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Northern Alliance has bloody past, critics warn

By Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan In a fever to rout the killers who attacked New York and Washington, the United States is making common cause with rebels in Afghanistan who have themselves been accused by human rights officials of killing thousands of innocent people, burning homes and committing acts of ethnic cleansing. America is relying on Northern Alliance insurgents or the United Front, as they prefer to be called to fight the ruling Taliban on the ground, provide intelligence information about the success of U.S. airstrikes and help locate indicted terrorist Osama bin Laden. The Bush administration has not endorsed the Northern Alliance as its choice to take control of Afghanistan. But the Taliban might be driven from power in the weeks ahead by alliance fighters in large part because of damage done by the U.S.-led bombing campaign. That raises the question of whether the United States might help substitute one group of thugs for another.

The leaders of the Northern Alliance are "not exactly Wilsonian democrats," says Patricia Grossmann, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University who has conducted research on Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch. Instead, she says, many are "war criminals" guilty of acts of indiscriminate brutality.

The Bush administration seems to have set aside, at least for now, any qualms about the rebels. The president and his aides have made clear their priority is ousting the Taliban, which has both provided bin Laden safe harbor and benefited from his financial support, while enforcing a strict interpretation of Islam that severely limits the rights of Afghanistan's 27 million people.

"We need to recognize the value they bring to this anti-terrorist, anti-Taliban effort," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last week of the Northern Alliance, "and where appropriate, find ways to assist them."

For its part, the leadership of the Northern Alliance has envoys in the United States lobbying Congress, fielding media interviews and otherwise putting forward a friendly Afghan face. The leaders are promising a peaceful and democratic future for Afghanistan if the United States helps them defeat the Taliban. They are committed to fighting terrorism, says a leading spokesman, Afghan special envoy Haron Amin in Washington.

He does not dispute allegations of past acts of brutality by Northern Alliance commanders and troops. But America must realize, he says, that this is war. "Life, itself, is not a perfect picture," Amin says, "Regardless of who is right in the war, it leads to someone being killed. ... The only morality that prevails in certain instances is the morality of war."

There is a realpolitik subtext to America's enlistment of these Afghan factions a sense of ends justifying the means.

"Ultimately, the Northern Alliance is the strongest thing going. And so you start with that," says Michael O'Hanlon, defense analyst at the Brookings Institution.

But to ensure that one repressive government isn't replaced with another, O'Hanlon says, it's critical that efforts be made to build broad support for a new government in Kabul that includes all ethnic groups. The United States can't, he says, "let this Northern Alliance just run roughshod over the country." And the support for an ethnically broad government needs to be built long before U.S. forces leave the region, O'Hanlon and other experts say.

So far, the United States hasn't said it is trying to determine who controls Afghanistan just that it wants the Taliban out. But while President Bush said Thursday that the United States "shouldn't play favorites between one group or another," the air campaign in Afghanistan already has disabled the air power that has let Taliban forces dominate alliance forces.

White House officials won't say how closely the United States is cooperating with the alliance, but rebel leaders say they're being kept informed of the U.S.-led military operations. It's assumed that the United States is exchanging some intelligence information about Taliban whereabouts with the Northern Alliance. And the United States has encouraged Russia to increase arms shipments to the rebels in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to provide safe haven for Northern Alliance leaders.

But Washington also has been cautious about anointing a particular rebel group for fear of alienating others. The ethnic Pashtun in the south, for example, would be upset if the United States overtly backed the Northern Alliance made up primarily of ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks over them.

The White House also faces a delicate diplomatic challenge regarding Pakistan. Until this crisis, Pakistan had supported the Taliban. Its leaders distrust the Northern Alliance, in large part because the rebels have been accepting aid from Pakistan's archrival, India. The United States needs Pakistan's intelligence, the right to fly on its airspace and access to its airbases. So far, Pakistan has been cooperating.

The White House has spoken only vaguely about a long-term U.S. role in Afghanistan. If anything, the role might be limited. Bush suggested at his news conference Thursday night that the United Nations could "take over the so-called nation-building ... after our military mission is complete."

There were reports Thursday underscoring the tricky relationship between the United States and the Northern Alliance. The Washington Post, quoting some alliance commanders and unnamed U.S. and Pakistani officials, said the rebels have agreed to a request by U.S. and international officials that they delay a planned attack on Taliban forces controlling the capital of Kabul. They've agreed to hold off until the nature of any post-Taliban government is agreed upon by ethnic and political groups from across Afghanistan, the Post reported. Other reports Thursday, however, quoted alliance commanders as saying they might go ahead with a push on Kabul.

Human rights officials, while conceding that war creates atrocities, say warlords guilty of savage acts against civilians and prisoners whether from the Taliban or Northern Alliance should be excluded from any future for Afghanistan.

"The question amounts to whether we're aiding a coalition that's going to be seen by the local population as no better than the Taliban that they're replacing," says Sidney Jones, executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

Infighting paved way for Taliban

The rebel leaders had the chance to lead before and lost it.

The Northern Alliance today is made up of five disparate fighting groups divided along ethnic lines and led by a hodgepodge of commanders, among them ex-communists, clerics and intellectuals. Most are the remnants of the mujahedin guerrillas, who slept in caves and lived on berries and bread while fighting a hit-and-run campaign against the Soviets for a decade.

With CIA financing and the strategic use of shoulder-fired, U.S.-made Stinger missiles against Soviet aircraft, the mujahedin forced a bloodied Red Army to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989. Three years later, the Soviet-backed puppet regime collapsed. But then ethnic factions of the mujahedin fell to warring with one another, and internal dissension racked the government of new President Burhanuddin Rabbani.

It was into this vacuum that a previously obscure fundamentalist Islamic group known as the Taliban meaning, seeker of religious knowledge led by Mullah Mohammed Omar and with the financial support of Pakistan, began winning control of Afghanistan. The Taliban, which persuaded some mujahedin chieftains to join, grew in strength and captured Kabul in 1996. A year later, it controlled about 90% of Afghanistan. Most of Afghanistan now is ruled by Taliban edicts that, for example, forbid women and girls from attending school, block the Internet and Western media and make converting to a non-Islamic religion a crime punishable by death.

Driven from power, other tattered factions of the mujahedin attempted to unite, and Pakistani media began calling the new coalition the Northern Alliance. The largest group within the alliance today is the Islamic Society of Afghanistan, or Jamiat-e-Islami.

Its founder and leader is the former Afghanistan president, Rabbani, a onetime law professor. The charismatic Ahmad Shah Masood was, until his assassination early last month, a Jamiat military strategist who epitomized for the world the best of the Northern Alliance. His defense of the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul against Soviet forces in the 1980s was considered a brilliant campaign. Analysts believe Masood could have brought the United Front legitimacy.

In its recent report on human rights abuses by the Northern Alliance, Human Rights Watch listed several incidents the last few years that it blames on Northern Alliance forces. They include the summary execution of ethnic Pashtuns as families watched, a rocket attack on Kabul that killed perhaps 180 people in a marketplace, cluster munitions dropped on residential areas of that city and widespread acts of rape and looting.

In May 1997, an estimated 3,000 Taliban soldiers captured in and around Mazar-e Sharif by forces loyal to one part of the alliance, the Jimbush-e-Milli-Movement, were taken into the desert and shot or thrown into wells and blown up with grenades, Human Rights Watch says. Jimbush's troops have been nicknamed "carpet thieves" and are infamous for rapes, indiscriminate killings and looting.

Four alliance leaders have been singled out by Human Rights Watch as particularly brutal. But "not a single Afghan commander has been held accountable for human rights abuses," Jones says.

Northern Alliance officials in Washington argue that the men are key players in the current military campaign who will not stand in the way of a free and democratic Afghanistan should victory come. "These guys will not be trouble in the future," Amin says. "They realize that right now they can either bring peace to the country or they can have an endless war."

Supporters also point to the way Afghans are allowed to live in the 10% of the country the alliance controls as evidence of the rebels' good intentions. Some women and girls, for instance, are allowed to attend school.

'This is our last chance'

To bring together competing ethnic factions, moderates in the Northern Alliance and many Western diplomats are pushing for the former Afghan king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, who turns 87 this week, to act as a facilitator for creation of a new representative government. He was deposed in 1973 in a military coup led by a cousin.

Bringing disparate philosophies and commanders together, without offending neighboring Pakistan, will be a complicated endeavor. "This is our last chance," says Daoud Mir, Afghan envoy to the United States for the Northern Alliance.

"If we fail in our mission, we think Afghanistan will fail."

Pakistan's antipathy toward the Northern Alliance is part strategic, part tribal. A hostile Afghan regime would force Pakistan to put resources on its western flank, pulling them away from the eastern border it shares with arch-foe India. Pakistan and India, two nuclear rivals, are locked in a bitter dispute over India's claim to two-thirds of the Muslim-dominated Kashmir region. They have fought two wars over Kashmir in 1948 and 1965.

The various mujahedin groups that make up the Northern Alliance have been armed by India, Russia and Iran the three countries Pakistan fears most.

"Our biggest fear is that the Northern Alliance would give India a foothold in Afghanistan," says Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid. His book, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, was published last year.

The Northern Alliance consists mainly of ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and other Afghan minorities. And Islamabad has a decidedly built-in bias toward Pashtuns, who account for 50% to 60% of all Afghans.

Pashtuns are Pakistan's second-largest ethnic group, accounting for about 20% of the population. They live mainly in areas along the Afghan border. Pakistani Pashtuns almost certainly would try to topple a non-Pashtun government in Kabul. "We've come to believe all evil is in the Northern Alliance. It's a ridiculous policy," Rashid says. "But all of those who carry out our Afghan policy the intelligence service, the army, the foreign office are all Pashtuns. So our bias has gone very deep."

Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf voiced his mistrust of the Northern Alliance as recently as Monday. The various factions of the rebel group were responsible for the lawlessness and "butchering" in Afghanistan from the Soviet pullout in 1989 to the rise of the Taliban in the mid-1990s, he said.

If the alliance seizes power, Musharraf said, Afghanistan "will return to the anarchy and atrocities and criminal killing of each other again. ... The Northern Alliance must be kept in check."

Contributing: Debbie Howlett in northern Afghanistan, James Cox in Islamabad and Laurence McQuillan in Washington.

-- Martin Thompson (, October 12, 2001


When did ever the bloody past of anyone stop the US from recruitting them to help out at the moment? US helped Saddam to fight Iran, then Saddam turned out BAD. US helped Taliban & ObL to fight Russia then they turned out BAD. And may i point out that Pakistan's gvt doesn't have a shiny past either, and it's helping the US to set up a similar regime in Afghanistan.

It would be surprising if the US asked for the help of anyone but those with a bloody past, just like the US itself.

-- b (, October 12, 2001.

I keep reading all these articles about how the world hates the US. It looks like this is also an american phenomena.

-- Martin Thompson (, October 12, 2001.

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