After the Taliban


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.”

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.”

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.

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.

If Pakistan has its way, this will never happen. When the Northern Alliance commanders were in power, they took aid and advisers from India, Pakistan’s arch-rival. The alliance leadership is not Pashtun, the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier province. Pakistan is pushing for inclusion of Pashtun Taliban deserters in any new government, hoping this will sate the anger of the Pakistani Pashtuns who have caused major recent disturbances. “We would never accept any non-Pashtun government,” says Dr. Anwar Khan. “We have been fighting since time immemorial for this. My grandfather sold his house and went to fight against the British [in Afghanistan] to reestablish a Pashtun government.”

Critics of the Northern Alliance also question its human rights record. An Afghani U.N. worker who has worked for years in Northern Alliance-controlled territory describes their legacy as, “rape, rape, rape, and extortion.” She tells of numerous cases where the alliance has come into towns and begun wholesale attacks on women. And, she says, “everywhere we went, every aid convoy, every trip we took, they were there blocking the road, extorting money to let us pass. They are thieves.”

The problem now facing the U.S. is that neither the Northern Alliance nor any other one group is acceptable to all the factions. Yet experts say there is no escaping Afghanistan’s long political history—democracy is a foreign concept. “There can be no coalition government, no broad-based government,” says Yusufzai, the editor. “That is so much fancy talk. There has to be a dominant group governing the country.”