US goals 'foggy' to some would-be Afghan allies

As the US steps up strikes, opposition says Washington sends mixed signals.

Haji Zaman Ghamsharik met beneath pink bougainvillea and Islamic prayers for guidance alongside some 70 tribal elders yesterday, to muster forces to fight Taliban rule in eastern Afghanistan.

Mr. Ghamsharik, a former resistance fighter who flew back from Dijon, France, two weeks ago, says he is one of eight former Afghan leaders who met with both US congressional and Defense Department officials in Rome before US and British air strikes began.

But nearly two weeks into the US-led bombing campaign against Osama bin Laden and his Taliban hosts, Ghamsharik and other "moderate" Afghans are wondering just what they can expect from Washington when it comes to their own efforts to create a lasting peace in their homeland, riven by more than two decades of war.

Ghamsharik blames Washington for the rise of the strict fundamentalist Taliban regime.

"They didn't take care the last time the war in Afghanistan [against Soviet occupation] ended in 1989," says Ghamsharik. "The US pulled out, and they left us in the lurch, like animals in a wildfire."

Like the bloodthirsty Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Taliban regime also rose like a phoenix from the ashes of a CIA-sponsored war, Ghamsharik says.

Several leading experts on the Taliban, including Ahmed Rashid, author of "Taliban," say Washington is missing great opportunities in its current "war on terrorism."

They say that Taliban moderates won't begin to defect in great numbers until they are assured fellow ethnic Pashtuns, like Ghamsharik, albeit mainly from outside the current government, will play a major role in a future Afghan coalition.

Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, and have a strong presence in border areas of northwest Pakistan.

"Washington's policies have perplexed Afghans," says Per Sayed Ishaq Gailani, a senior Pashtun opposition leader based in Peshawar who is organizing resistance to the Taliban. "People are still watching and wondering about what the alternative to the Taliban is.

"If we are not going to work on ridding Afghanistan of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden together with Washington, then individually, we will all fail completely," says Mr. Gailani, whose National Solidarity Movement of Afghanistan speaks for tens of thousands of his countrymen along Pakistan's troubled border.

In Rome, before the start of the US bombing campaign, Afghanistan's deposed king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, and the political wing of the rebel Northern Alliance agreed on a 120-man Supreme Council for the National Unity of Afghanistan. Some 20 seats have been left open and could serve as seats for defecting, moderate Taliban leaders.

The exigencies of war and lingering old rivalries have delayed the convening of the council, and some Afghan observers now doubt its viability.

If the US military were soon to achieve its strategic goals, however, these plans would, apparently, go the way of all other serious peace initiatives for Afghanistan in the past 30 years.

President Bush has stated that the Taliban can still spare their country from further US attacks if they meet certain requirements, including handing over Mr. bin Laden and his closest associates and eliminating terrorist bases inside Afghanistan - which the president said the US military "is already doing a pretty good job of destroying."

How serious is Mr. Bush about ousting the Taliban and helping Afghanistan rebuild? That, for many here, is another question.

On arrival in Shanghai, China, yesterday for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, Bush said the US-led attacks on Afghanistan are "paving the way for friendly troops to replace the Taliban." Yet both rebel leaders in northern Afghanistan and would-be Pashtun military commanders in Pakistan say they have, so far, mostly been shunted aside by Washington.

Meanwhile, purges inside Afghanistan are being reported. Pashtun tribal leaders who fled Afghanistan as late as Wednesday say the Taliban has stepped up house-to-house searches and is rounding up well-known former Soviet resistance fighters. "They are taking our colleagues away, and we don't know what is happening to them," says one villager from Jalalabad, who didn't want to give his name.

Other exile groups in Pakistan live in fear of Taliban agents. "There are a lot of people that are working to try to accelerate the process [of the Taliban's downfall], but they do not want to be known because they fear for their own security," says Ajmal Obaid Abidy, the leader of an Afghan youth association in Peshawar.

"Frankly, it isn't at all clear to us what the US wants from us," he says. "If you get Osama, will you still need us?"

Western aid groups have also called for a more balanced approach from Washington. "There should be justice for the people of America ... but the scale of justice will not and cannot be balanced by the deaths of thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent Afghans," says Dominic Nutt.

His British-based group, Christian Aid, is among a half-dozen organizations calling for a pause in the US air strikes to allow delivery of humanitarian supplies before the harsh winter weather sets in.

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