Keeping Our Fingers Crossed: Is Afghanistan Slipping into a Quagmire?

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Even as the Berlin Wall was taken apart brick by brick, another institution was crumbling around the world: the enforced socio-economic integration of different ethnicities within former Communist nations. Although Czechoslovakia peacefully disintegrated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, other areas such as the former Yugoslavia (war between totalitarian Serbia and Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia é 1992-1996), Armenia and Azerbaijan (1988-1992 war over Nagorno-Karabakh), and the Caucasus region point to a disturbing new trend in geopolitics. While NAFTA and the ECU touted the advent of the Global Village, former Cold War battlegrounds (the Middle East, Central and Eastern Asia) were celebrating with bloodied civil wars along ethnic and religious divisions.

Bloodletting, chaos, hunger and strife are no strangers to the modern history of Afghanistan. Indeed, civil war has become a way of life in the streets of Kabul, Kandahar, Konduz with tribal affiliations and loyalties spelling the law of conduct. This was the scene in 1979-1989, when Communism and Capitalism clashed in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, this is the scene in November 2001 as well. Despite futile media reports to the contrary, Afghanistan is on the verge of slipping into a political and socio-economic quagmire. In less than 48 hours, the despotic Taliban regime was forced to flee its northern stronghold of Mazar-e-Sharif, and eventually Kabul, to the rush of the Northern Alliance horde. By most eyewitness accounts law and order have broken down in the north, and Kabul residents, who had gleefully welcomed the Northern Alliance, are starting to show signs of concern that their new warlords will not leave.

And the revenge killings began even before warnings from human rights organizations made their way to the wire reports.

Shouting “Death to Arabs”, “Death to Pakistan”, and “Revenge for Ahmad Masood”, Northern Alliance troops, clad in their new military outfits generously donated from Iran and Russia, proceeded to massacre 520 local and Arab Taliban fighters who were holed up in a local school in Mazar-e-Sharif. News of the massacre was quick to surface but vehemently denied by U.S. and Russian authorities. Waxing Shakespearean, Russian President Vladimir Putin even went so far as to claim that it was unlikely these reports were true. This seemed somewhat ironic coming from a man who had called all Islamic militants terrorists as his forces rolled through Chechen villages.

Despite denials in the press, the United Nations reported that it had widespread accounts of summary executions and abductions in Mazar-e-Sharif. The U.N. went on to claim that 200 tons of food aid had been looted and all aid into the city had been seized by the Northern Alliance. These stories had been further corroborated by The Independent’s Anne Penketh: ” Northern Alliance soldiers admitted yesterday (Nov. 16) they had killed hundreds of pro-Taliban fighters holed up in a school, providing the first direct evidence of massacres by the victorious opposition forces.”

Within a few hours of the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif, Northern Alliance troops were poised to take Kabul. Aware that a power vacuum could translate into internal conflict and power wrangling in Kabul, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld repeated to world press that the Northern Alliance had sworn not to take Kabul until a political framework had been put in place for a broad-based Afghan government. Even when various Northern Alliance units infiltrated the outskirts of Kabul, the word was that the Northern Alliance would not occupy all of Kabul.

That’s one promise broken so far. The Northern Alliance is now promising to relinquish control of Kabul in favor of a coalition overnment encompassing all of the Afghan factions.

Easier said than done.

Afghanistan is comprised of various ethnic minorities, each swearing allegiance to different tribes. Pushtuns, Uzbeks, and Tajik are the most dominant Afghan ethnicities, all belonging to the Sunni sect of Islam. Then there are the Hazara Shiites, fighting alongside the Northern Alliance, and elements of Ismaili Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and traces of Christians. Add to this 12 different languages and dialects with Pashto ( 32 percent) and Dari (Afghan Persian é 50 percent) the official languages of Afghanistan. Eleven percent of the Afghans speak Uzbek and Turkmen in addition to Baluchi, Pashai and Nuristani.

It is no surprise that Shiite revolutionary Iran supports the Hazara and by default, the Northern Alliance as well. In the mid-1980s, Iran helped create and support several pro-Iranian Shi’a resistance groups within Afghanistan, including Hizb-i-Wahdat, Nasr, and Sepah. In 1999, Iran came desperately close to an all-out conflict with the Taliban after the latter killed eight Iranian diplomats and a journalist during the capture of a predominantly Shiite town when Mazar-e-Sharif fell into Taliban hands.

On the other hand, Pakistan is notorious for having provided such diligent support to the majority Pashtun Taliban. According to a Human Rights Watch publication, Pakistan covertly bankrolled Taliban operations, “providing diplomatic support as the Taliban’s virtual emissaries abroad, arranging training for Taliban fighters, recruiting skilled and unskilled manpower to serve in Taliban armies, planning and directing offensives, providing and facilitating shipments of ammunition and fuel, and on several occasions apparently directly providing combat support.” No surprise either that Northern Alliance fighters would ‘voice’ anti-Pakistan sentiment.

Add to that Uzbek, Russian, Tajik, Turkmen, Turkish, Saudi, Al Qaeda, and now U.S. influence and powder keg comes to mind. Lebanon, anyone?

Taliban, Northern Alliance é What’s the difference?

Last year, the world shuddered as Taliban militia supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar issued a decree ordering the destruction of all statues in Afghanistan including ancient pre-Islamic figures. Ancient statues of Buddha, engraved into the mountainside, were systematically blown up and stripped. “Barbarism”, said Western media. “Un-Islamic”, said Egypt’s religious authority, the Al Azhar. The Northern Alliance used this incident at the time to portray the Taliban as uncivilized mongrels out to rewrite history.

The Northern Alliance have tried to rewrite history as well. Equally horrific to the Buddha incident, the mujahideen led by Ahmad Shah Masood’s Northern Alliance ransacked and pillaged Kabul’s National Museum between 1988 and 1992. Artifacts dating back to the Ormazd, Ahriman, and Zoroastrian periods were destroyed, while others were stolen and sold for peanuts in Pakistan and India.

The Northern Alliance is comprised of several Sunni Islamic groups, namely the Jamiat-e-Islami, one of the first Islamist parties in the country, established in the early 1970s and led by the late Ahmad Shah Masood. This group enjoys Tajik allegiance while the Junbish-e-Milli Islami is mainly comprised of Uzbek units and former communists from Uzbekistan. The Shiite contingents of the Northern Alliance come from the Harakat-e-Islami, who are non-Hazara Shiites and the Hizb-i-Wahdat Hazara. The strongest Pashtun component in the Northern Alliance is the Itihad-e-Islami Barayi Azadi.

The various ethnic loyalties that comprise the Northern Alliance are further complicated by the ego-driven agenda of the warlords who now act as defacto U.S. Coalition members and allies. At the top of the list is Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek from Mazar-e-Sharif. His C.V. reads like a crack SS officer with no remorse for countless civilian deaths and the uncanny knack to switch sides whenever convenient…or when the price is high enough. Dostum had strongly supported the late Afghan President Najibullah, but was lured away by Masood’s men and quite a handful of cash. This led to Najibullah’s torture, murder, and eventual hanging from a city lamp post in 1992. In full Afghan mockery, a cigar was placed firmly between Najibullah’s lips as civilians looked on.

Then there is Mohammed Fahim, Masood’s successor who is brimming with the chance to avenge his former mentor’s assassination. Add to that Ithad-e-Islami’s Abdou Rasool Sayyaf, fiercely backed by Saudi Arabia and a vehement anti-Shiite. His infamy is recounted by U.N reports of a number of Shiite Hazara women raped by his forces and their husbands hanging from Kabul lamp posts, an Afghan hobby.

According to Human Rights Watch, “Forces of the faction operating under Commander Massoud, the Jamiat-i-Islami, were responsible for rape and looting after they captured Kabul’s predominantly Hazara neighborhood of Karte Seh from other factions in 1995”. A 1996 U.S. State Department report found that “Massood’s troops went on a rampage, systematically looting whole streets and raping women.”

It was precisely this chaos tearing at the very existence of post-communist Afghanistan that set the stage for Taliban’s rise to power.

Although the Taliban’s rap sheet is miles long with countless beatings, torture, killings, and oppression of women, the new rulers of Kabul are certainly no better. While the Taliban is accused of keeping women at home, barring them from education and public health, and executing them in public areas, the Northern Alliance seem to get off the hook with ‘minor’ rape and murder.

It is no wonder then that a member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) voiced desperate concern on a September broadcast of Larry King Live. She courageously asked Abdullah Abdullah, the Northern Alliance spokesperson, how he could account for the atrocities his group committed against women during the ransacking of Kabul in 1992. He doggedly avoided answering the question and pointed to the fact that women should be educated and liberated.

“Women are our biggest allies in Afghanistan,” says U.S. Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein. Try convincing Afghan women as they ‘welcome’ back their former rapists.

Firas Al-Atraqchi is a Muslim Canadian journalist living on the Pacific Coast.

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