David Miller: What Happens After The Taliban?
What Happens After The Taliban?
At this stage of the United States led offensive against Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia and the al-Qaeda terrorist network, the primary objective has been to destroy the Taliban air defences along with their ability to fly, as well as destroying their military capabilities. As part of this offensive, the US has indicated that it is prepared to co-ordinate its efforts with opposition forces on the ground inside Afghanistan and as result of this policy the world has not only become familiar with the Taliban and al-Qaeda but also with a movement known as the Northern Alliance.
It is difficult to verify the exact location of the Northern Alliance forces at this stage and any statements they make concerning gains in territory and defections from the Taliban forces to their side. If reports coming from the region are accurate then they are concentrated about 25 miles north of Kabul where they are fighting against Taliban forces holding the capital from key positions in the surrounding mountains. The strength of the Northern Alliance is estimated to be around 15,000 troops that have been fighting the numerically superior Taliban militias for several years. The Northern Alliance forces are equipped with Soviet-era tanks and guns and at the time the US and Britain launched their offensive the movement controlled ten percent of the country.
The air strikes have put a different complexion of the situation as for as the Northern Alliance is concerned. The offensive has already severely damaged the Taliban’s command and control structure and although the Taliban forces outnumber the opposition, the Alliance is hoping that the air strikes weaken their positions around Kabul allowing for them to launch their ground offensive to retake the capital city. If the US or any other country is prepared to supply weapons to forces inside the country then it will be the Northern Alliance that is the beneficiary.
Although the Northern Alliance is appearing to be the Afghan force that is on the side of the US, Washington appears to be cautious in its approach to the movement. The Pentagon has admitted that it is receiving target information from Northern Alliance forces, but has also been quick to point out that there has been no co-ordination between the U.S. and the Alliance on the selection of targets and the question of the Northern Alliance’s role in this offensive poses some difficult questions for the US and its allies.
As the offensive goes on and the strength of the Taliban begins to decline, the question as to which group will succeed the Taliban will be asked more frequently and it will not be an easy question to answer. Afghan politics are fractious to say the least and it could be argued that the Taliban themselves were able to assume control of the country due to the constant division among the groups that once formed the Mujahadeen. The Northern Alliance is only one of several groups within Afghanistan that are fighting the Taliban regime however it does appear to be the likely successor to the Taliban. This is because the movement is active on the ground and in being so it is allowing the US and Britain to avoid the dangerous situation of having conventional forces on the ground there. Re-arming and equipping the Northern Alliance is a convenient alternative to this but it is also the one that could prove the most troublesome in the future. If the US decides to support the Northern Alliance in their civil war with the Taliban there needs to be guarantees that the Alliance will hold together once in power and that some of the member groups will not become the next enemy for Washington and London once their own objectives have been achieved.
If the US wishes to maintain good relations with those other groups then it must not appear to be favouring one over all others. It has been reported that Pakistan opposes the Northern Alliance as the ruling faction in Afghanistan and this raises the potential for instability in the future. This also raises the difficult questions to who will be responsible for rebuilding Afghanistan. In this regard the United Nations could be the best option. If the US attempts to enforce its choice on the country it runs the risk of appearing to be an imperialist power and this will certainly erode its fragile support in the Muslim world. If the UN undertakes this role as it has done with success in East Timor then it is likely to be an alternative that Muslim governments will be more prepared to accept.
At this stage of the offensive against terrorism, the question of a post-Taliban Afghanistan is not one that is being given much priority but it is one that must be faced at some stage in the future. In past columns I have been critical of the United Nations and its role in international affairs but I concede that in the case of Afghanistan it could well have an important role to play. However the effectiveness of this role will determine on whether those groups inside and outside of the Northern Alliance can co-exist in peace. Because if these groups cannot maintain stable and peaceful relations then Afghanistan will once again descend into civil war and the problems it and the rest of the world are facing now will live on long after the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.