Could Afghans unite?

Mapping a warless future hangs on Afghans' own ability to surmount splits.

MAHMOUD RAQI, AFGHANISTAN

Tucked away near the front line, north of the capital, Kabul, is a rich farming valley where Afghanistan's ethnic mix is stood on its head.

Few know its significance for Afghanistan's future better than rebel commander Mohamed Nazir. He is an ethnic Pashtun, fighting with rebel forces in this Pashtun valley, against the Pashtun-dominated Islamic Taliban militia.

As hosts of accused terrorist Osama bin Laden, the Taliban regime has been the target of nearly four weeks of American air raids. The strikes intensified further yesterday, with B-52 bomber attacks on a strategic Taliban stronghold in the far north, near the Tajik border. Also, yesterday, Turkey declared that it would send 90 special forces troops to train alliance soldiers.

But as Afghan opposition leaders begin to hammer out a post-Taliban political framework for their country - with strong American encouragement - the ethnic ambiguities on display at this front line may provide one reason for hope. They indicate that ethnicity does not always dictate political allegiance.

"The Taliban are selfish, and declare that they only want to help the Pashtun," says Commander Nazir, whose angular features are crowned with a shock of black hair. "They are making a mistake. They can't ever rule Afghanistan completely, without the other groups."

"In the future, if we succeed, we would let everybody in," he says, his AK-47 assault rifle so worn, it shines of pure silver. "We need everybody."

If genuine, that is a rare sentiment in Afghanistan, where a decade of violent civil war has polarized ethnic groups. The Pashtun make up some 38 percent of the population and have ruled over minority Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras for most of the past 300 years.

That history has helped spur the Taliban to pursue a strict Pashtun-only agenda, in the way Serb leaders in former Yugoslavia and ethnic Hutus in Rwanda in the 1990s galvanized their hold on power by fanning the flames of ethnic nationalism. Survivors of those bloody "ethnic-cleansing" episodes in the Balkans and Africa say it could take an entire generation to re-knit their communities.

But in Afghanistan, time is short, the stakes are high - and warlords are gauging the extent of their own ethnic division to design a multiethnic peace that will last if the Taliban is toppled.

Afghans here say that ethnic lines are far from rigid - Nazir's rebel front line being one example. But despite the US-led bombing, Washington has made clear that it will not enable the alliance to capture Kabul until plans for a multiethnic coalition are set. No one expects that to be easy. Deep divisions and historical animosity exist among alliance members.

A key could be former King Zahir Shah, a Pashtun deposed in 1973 and now living in exile in Rome, though he is considered to be "out of touch" by senior alliance officials. And there has already been a setback: One well-known chief of the Pashtun opposition, Abdul Haq, was captured by the Taliban a week ago and hanged, while attempting to win Pashtun elders away from the Taliban.

"The Pashtun people are in a very bad situation. But the Taliban do not govern Pashtun hearts, only Pashtun lands," says Abdul Qadir, a Pashtun leader who works with the rebel alliance, and is the brother of Haq.

The Taliban have carried out executions and village burnings against non-Pashtuns. In Pashtun areas, Taliban rule grates in another way, with high taxes and demands from families to supply sons as soldiers. The result is that only 5 percent of Pashtuns support the Taliban, Mr. Qadir claims. True or not, there may be ample room to stoke an anti-Taliban uprising among wavering Pashtuns.

Ethnic divisions are not as deep as they appear outside Afghanistan, says alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who himself is born of a Pashtun father and a Tajik mother.

"The reality of the 1980s is that all Afghan ethnic groups fought together against the Soviet occupiers," Dr. Abdullah says. Soviet ideology was "unacceptable" and had to be forcibly imposed. The same method is used by the Taliban to enforce its strict interpretation of Islam.

"The main problem is not ethnicity, it is rather these imported ideas," Abdullah says. The most recent example is the Taliban's execution of Pashtun Haq. Only nine people were allowed to attend his funeral, while a memorial service on this side of the lines - in a Tajik-dominated town - attracted over 1,000 mourners.

"The fact that the Pashtun are a bigger minority should not give them carte blanche," Abdullah says. "Then others will feel discriminated against. We are living in the 21st century. The people should choose their leader. Every group should have a fair say."

Such welcoming talk is in shorter supply on the rebel front line, where Pashtun officers command mostly Pashtun fighters, in a mix similar to that of the local population they defend.

"There is no difference between Pashtuns, Tajiks, and Hazaras - we are all brothers," says another Pashtun rebel commander, Ahmad Zahir. "It is only those with the Taliban - the Pashtuns who brought terrorists to Afghanistan. They are the enemy."

Failure to recognize minorities has been a Taliban weakness since it swept across most of the country in 1996. People were tired of battling ethnic-based warlords - the mujahideen factions that today constitute the Northern Alliance.

But it wasn't long before Taliban policies sowed divisions among Pashtuns themselves. "The Taliban are bucking the entire trend of Afghan history because they have no understanding of it," writes Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, in his recent book about the Taliban.

The Taliban are "unlikely" to "absorb Afghanistan's rich ethnic and cultural diversity," Mr. Rashid writes. "Fortunately, there is no Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein amongst the warlords."

Still, the ethnic dynamic complicates making peace and overthrowing the Taliban. One method, Qadir says, is to help Pashtuns themselves fight the Taliban - a risky gambit, in light of Haq's execution.

"America must think not only of the problem of terrorism, but of the Afghan future," says Haq's brother, Qadir. "If Pashtuns kill the Taliban and push the terrorists out, this is much easier than using American and British troops."

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