Southern tribes prove key in defeat of Taliban

US officials say supplying isolated pockets of southern tribes with supplies may shift attitude toward Taliban.

In a desolate Afghan village at the base of a mountain stream, mothers arrive early in the morning to have their children vaccinated against polio.

From behind two large boulders, 20 armed men appear, brandishing Kalashnikovs. They live in nearby caves, and their commander, a portly man with a thin goatee, has come to deliver a political speech of sorts: "I assure you that the next round of vaccinations will be held under our auspices," says the ethnic Hazara commander.

Afghanistan's patchwork of rebel groups - like the ethnic Hazaras here - is the next priority for Western planners.

"As we start to encourage those southern tribes, said Secretary of State Colin Powell, "I think they might start deciding that there is a better life to be had by separating themselves from the Taliban and trying to help the Afghan people...."

Not far from the Hazaras rebels' redoubt outside the central city of Ghazni is an Al Qaeda military base that houses several hundred Arab and Afghan fighters. It is situated near a cave complex. On one hill, there is a sign legible from the road, but not the sky and written in large white stones: "Osama hero, Bush zero!"

Getting assistance to the disparate bands of rebels inside central and southern Afghanistan is, however, a challenge that Pentagon planners will be hard-pressed to overcome.

Many pockets of potential resistance to the Taliban remain entirely isolated. "The problem for the Allies remains, "how do you get supplies and people inside the country, and at the same time help with security?" asks Rifaat Hussein, director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Islamabad, Pakistan.

American air cover is one option, but in two recent and well-publicized incidents, US air power failed to save ethnic Pashtun commander Abdul Haq from execution by Taliban forces, and it could only be used to save another opposition leader, Hamid Karzai, from the same fate.

Outside Afghanistan's porous borders, there are scores of would-be rebel leaders - most without troops - lining up in cities like Peshawar, asking for Western arms and assistance.

Yesterday, Pashtun tribal leaders said they had an encouraging meeting with a German diplomat who promised material assistance, though the scale of the help was left open.

"It is not so difficult for us to cross from Pakistan into Afghanistan, but the key to our success will be weapons and financing," says Cmdr. Haji Zaman Ghamsherik, a well-known former mujahideen leader from Jalalabad, a city on the road from Peshawar to Kabul, who was in the meeting.

In the past two weeks, the Pashtun commander - who returned to the region from Dijon, France, only a month ago - has gone from condemning to praising US-led airstrikes on Afghanistan. Still, like other Afghan opposition leaders, he remains reluctant to be seen to be in league with Western powers.

"With the death of Abdul Haq, nothing has changed," he said, in his new Peshawar office, where dozens of other would-be commanders swarmed yesterday. "There is bound to be a lot of killing, but if our people are to defeat the Taliban, it will take international assistance."

Another commander with a far greater following already inside Afghanistan told the Monitor yesterday that he planned to launch an offensive against the Taliban between Nov. 18 and Nov. 20.

Cmdr. Malek Zarin said he has 1,200 armed and ready fighters inside Konar province in eastern Afghanistan, north of Jalalabad. "I have another 9,000 who lack food and material support, but who are prepared to join the fight. For six years, we have been on the defensive, but that will all change next week."

The Pashtun tribesman, who has some links with the Northern Alliance, said that a liaison of his, Gen. Abdur Rehman Wardak, has been working closely with US and European representatives to gain more funding for the fight.

Mr. Karzai said yesterday that the capture by opposition forces of key Afghan cities had made his job of forging an anti-Taliban alliance in central and southern Afghanistan much easier.

Karzai told Reuters by satellite telephone from Uruzgan province in central Afghanistan that he was talking to other tribal leaders from central and southern Afghanistan and even from a pocket in the east. "The developments taking place all around Afghanistan - and also the fall of Herat - it looks like things are going to be much easier for us now," Karzai said.

Mr. Hussein, the strategic analyst, said that the days of the former anti-Soviet fighters may be over. "These people really belong to the past and do not have clout inside Afghanistan. The Pashtun tribes inside Afghanistan are not going to revolt until they see a real alternative to the Taliban, and that is what the international community does not yet have in place."

Hussein warns that if and when the Pashtun tribesmen revolt against the Taliban, they are going to want a place in the future political arrangements for Afghanistan.

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