the safety of lives and property.

Pakistani Interference

Yet however much Afghan leaders are genuine in their efforts to form a legitimate, broad-based government, there will be only so much that they can control. The role of Afghanistan's neighbors has historically been at least as important in determining the country's fate. Pakistan, in particular, has a decades-long tradition of manipulating Afghanistan's affairs. President Pervez Musharraf is only the most recent Pakistani leader to claim that he supports a particular party in Afghanistan because of ethnic solidarity between both countries' Pushtuns. Yet Pushtuns comprise only 8% of Pakistan's population, and at most 5% of its military, not the one third some Pakistani officials claim.12 Less than one-third of Pakistanis captured fighting for the Taliban are Pushtuns.13

Instead, the decisive factor in Pakistan's choosing an Afghan favorite traditionally has been determined by extremism, not ethnicity. For example, out of the six Pushtun mujahideen parties based in Pakistan during the war against the Soviets, Pakistan favored one -- the most anti-Western -- above all others: that of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Pakistan's intelligence service -- Inter Services Intelligence or ISI -- ensured that the bulk of US aid to the mujahideen went to Hekmatyar. It was because of Pakistani support that Hekmatyar was able to continue to wage war against the mujahideen government in Kabul. Yet when Hekmatyar proved unsuccessful in winning that fight, Pakistan turned to a new force, even more extreme: the Taliban. Far from representing Afghanistan's Pushtuns, the Taliban from the beginning contained Pakistanis and other foreigners who drove Pushtuns out of power throughout Afghanistan. It remains to be seen which extremist element Islamabad will back next.

There are already signs that Pakistan is actively creating problems in post-Taliban Afghanistan. For instance, Musharraf continues to insist on the inclusion of supposed "moderate Taliban" elements in a future government. As one Northern Alliance official pointed out, however, "if they were moderate, what were they doing in the Taliban?"14 Furthermore, no sooner did the Mashreqi Shura reconstitute itself in Jalalabad than a convoy of armed men from among Afghan exiles in Pakistan arrived to dispute its rule. Pakistani tanks and soldiers have also moved closer to the Afghan border in recent days. Islamabad claims they are there to prevent Taliban from fleeing even as Pakistan continues to recognize their regime. More likely this movement is intended as a warning to the Afghans not to disregard Pakistan's wishes. Finally, the Pakistan-based trucking mafia -- another key element which brought the Taliban to power15 -- has also refused to enter Afghanistan in the past few days, jeopardizing the transport of much needed humanitarian aid.

American Influence

The US government has shown a partial willingness so far to disregard Pakistan's wishes in order to continue the war in Afghanistan. Thus even as President George Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell were calling on the Northern Alliance not to enter Kabul, American planes continued to bomb Taliban front lines to hasten the militia's retreat from the city while US Special Forces entered the capital alongside their Afghan allies. US officials from the White House to the Defense Department later announced their pleasure at the Northern Alliance's gain.16

Yet Washington's commitment to Afghanistan over the long term is less clear. Already a State Department official has expressed the Bush Administration's unwillingness to provide American troops for a peace keeping force in the country, preferring instead that Afghans maintain their own security.17 While Powell has stated that humanitarian relief will be a goal, Washington has not indicated whether its soldiers will remain to facilitate such operations. Given the relative order and calm prevailing so far throughout the non-Taliban areas, the US may not deem this necessary.

What Northern Alliance officials are instead calling for -- and what they have been requesting for years -- is that Washington use its influence with Islamabad to rein in Pakistani interference. They argue that with over one billion dollars in American aid slated for Pakistan in the next year, that could occur, though precedent indicates otherwise. Washington's reliance on Islamabad for information about Afghanistan and its sudden loss of interest in the affairs of that country following the Soviet withdrawal and the fall of the Afghan communist government could well be repeated as the war on terrorism shifts its geographical focus.

Other Countries' Involvement

Other allies of the Northern Alliance, however, are much more likely to remain and serve as counterweights to Pakistan. Chief among these is Iran, whose money and materiel did much to maintain the Northern Alliance's viability over the past six years. Tehran initiated its aid to the Northern Alliance based on its belief that the United States was behind Pakistan's support for the Taliban -- and that Iran was the ultimate target. Iran's motivation gradually changed to seeing the Taliban as a source of instability and a threat to its security, even without US backing. With its investment in Afghanistan finally paying off now, Iran will be unlikely to abandon the Northern Alliance if Pakistan again attempts to destabilize Afghanistan. Significantly, Iran, along with the Central Asian states, Russia, and India, are adamantly opposed to a role for so-called Taliban moderates in a future government.

Instead, Tehran wants -- as does Washington -- a stable Afghan government with which it can work to return the nearly two million refugees in Iran and to curb the narcotics which continue to flow over its borders. Unlike its involvement elsewhere, Iran has not used its influence with groups in Afghanistan to promote terrorism. Furthermore, Iran has distributed its Afghan aid over the years -- to Shi'ite factions since 1979 and to the Sunni parties since 1995 -- on the condition that the groups remain unified, another factor mitigating against in-fighting.

Russia, too, having seen the relative ease with which Chechens managed to establish a base in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan, will likely work to ensure that such a situation does not repeat itself. Similarly, the Central Asian countries -- particularly Uzbekistan and Tajikistan who have now openly sided with the Northern Alliance -- will want to promote the new Kabul government's stability. Finally, India, which is combating its own Pakistan-backed terrorist threat in Kashmir, likely realizes that it also has much to lose if a moderate Afghan regime fails. The same terrorist training camps used by bin Ladin were also used by militants waging war against New Delhi.

It is this new awareness on the part of most of Afghanistan's neighbors that they must stay involved in that country which will now likely succeed in countering more negative outside influence. Whatever its other faults might be, any government dominated by the Northern Alliance is extremely unlikely to harbor the extremists favored by the Taliban. They have been fighting against those very militants for many years. Had such relative regional solidarity been the case when the mujahideen ruled in Kabul previously, the Taliban might never have been able to take power.


  1 Author's telephone interview with Mohammed Es'haq, 20 November 2001.
  2 The Associated Press, 17 November 2001.
  3 Ibid.
  4 Author's interviews in Afghanistan in October 1998, October 1999, and March 2000.
  5 The Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook, Afghanistan section.
  6 Interview with author on 16 October 1998, Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan.
  7 Author's telephone interview with Mohammed Es'haq, 20 November 2001.
  8 Percentage determined using figures from the CIA's World Factbook showing non-Pushtuns comprising 62% of the population and estimating that half of the Pushtuns are represented by the northern and eastern Pushtun parties of Qadir and Sayyaf.
  9 Betsy Pisik, "Afghan Future Is Envoy's Task," The Washington Times, 15 November 2001 and Amy Waldman, "The Warlord, In Charge Again, Thanks the West But Wants It Gone," The New York Times, 17 November 2001.
  10 Author's interviews in Afghanistan with Ahmed Shah Masood and Haji Qadir in October 1998.
  11 Anthony Lloyd, "Alliance Train Force to Police Kabul," The Times (London), 24 October 2001 and John Jennings, "Back to Business on Chicken Street," The Washington Times, 16 November 2001.
  12 The Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook, section on Pakistan and John F. Burns, "Alliance in Kabul Will Share Power, Envoy Reports," The New York Times, 20 November 2001.
  13Julie Sirrs, "The Taliban's International Ambitions," Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2001, p.64.
  14 Comments of Northern Alliance Representative Mohammed Es'haq at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, D.C. on October 2, 2001.
  15 Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p.90-91.
  16 Bill Gertz, "Kabul Captured," The Washington Times, 14 November 2001.
  17 Ben Barber and Betsy Pisik, "US Not Set to Back UN Force," The Washington Times, 14 November 2001.

2001 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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