Building a nation in Afghanistan

The US is in discussions with Zahir Shah, the former king, and Pashtun leaders met yesterday.

Hundreds of men with long faces pile their shoes at the door and file into a simple yellow mosque here to mark the 40th day of mourning for Afghanistan's rebel chief Ahmad Shah Masood.

Many more, all paying respect to the assassinated guerrilla leader revered for his role in ousting Soviet invaders in the 1980s, are crowded on the roof of the mosque in Mr. Masood's home village.

But the somber mood is not only a reflection of their sorrow for their slain leader. It's also about the daunting challenges facing their Northern Alliance in the future, as it attempts to create a post-Taliban coalition for Afghanistan.

The US is counting on the alliance - a collection of ethnic minority groups once held together by the glue of Masood's unifying presence - to help topple the radical Islamic Taliban regime.

But US officials have put the brakes on alliance military plans to advance on the capital, Kabul, until a workable coalition - which includes Pashtun groups that make up nearly 40 percent of the population, and are dominant supporters of the Taliban - is formed.

"It's US juggling of military and political aims," says Martha Brill Olcott, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "You can't create a power vacuum in Afghanistan, without some plan to fill it."

But details of that plan, she says, remain unclear even to policy planners. "Until the Taliban is more close to collapse, no one knows how the pieces are going to fit back together," Ms. Olcott says. "We are in an intelligence void, and will have to wait and see."

Nation-building, however, will not be easy here. The violent groove of factional fighting is far more familiar to Afghanistan's 20 million poverty-stricken people.

In an attempt to break that cycle, Northern Alliance and US officials have been in discussions with Zahir Shah - the former king of Afghanistan, who has lived in exile since 1973 and is ethnic Pashtun. A 120-member Supreme Council - with half its members appointed by the alliance, and half proposed by the king - is on the table.

Pashtun opposition leaders were also meeting yesterday in the Pakistani city of Quetta. And a CIA operation is reportedly under way inside Afghanistan - backed up by US Special Forces troops - to convince Pashtun tribal leaders to break from the Taliban.

The key is likely to be Northern Alliance efforts, since this group - which US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said was receiving US money and ammunition, which are most likely to make military gains on the ground.

"The alliance has matured enormously in the past two months," says Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani analyst contacted in Lahore, who has covered Afghanistan for 20 years and written a recent book on the Taliban. "Despite critics, you can't compare them with the Northern Alliance of the past. They have admitted mistakes.

"These new leaders are taking enormous risks to put a national agenda first," Mr. Rashid says. The reason is that Masood, alone among warlords here, insisted on creating a cadre of educated, intelligent advisers around him.

The result may be the current wisdom of Northern Alliance policies, says Rashid: "But we have to see if these intentions are born out in fact."

Overcoming Pashtun fears - after so many years of inter-ethnic fighting, blood feuds, and a built-up sense of revenge - will not be easy, even if the Taliban were to crumble.

"It's going to be important to prevent massacres and ethnic killings as these cities fall," adds Rashid. The reins of power should be handed over immediately to the Supreme Council as Northern Alliance forces advance, "to reassure citizens - and especially Pashtuns - that they will not be ruled by warlords."

The standard is low and bloody, and dates back to 1992, when mujahideen factions ousted the Soviet-installed regime that collapsed into a civil war that destroyed several districts of Kabul.

For residents of the capital, those four years of bloodshed remain fresh in the memory, despite the religious excesses of the Taliban. Alliance commanders today say they are mindful of that legacy, and trying to reverse it.

"We told [political leaders] that it is good not to go into Kabul, but to go to the gates and establish a security force," says alliance General Babajan, who controls the front north of Kabul. In 1992, he recalls, mujahideen "went to Kabul and took some places for themselves. They were not under one command. Now everybody is under one command, so we won't have the same problem."

Still, the Northern Alliance is fighting an uphill political battle - made worse by the fact that the charismatic Masood is now out of the picture.

"It's an enormous challenge for the Northern Alliance to put together a coalition that would win acceptance in the country," says Olcott. "These people start with lots and lots of strikes against them."

Breaking ties with drug dealers and gun runners may also be an issue, she says. And broadening a ruling coalition so that no single group has a majority will be critical - but possibly unacceptable to the Northern Alliance, if it is making military gains.

There may be a legitimate political or even peacekeeping role for the United Nations, Olcott adds, noting that under special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, it is the "only organization that has not discredited itself in the past five years" in Afghanistan.

Still, bringing an end to the Taliban is an American war aim explicitly spelled out by Mr. Rumsfeld on Friday.

"The military role will be over there when the Taliban and al-Qaeda [bin Laden's network] are gone," Rumsfeld said. "That's what this is about."

The Taliban are already feeling that pressure. A Taliban minister on Saturday called for both sides to bury their differences and "form one front against the [American] attacks."

But at the Panjshir mosque where Afghans mourned Masood, there is deep conviction that Masood's legacy of unity will see the Northern Alliance through to triumph - and Taliban hardliners are not welcome. "[Masood] gathered all the people under one roof," says Mohamed Aman, a commando and former Masood bodyguard.

"We want to follow Masood's way. He taught us," Mr. Aman says. "Whenever we capture places of the Taliban, we should give a seat [in the council] for every ethnic group. We should include them in a state. But Arabs, Pakistanis and Taliban that are treacherous - we will never let them in government."

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