A tough road ahead in Afghanistan's war

Logistically and psychologically, the fall of Kabul is good news for Afghanistan. But as past rulers have found, holding the Afghan capital does not signify control of the country.

The American-led bombing certainly contributed to the collapse of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban forces in the north. Primarily, this has meant the Taliban and their Islamic backers have pulled out of areas, such as Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat, where they acted more as arrogant occupiers than representatives of the people.

The Taliban have never functioned as a tight military organization. Knocking out Mullah Omar's Kandahar headquarters will not necessarily affect their ability to fight. Taliban groups could easily return to guerrilla warfare, against which bombing will have only limited effect.

During the decade-long Soviet conflict, it was this lack of a central leadership that proved to be the greatest strength of the resistance. As one British military source noted, "We would be fools to assume that the battle has been won."

The question now is to what extent the battle for Afghanistan will harden, with Taliban groups fighting on their own turf. Another is whether they will have local support, particularly if outside Arab funding or backing from Pakistani intelligence stops. A further factor is the willingness of the hard-line militants of Al Qaeda and other foreign Islamic organizations, who constitute up to half the Taliban fighters, to persist in a country where they are not wanted.

While the areas around Kandahar are relatively flat, and thus difficult to defend, much of the war may now move into hazardous mountainous terrain in the east. This will enable the Taliban to mix more readily with civilians, making it harder for the US to use even highly discriminate airpower. Red Army officers, who fought in Afghanistan in the '80s, see the real war as only just beginning.

Possibly more crucial than the crumbling Taliban is whether the fragile Northern Alliance, which represents a loose grouping of different ethnic and provincial fighters, will remain disciplined. The alliance urgently needs to catch up politically with its military successes.

So far, no single figure has emerged who is capable of leading the country. Certain respected commanders exist, but their influence is primarily regional. These include Ismail Khan of Herat, a Tajik, and eastern Afghanistan's Aji Abdul Qadir, a Pashtun ex-governor of Nangrahar Province and brother of ex-guerrilla leader Abdul Haq, whom the Taliban executed last month.

Some Northern Alliance commanders have fought each other bitterly in the past and may only reluctantly cede control to a national authority. Ethnic Uzbek general Abdul Rashid Dostum, who now controls Mazar-e-Sharif, is one northern warlord who may seek to hold on to his own fiefdom. The same goes for numerous smaller commanders, falling into a pattern that has characterized Afghanistan since fighting first erupted in mid-1978. As other outsiders have learned, one cannot simply tell independent-minded Afghans what to do.

Clearly, many Kabulis are delighted now. But there is fear that the northern fighters, particularly Dostum's Uzbeks or the Hazaras of Shiite leader Karim Khalili, will begin a repeat of the post-1992 period, when internecine strife around the capital killed more than 50,000 people.

Another concern is the alliance's ultra-conservative elements. These include the once-Arab-backed Abdul Rasul Sayaf, but also former members of the Hezb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. A ruthless Pashtun extremist, Hekmatyar was supported - together with Osama bin Laden - during the 1980s and early '90s by Pakistani intelligence and the US. Based in Iran, he is now trying to make a return, with Pakistani backing.

The United Nations, which is relatively respected by Afghans, needs to assert itself in Kabul within days. This must involve an internationally supported peacekeeping force in order to attract Pashtuns, who represent 40 percent of the population, toward supporting a broad political settlement.

While opposed by select factions on both sides, former King Zahir Shah, a Pashtun, would have popular support to play a symbolic role in uniting the country. His presence would be critical to the credibility of a nationwide loya jirga, or national gathering, to decide on Afghanistan's future.

The UN also needs to help set up an administrative body that can reestablish basic services and oversee an emergency humanitarian effort for up to 7.5 million Afghans. Perhaps the most effective tool the world community has for getting Afghans to agree to a political settlement is the promise of massive reconstruction. Many commanders, including Taliban, still have to respect the interests of their own communities. With much of the population exhausted by 23 years of war, this would be an attractive option.

Taliban commanders appear to be defecting in big numbers, but a concerted reconstruction might prove far more effective than continued war. By tradition, everything is up for negotiation - often the only way to get things done in Afghanistan. What remains to be seen is whether the bombing has not fanned an anti-Western sentiment both in the tribal areas and outside the country into a festering civil war that will prove highly problematic to contain.

Edward Girardet, a former special correspondent of the Monitor, is editor of 'Essential Field Guides: Afghanistan.'

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