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Scoop Feature: Meet The Northern Alliance

Meet The Northern Alliance

By Malcolm Aitken, London

Superficially anyway the Bonn talks on the future of Afghanistan are making considerable progress. The Northern Alliance is talking of allowing UN peacekeepers in and inter-tribal and factional hostilities, although evident, currently don’t appear to exclude a multi-ethnic, relatively inclusive reconfiguration of power. But the threats to a more unified, more peaceful and more democratic Afghanistan are numerous. Scoop’s Malcolm Aitken has spoken with a leading British expert on Afghanistan and representatives from Amnesty International and an Afghan women’s rights group.

Given the nasty internecine fighting between various Mujaheddin in the mid 1990s, contemporary fracture lines in the Northern Alliance have many observers worried. There are also huge hurdles to beginning to reverse the pervasive, historically deep-rooted subjugation of Afghan women, let alone ensuring their inclusion in political structures.

Moreover, human rights organisations are concerned about past and present rights abuses carried out by alliance commanders who may not face justice yet retain power. Critics say Washington and London have been myopic, highlighting the Taliban’s brutality but letting alliance warlords off as the ‘good guys’.

The Blair Government, for example, has ignored Amnesty International’s plea for an investigation of the deaths of several hundred pro-Taliban prisoners at Qalai Janghi fortress south west of northern capital Mazar-e-Sharif last week. Among the prisoners were many foreign pro-Taliban and al-Qaida men, fighters US defence secretary Donald Rumsfield had explicitly said he wanted killed rather than allowed to regroup.

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To call Afghan politics complex is a stark understatement. A quick primer in the politics of this fascinating but ill-fated country may help though. Even a cursory glance reveals the potential fissures in the Northern Alliance and points towards the further misfortunate that may befall Afghanistan should the alliance disintegrate like the Mujaheddin did.

The Soviet Union invaded in 1979 and installed a pro-Moscow communist regime, auguring in 10 years of warfare between Soviet troops and the opposing Islamic fundamentalist Mujaheddin, backed by the CIA. The Soviets withdrew in 1989 and the leftist government of President Dr Najibullah Ahmadzai fell in 1992.

The bloody chaos that then ensued until 1996 underscores the need for a consensual political solution today. Burhanuddin Rabbani, the nominal head of the Northern Alliance, was president, presiding over much of Afghanistan from Kabul.

The country was figuratively and literally torn apart by fluid alliances of Mujaheddin factions fighting each other. The figure usually cited is 50 000 civilian deaths in Kabul alone from 1992 until 1996.

The chequered past of General Abdul Rashid Dostum speaks volumes about the ever changing nature of factional politics, Afghan style. Dostum has been in the media spotlight during the past week for his involvement in the Qalai Janghi bloodbath.

An ethnic Uzbek, Dostum is widely feared as a ruthless warlord. He has had prisoners executed by being run over by a tank. From 1979 to 1992, he was allied with the communist government in Kabul. In 1992, with impeccable timing Dostum heard the call of the jehadis and, leaving a sinking ship, he defected to the anti-communists and shared in the spoils of victory.

Soon enough tensions came to a head between the various Mujaheddin factions that now roughly constitute the alliance, and between them and the Pashtun fighters from the south, antecedents of the Taliban. Dostum took sides with Tajik president Rabbani to fight Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Later he joined Hekmatyar against Rabbani. By 1995, he was supporting the Taliban against them both and in 1996 he rejoined them fighting, you guessed it, the Taliban. Such ‘adaptability’ is not unusual in Afghanistan.

There are four main ethnic groups in Afghanistan. Hutchinson’s encyclopedia provides a rough population breakdown of 54 percent Pashtuns, 27 Percent Tajiks, 8 percent Uzbeks and 7 percent Hazaras.

Groups are far from confined to their tribal homelands. The Uzbeks are from the north, near Uzbekistan, the former Soviet republic. They’re relatively liberal in their interpretation of Islam. The ostentatious Dostum has been known for his armoured Cadillac, and once vowed to fight anyone who banned whiskey.

The Tajiks are from near Tajikistan, another former Soviet republic in the northeast. They have provided many important political figures including president Rabbani. The alliance has about 15 000 troops, 10 000 of which have been reportedly under Rabbani’s control.

The Hazaras are in the west, they’re largely shi’ite Muslims with strong links to Iran; whereas about 85 percent of Afghans are sunni.

In the south and east there’s the more conservative Pashtuns, who provided the main source of support for the Taliban.

Hazara and Pashtun groups have clashed many times over the years. The Hazaras have been a particularly persecuted ethnic minority. According to New-York based international campaigners Human Rights Watch, during Rabbani’s premiership, Hazara women in suburban Kabul were targeted for systematic rape.

In 1998 when the Taliban took Mazar they singled out Hazaras and reportedly massacred 6000 people.

An estimated 1.5 million people, mostly Hazaras, currently face starvation because General Dostum is holding up aid at the Uzbekistan border. Hazara military commanders have exacted brutal revenge on enemies too.

A Pashtun clan, the Muhammedzais, has for a long time provided a governing elite in Afghanistan, including exiled monarch Mohammed Zahir Shah who stands to figure in any new constitutional structure.

A westernized educated elite, the Muhammedzais’ foreign ways have been vilified by Islamic traditionalists and leftists alike. Afghanistan’s factionalism is further exacerbated by India, China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan backing their proxies, and the drugs trade. About three quarters of the world’s heroin comes from Afghanistan.

In Mazar, which is now under the combined control of General Dostum, Tajik commander Ustad Mohammed Atta and Hazara commander Hazi Mohammed Mohaqiq, the warlords’ soldiers have generally co-operated.

There have been clashes over law enforcement though: beatings and at least two fatalities. Dostum and Atta have a history as bitter enemies.

An Afghanistan expert at the prestigious Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, Dr Roy Allison, told Scoop:

‘It is very possible that it [the new constitutional framework] will be an evolved political set up and that there will be frictions between the commanders representing different regions and cities. I’m not so concerned about Herat…there is significant concern about Mazar because there are three distinct [forces involved]’. Russia will also have a keen interest in developments in Mazar and Uzbekistan. The worry there is that they seek to develop relations with particular groups and there isn’t a single agreed authority…the main problem is [though] the Pashtun areas.’

Women’s rights group the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) told Scoop it is emphatic about an effective peacekeeping force being sent in because it’s concerned about the alliance fragmenting:

’Tajiks and Uzbeks will fight Hazaras, Tajiks will fight Uzbeks and all will be willing to break the neck of pro-Zahir elements.’

Dr Allison says another problem in the Pashtun areas will be providing popular local leaders who will co-operate with a central administration. He says it’s possible the provision of food and aid through a central controlling administration could be used as leverage by a political centre, but relief agencies aren’t keen.

There are massive question marks over women’s rights in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s misogynistic approach to governance made them notorious. But many locals haven’t forgotten that when Rabbani and other men now in the alliance captured Kabul in 1992 one of their first acts was to ban female newsreaders.

The UN reported in 1994 that women in the capital were being told to quit their jobs and wear the full-length burka. Women who didn’t comply were liable to be raped by the various Mujahadeen militias that prowled the city, according to RAWA.

The Independent newspaper journalist Polly Toynbee claims, ironically, that Afghan women did better in western terms under the communists. She says in the early 1990s women wore make up and jeans and smoked cigarettes on the street in Kabul.

Under the rule of generally more liberal Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara-based administrations, middle class Kabul women had just to wear scarves and could work in 1994.

Poorer women didn’t fare so well though. Since ‘liberation’ by the Alliance film footage has shown women still wearing burkas-there’s lots of social pressure. There have been varying reports, but the televised image for example, in the UK, has been one of more freedoms in dress and freedom from beatings and stonings, and limited work and education for females under the Alliance.

RAWA says the expulsion of the ‘terrorist Taliban’ from Kabul was a positive development, but told Scoop: ‘though women are no longer forced to wear the burka, most Kabul women still prefer to wear it because they are fearful of being seen by Northern Alliance gunmen and raped. There is no big difference between the alliance and the Taliban except that some of the latter know how to display themselves to the West with pants and neckties.’

Dr Allison told Scoop: ‘the concept of women’s rights as universal rights has not really penetrated very far in traditional Afghan society and to try and impose it will encounter obstacles [sic]. I think it will be possible for women to gain employment in the main cities in the way they did before the Taliban.

‘There may be some limited education for girls, but I say limited because there’s only limited education for boys. But this doesn’t change radically the situation because in small towns and much of the country the Taliban coming to power didn’t change circumstances for women much at all, one way or the other.

‘This is against all the disinformation from those who only travel to Kabul and have this view of the relative liberalness of the city from the 1970s until the 1990s as representative of the country. This is not true at all. One of the main reasons for the 1978 civil war was because the socialist government legislated education for girls.

‘However, equally worthily, in the country where the women work in rural circumstances…herding, etcetera, for the livelihood of their families, they don’t wear the burka…this is true in all traditional Islamic countries…Yemen, Kurdistan, places like that.’

Amnesty International has called for independent human rights monitoring in Afghanistan and those responsible for past abuses to be held responsible and excluded from future regimes.

Amnesty Afghanistan expert Margaret Ladner told Scoop: ‘We don’t name names but we’re calling for an expert commission to be constituted to examine the abuses that have been committed and the best way to address accountability.’

Newspaper reports in Britain carried stories on the fall of Kabul featuring locals whooping with delight as they listened to Radio Afghanistan for the first time in five years, lots of music and dancing and a woman’s voice broadcasting the news. Young men queued to have their beards shaved off.

However, the BBC also reported loyalist militia men being executed with bullets to their head and bank notes being stuffed in their ears and noses, a sign of humiliation. In the late 1990s alliance generals allegedly gave orders for Taliban prisoners of war to be starved and tortured, even drowned in wells and purposefully asphyxiated by being locked in containers in mid summer.

A breakdown into factionalism could propel things into a downward spiral with more torture, arbitrary detention and murder. And, you can’t call a democracy representative if half the population isn’t represented. Afghanistan has grave issues to deal with. Hutchinson’s also cites a life expectancy of 43 for men and 44 for women, indicative of how hard life is in a country cursed by war for so long.

- Malcolm Aitken is a freelance Kiwi Journalist currently based in London, England. He can be contacted at

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