After the Taliban

Could a Coalition Government Withstand Afghan Rivalries?

 PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN—On the outskirts of this border city, near where the smugglers' market runs up against the tribal areas, you can see the mountains of Afghanistan in the distance. The streets here are filled with Afghans—grown men and women who came years ago as children, entire families who arrived last week.

Since U.S. air strikes began, predicting the makeup of Afghanistan's future government has become the favored pastime of the media and government officials here. They argue at length over which of the factions will take power: the exiled king Zahir Shah, the Northern Alliance, or one of the former mujahideen warlords. Or will the Taliban hold on?

But in this Afghan community, there is little discussion of such matters. Sher Azzal came to Pakistan 15 years ago to escape the Soviets and a conflict that eventually claimed one and a half million lives. He lives in a small room with his wife and children and has a modest business making nan, the thick bread favored here. "What is the difference?" he replies, when asked about which leaders he prefers. "We had the Russians and there was fighting, we had the mujahideen, there was fighting, we had the Taliban, there was fighting, and now there is fighting also."

Pir Syed Ahmad Gailani, a former mujahideen leader, at a press conference
Photograph by Michael Kamber
Pir Syed Ahmad Gailani, a former mujahideen leader, at a press conference

A tall, rugged man named Asif arrived here just days ago after fleeing Jalalabad in the wake of the U.S. bombing campaign. He walked with his wife, mother, and sister for three days and nights, through the Khyber Pass and into Pakistan. "I don't care which government is in power," he says, echoing the general sentiment here. "I just want peace."

"What is the difference?": Sher Azzal, who fled fighting in Afghanistan 15 years ago, in his Peshawar bakery.   (Photograph by Michael Kamber)

In the Afghan community, there is none of the keen interest in politics that one finds among Cubans in Miami or Haitians in New York. Few are discussing the relative merits of the various mujahideen warlords. As for King Zahir Shah, in exile for 30 years now, villagers have barely heard of him. Government for these Afghans has been something imposed upon them; they have never voted, never chosen a leader. Here in Pakistan as well, they are living under a military government. And they have little access to information upon which to make a choice; most are illiterate, and there is little independent press.

They know only that they want a return to stability, but many analysts here believe that Washington's short-term plan to wipe out Afghanistan's terrorist network—and then withdraw—will leave the country in chaos, ripe for takeover by any one of approximately a half-dozen warring groups. Increasingly, it is becoming apparent that Washington recognizes this as well.

Among the mujahideen, the push now is for a broad-based government, just the sort of talk the U.S. likes to hear. Like so many hungry children waiting for the lunch bell to ring, former mujahideen warlords, CIA and ISI (Pakistani secret service) agents, and diplomats are reassembling in this city in Pakistan's northwestern corner, once called the spy capital of the world. The Cold War may have been fought a few miles away, just over the border in Afghanistan, but it was largely planned, staged, and funded here.

The city is a chaotic, colorful, almost unbelievably smog-ridden place composed of squalid workers' colonies, numerous bazaars, and wealthy neighborhoods lined with compounds: small mansions set behind seven-foot walls. At times it seems the entire city is armed: Kalashnikov-toting guards loiter in front of businesses and the homes of the rich; hundreds of soldiers are stationed at intersections, some behind M-60 machine guns mounted on personnel carriers and beat up Datsun pick-ups. A popular monument, a 50-foot-high replica of Chaghai Rock, the site of Pakistan's first nuclear bomb test, dominates the city's downtown.

Students of Afghan history note that it was largely the mujahideen warlords who destroyed Afghanistan.

The international press has arrived by the hundreds. There is little to do, and so they throng the marble-clad lobby of the Pearl Continental hotel (suites at $264 a night, booked a month in advance), pumping one another for leads and waiting for a breakthrough and the rush to Kabul which is sure to ensue. Or they cover the occasional demonstration—the "Death to America and Israel" chants, the burning of the effigy carefully scrawled with "Bush Dog" in English.

Grateful for any distraction, the media turn out in droves for a press conference called by Pir Syed Ahmad Gailani, a former mujahideen leader. He talks about peace, reads a statement calling for a conference of Afghani leaders, and intones his desire to "serve the people of Afghanistan." Abdul Haq, another former warlord, recently returned from Dubai, is in the crowd, and is surrounded by journalists after the conference. To each question, his answer is the same: "If something can bring peace to my country, I want to be part of it."

Students of Afghan history note that it was largely the mujahideen warlords who destroyed Afghanistan, and they are skeptical of this newfound altruism. "The commanders are thoroughly corrupt, thoroughly ruthless, thoroughly discredited," says Rahimullah Yusufzai, executive editor of Pakistan's main English-language daily, The News, and one of the country's foremost experts on Afghanistan. "The U.S. thinks now they can be rehabilitated. And the commanders think America is here again and is going to give away the dollars."

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