After the Taliban

Could a Coalition Government Withstand Afghan Rivalries?

The internecine rivalries are on full display inside the walled compound of the Afghan National Liberation Front, an organization set up by Sibghatullah Al-Mojaddedi, a mujahideen who served as the first president of Afghanistan for two months in 1992 as part of a power-sharing agreement. It was Mojaddedi who, under duress, turned over power to Burhanuddin Rabbani, who then refused to give up the reins, triggering a civil war that destroyed large sections of the country before the Taliban took control in 1996. Mojaddedi's son, Siddiqullah, the group's director of foreign affairs, speaks dismissively of Rabbani, now of the Northern Alliance, and the other mujahideen, Abdul Haq in particular. "They call [Haq] the liberator of Kabul. We got to Kabul first [in 1992] and sent an armored car to pick him up," he says of the warlord thought to be the favorite of the American government.

Referring to the American effort to bring the 86-year-old king, Zahir Shah, back from exile in Rome, Siddiqullah says, "It is not acceptable for another country to impose its will on us. If Americans try to bring the king back in, that's not the right thing. They should bring in someone who has participated in jihad [in this case, war against the Soviets]. The king, in all the years he was away, never once visited the people here, the refugees. He was just a king without any authority. He went fishing in Italy."

A few minutes later Siddiqullah allows that his father is in Italy conferring with Zahir Shah. U.S. officials are reportedly considering a plan to bring back Zahir Shah as the unifying figurehead in a coalition government, but this too could backfire; Zahir Shah's son and son-in-law are both known to have ambitions of their own.

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

Much time is spent here predicting the hour of the Taliban's downfall. "The Americans should be very careful," says one academic, who believes the Taliban will put up a prolonged resistance. "Did you hear them say, 'As the Americans love life, we love death'?" Others scoff at this, pointing out that only a small percentage of the Taliban forces are religious fundamentalists willing to fight to the death. The rest are local peasants and warlords who joined up as the Taliban revolution gained momentum.

The Taliban captured large swaths of Afghanistan by simply paying off the pertinent commanders. Cities and towns were taken without firing a shot. Many academics and journalists believe that cash will be the key to beating the Taliban. "Throughout history, the Afghans are known for their bargaining abilities," says Dr. Anwar Khan, former chairman of Peshawar University's Central Asia Studies Department. "The best thing the Americans can do is give up the arms and take out the dollars. Dollars can change destiny."

A British journalist who has spent four years reporting from the region agrees that money is the key. "If you are an Afghan living in a village, you follow your village leader, who controls about 30 men. If he says to fight, you get your AK-47 out from the loft, or under the cow where it's hidden, and you go off to fight. Then there's a more senior commander who has four or five villages under his command, maybe 200 men. The commander above him has about 10 of those commanders, 2000 men. And everyone has to be paid. A good commander knows when to switch sides. You get paid by one side, and then just as you're about to get slaughtered, you switch over to the opposition and get paid by them as well."

Of the half-dozen Afghani academics interviewed for this article, all referred to the Afghans' legendary ability to bargain and deceive—and to their notoriously fickle loyalties. "We believe that God is one," says Khan of Peshawar University. "But if an Afghan tells you this, you should check it out." Khan then launches into a story about traveling to Kabul in the early 1990s as an adviser to the short-lived coalition government. Within a week, each of the three faction leaders secretly approached him to confer about seizing power.

Ahmed Rashid's book Taliban, the standard history of Afghanistan's recent turmoil, confirms such inclinations, laying out detailed accounts of double- and triple-crosses, of allies who switched sides and prepared murderous ambushes. Whether the various former leaders have learned from their past mistakes remains to be seen. All seem to have retired comfortably—to Denmark, France, and the United Arab Emirates, among other locations—so it may be that they don't consider their past duplicity to be in error.

It is the Northern Alliance that is in the best position to take advantage of the U.S. bombing, yet they are being stymied by the U.S.-Pakistan alliance. Pakistan has demanded and received assurances from the U.S. that it will not help the alliance by bombing the approximately 10,000 Taliban troops facing them. The alliance is currently the only opposition fighting force in Afghanistan. They ruled the country in various permutations for four years, until 1996, when the Taliban pushed them out of Kabul, backing them into the northern territories below Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It is thought that with U.S. air support, the alliance could break through and take Kabul in a matter of weeks, or even days.

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