After the fall

The Taliban is on the run. What happens now? Who should govern Afghanistan? And how hard will it be to win the war of the caves?

Topics: Afghanistan, Taliban,

After Taliban forces retreated Tuesday from Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, the U.S.-supported Northern Alliance took control of the city. The White House said that President Bush was “very pleased” with the advance. The Taliban’s unexpectedly sudden withdrawal — on the heels of defeats in Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif — represented an important military triumph for the U.S. (On Tuesday, it was reported that Northern Alliance troops had pushed on from Kabul to the Taliban’s stronghold, Kandahar.) But the Taliban’s unexpectedly sudden withdrawal also gave new urgency to major issues — Afghanistan’s political future, the trustworthiness of the Northern Alliance, the next step in the military campaign, the status of humanitarian aid and the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan.

Several experts on the region spoke with Salon about what the future holds for Afghanistan and the region and what the United States should do next.

Joel Charny, Asia expert from Refugees International

The Northern Alliance progress means that 70 to 80 percent of the Afghans in need of assistance are now in Northern Alliance territory. This is critical. We need the Northern Alliance to provide enough stability and security so we can provide humanitarian aid.

If it can do this, we’ll be able to save a lot of lives. This is potentially a huge victory for humanitarian efforts, but it can only happen if Mazar-e-Sharif becomes a normal city where the international community can set up a base of operations. We need to make this clear to the Northern Alliance. We need to tell them that any future role they might have in the Afghan government is dependent on their ability to create a stable place for assistance. The Afghan people desperately needs someone to govern this country, if only to make a way for the international community to help.

This is also important for the coalition. They can’t attack terrorism and bomb the Afghan people and then pull out when it comes to human aid. I think the international community is aware of this, but here’s our chance. We need to become proactive. If people die unnecessarily, that will be a blow to the Northern Alliance and to the coalition. We can’t underscore this enough.

The Northern Alliance’s past record is dismal. They’ve been unable to work together among themselves. There have been a lot of betrayals among them over the past 10 years. Furthermore, they have a very poor human rights record. So the question now is whether cooler heads will prevail, whether they know what’s at stake and whether they’ll comply.



There’s also been talk of creating a multinational police force under U.N. auspices. But because there is no standing force like this already in place, it takes a while to organize. And yet, Kofi Annan has said that the U.N. has to act as swiftly as possible, so it might happen sooner than expected. But surely, one way to potentially control the situation on the ground is to have a multinational police force — preferably with people from Muslim countries.

The difficulty is going to be in implementing that. It’s clear that putting U.S. special forces in charge of anything in Afghanistan is a non-starter. [Lakhdar] Brahimi, the U.S. special envoy, went out of his way to make that point when he started working on Afghanistan again in September. You can’t look to the U.S. because no American force will be accepted there. So you’re stuck with exerting U.S. force on the Northern Alliance or creating and asserting influence on an international force.

Robert Legvold, political science professor at Columbia University specializing in former Soviet states

There’s more nuance to [the falling of Kabul]. My reading of the news is that commanders have restrained troops from sweeping in. Instead they’ve sent in limited numbers in order to go from house to house to make sure that the Taliban have left. Abdullah Abdullah [the Northern Alliance's foreign minister] has said that it’s very much in the interest of the Northern Alliance to respect the wishes of the international community, for them not to seize Kabul, and they seem to be complying.

The question is whether there is a spontaneous movement on the part of some of the forces under warlords that can’t be controlled by the central leadership. It’s a matter of how much control the Northern Alliance has over itself.

The second question is whether the international community can get their act together in time. Secretary of State Colin Powell has agreements from Muslim countries, but not Arab countries, and I think that’s the key. There needs to be an Arab presence that then creates a constabulary force, an international monitoring force to oversee what the Northern Alliance does. This should be in place until the larger question of the shape of interim government can be answered.

So you have two kinds of institutions that are needed: one, a quick monitoring force that ought not to be Western powers; and second, a solution to this longer-term problem of trying to find some kind of broad government. Both of those things should fall under the mediation of the international community, preferably the U.N.

But we’re having a lot of trouble getting that off the ground. The main problem with the first institution is time urgency. They need to do this as soon as possible.

So the real issue for now is whether and where the Taliban will make their stand. Presumably they’ll build up their military power around Kandahar. The further south they move from Kandahar, or the closer [north] to Iran, the weaker they are in terms of tribal support. So my guess is that the war will intensify south of Kabul and east to Pakistan.

I’ve also heard that the Taliban has been fractured, that they don’t have communications with each other. If that’s true, then it may be that regardless of their will or strength, they won’t be able to pull themselves together militarily and will be much weaker. But I wouldn’t count on that until we see it happen.

Harvey Sapolsky, defense expert and professor of political science at MIT

It looks good. I don’t know what’s going to come next; who knows what’s really gong on with Afghan politics. But it shouldn’t matter to us. The goal was to destroy the Taliban and get al-Qaida, and while we don’t have al-Qaida, we have the Taliban on the run. It’s a victory.

There should be more on the way. Everybody who wants to fight the U.S.-assisted Northern Alliance will be at a disadvantage. Our air power makes a big difference. The Northern Alliance had 10 percent of the country; now they have, say, half of it. This couldn’t have happened without our help. And going south, they’ll still have this borrowed strength. It will only get better because we’re now setting up bases in Tajikistan.

It’s true, we haven’t got much control over the Northern Alliance. We should tell them not to commit atrocities. But unless we want a lot of American ground troops to take their place, we don’t have much choice but to accept what they do. I’m of the opinion that whatever we have there will be better than the Taliban. Whether it has a Pashtun mix, or more Tajiks doesn’t matter. We shouldn’t encourage the world’s paranoia. People already think we run the world and they blame us for everything. We shouldn’t feed the anger with a strong American presence. We shouldn’t create the government there. We should want a more stable government, we should give them aid, but it’s not our business to see who runs Afghanistan. We should only make sure the government doesn’t harbor people who want to destroy American buildings and commit terrorist acts. And if we’ve done that, then we should get out.

John Voll, Islamic history professor at Georgetown University

A lot will depend upon the behavior of the Alliance troops as they take control of newly conquered areas. If there are many revenge killings and looting and disorder, then most people in the Muslim world will blame the U.S. for aiding violence and will argue that the U.S. is being hypocritical — bombing the Taliban for being supporters of terrorism but rewarding the Alliance even when it engages in acts that are like terrorism. I do not think Muslim peacekeeping troops will make much difference, because the forces would simply be seen as military forces acting under orders. Sending Turkish troops would do nothing to improve such sentiment, since the Turkish military has a reputation in much of the Muslim world as acting to suppress Islamic movements.

I would hope that the Northern Alliance victories would allow for a suspension of bombing during Ramadan, but my guess is that military planners would not want to lose the momentum from the string of victories and would probably not suspend bombing until after some major victories in the south.

Retired Col. Dan Smith, chief of research for the Center for Defense Information

The fall of Kabul must be considered a victory. The U.S. did not expect Kabul to be so precipitously abandoned. Next comes more effort in tracking down the al-Qaida leadership and bin Laden. This has been a separate but parallel track with the Northern Alliance effort against the Taliban. The two are now intersecting more, but it can complicate the search because there will be more small groups the Special Forces will want to avoid or will have to fight if encountered as they search for al-Qaida.

Could the retreat be a trap? It seems too disorganized and fragmented to involve one. If the Taliban leadership can reestablish some control of hard-line fighters, they could begin some kind of guerrilla activity after a few weeks. The south is their ethnic stronghold, so they may find some assistance from Pashtuns living in the south or even from across the international border.

As for Northern Alliance atrocities, not all reprisals can be stopped no matter how big an international force may go in. What must be done is to internationalize control of the cities with Afghan assistance and begin the process of rebuilding civil society — government, police, courts, the whole justice system.

Thomas Barfield is professor and chairman of anthropology at Boston University.

Given their dismal track record during the civil war, can we trust the Northern Alliance?

One of the problems is that the Afghan civil war is extremely complicated. When Borhanuddin Rabbani took over in 1992 [from the communists] there was no violence, all the communist and mujahedin factions joined together to form a new government. There was no bloodbath.

But because the outside world walked away, there was no international attention to getting the country back on its feet and the factions started fighting amongst themselves for power because each thought that they could get more out of the deal.

After 10 years of civil war now they know that they can’t. When the Northern Alliance says it wants a broad-based government, they’re honest. Everyone knows that they all had a chance and failed — even the Pashtuns who ruled as the Taliban have learned that. Now they’re much more amenable to creating a broad based government

How difficult will it be to create a new, multi-ethnic government in Afghanistan?

In the east, the Pashtuns have already revolted against the Taliban in some places like Ghazni, which is halfway down the road to Kandahar from Kabul, and there’s been some unrest in Kandahar itself. You have to realize that the Taliban exploded out of Kandahar and took over 90 percent of the country really quickly. They never really won a battle because Afghans really want to be on the winning side. During the rise of the Taliban only one Afghan faction was able to retreat successfully with its forces intact, that was [former Northern Alliance Leader Ahmed Shah] Massoud. When most other Afghan factions retreat, their followers make a calculation about who’s going to win and decide to ally themselves with successful invaders. Throughout history the country has turned to one side or another with remarkable rapidity without decisive battles because people calculate who’s going to win and jump ship. Afghans are very pragmatic.

We’re seeing that people have decided that the Taliban is on the way out. In the north they fell because it wasn’t their territory. However, in the south a good chunk of their forces are composed of the so-called Afghan Arabs, who will fight it out for ideological reasons. But most Afghans have a much finer grained sense of self and don’t readily ally themselves with a larger group. This isn’t like Yugoslavia, where you saw people allying themselves with their ethnic groups. In Afghanistan the sense of ethnicity is very fluid, with a few exceptions like the Hazaras. Traditionally there’s lots of intermarriage. Politics is not based on ideology or ethnicity. If the Pashtuns want to come over to the Northern Alliance then they’ll be accepted.

One of the problems is that everyone brings their own lens to this. For most people, the first time they’d heard about Afghanistan and its ethnic groups was six weeks ago. Suddenly people learn really quickly and focus on these ethnic groups, and the most recent thing we’ve read about ethnic groups was in the Balkans, where every time you create a nation for an ethnic group you get new revolts. The Afghans are not like that. There is not a single party in Afghanistan that has threatened to join a foreign country like the Kosovars in Macedonia. The amazing thing about Afghans is that they have co-ethnics along all their borders, and despite that not a single group has said “if we don’t win we’re going to form our own country or join with a foreign country.” These guys are like poker players — they argue about the division of the pot, not the table.

Afghanistan is the size of France and Afghans understand that you need a country of a certain size in order to survive. If you’re five different countries then each one becomes an appendage to a neighboring country and everyone gets screwed. Central Asian ethnicity is very different from Eastern European ethnicity. They’ve always lived in multi-ethnic societies and have never suffered the ethnic problems of Eastern Europe.

One of the things that surprised me is how quickly the Pashtun areas seem to be unraveling. Until recently it had been thought that the country could be divided between the North and South along ethnic lines, but Pashtuns seemingly want to have no part of this.

Why should we think that a new government can work in Afghanistan?

The entire country has undergone considerable change. After the communist government fell in 1992, there was a real government to seize. But since the Taliban rose there hasn’t been a government there. There’s no army, no institutions, it’s just a symbolic shell. That’s one of the reasons they can agree to accommodate one another.

In the past it was a Pashtun-dominated government but all power came out of Kabul. The Pashtuns dominated because they controlled the monarchy and the military while the Tajiks controlled most of the bureaucracy. The Hazaras were discriminated against and got the short end of the stick. Then in the war against the Soviets they all learned that they could all fight. Previously the Pashtuns said “we’re the best fighters.” In that war the Tajiks proved to be among the best fighters under Massoud. The Hazaras also proved considerably tough warriors and pushed the Pashtuns out of some areas. So what has happened is that all ethnic groups have a certain amount of respect for one another. The Pashtuns know that there’s no way of recreating the ethnic balance that existed before 1978 and everyone else is much more secure in their regional identities than before. Everyone is now talking about a central government, but it’s not clear that will be very strong. They’ll need a central government, at a minimum, to cash foreign aid checks and divide it up.

So you don’t expect the new government to be effective?

Afghanistan has collapsed before, in 1929. The central government was restored but it took many years for it to become effective. The deal that the communists broke was that the Afghan central government leaves everyone alone as long as you’re peaceful. No one collects taxes in Afghanistan, the government relied on taxing trade and smuggling for its revenue. That means that Afghan national governments rarely interfere in local affairs. The communists interfered by insisting on local land reforms and other policies. We’ll probably go back to an era in which the central government allows local areas to administer themselves. Kabul used to appoint regional leaders; now local areas have appointed their own.

Will a weak central government hamper international aid efforts?

You don’t even need a central government to do this sort of reconstruction. Every major city is close to another country: Mazar-e-Sharif is something like 60 miles from Uzbekistan, Kabul and Kandahar are right across the border from Pakistan and Herat is just 80 miles from Iran. If you want to set up reconstruction projects or policies based in each neighboring region then you can run all of that from outside. So let them spend next six-eight months arguing about the form of a central government while the international community actually does the rebuilding.

What reconstruction needs to be done?

There’s relatively little that needs to be done because there wasn’t much there before. They need roads and agriculture and little else. The first thing they need is a large amount of grain because Afghanistan has suffered three years of drought. USAID is planning to ship in tons of grain in order to bring the price down across the country. They only have one main road, the circuit road around the country, that needs to be rebuilt. It’s a relatively simple job to do but needs to be done. Actually all these returning refugees from Iran have been doing road work in Iran for the past 10-20 years, so put them to work.

The northern part of country is the agricultural center, so they need to get their roads up in order to feed the south and then run transit from Pakistan to Central Asia which represents lots of revenue for the country. Afghanistan’s not a cul-de-sac — all its neighbors would like to have its infrastructure together too because they all want to get their trading routes back up and running.

Does the Taliban pose a lasting threat in Afghanistan?

Mullah Omar says his forces will retreat to the hills and start a guerilla war. The West says “oh my god,” but they forget that guerillas need to be resupplied. The mujahedin won against the Soviet Union because we resupplied them and they could retreat into Pakistan. If Omar goes into the hills he can buy supplies from smugglers but he will have to pay cash and can’t retreat to another country; he will be stuck in the hills and caves. It will be especially difficult for him to hide if the country becomes more developed because his hiding places will rapidly disappear.

The United States’ demand is that Afghanistan turn over all foreigners. It’s relatively easy for the Afghans to turn over foreigners. The interesting thing is that you don’t see one Afghan in one of these terrorist groups. They’re very parochial. Even the Taliban were intent only on putting the Islamic revolution in place in Afghanistan, while Osama wanted to spread it to the world. It was a symbiotic relationship, but the Afghans haven’t had any interest in going off to kill anyone outside their territory. They even had to bring in Arabs to kill Massoud because they probably couldn’t get Afghans to do it.

Second, Afghans of whatever ideology really don’t want to sacrifice themselves outside of their own country. If you get the economy going they won’t even attend madrasas because they’ll have better things to do. It’s an easier problem to take care of rather than many of the other difficulties we’ve been dealing with. In some ways we’ve invented some bogeymen. The collapse of the Taliban has taken many people by surprise, but if you look at their rise it’s exactly what happens in Afghanistan’s political history.

You hear military experts on TV saying that the flip side could be that the Northern Alliance is moving so fast that it could be counter-attacked, but the guys who were Taliban yesterday are part of the Northern Alliance today. And they won’t change back, because they will go with their own interests which are now firmly aligned with the Northern Alliance. And given the power and resources Afghanistan might actually stabilize. Twenty-five years of fighting has taught the warlords that there are better things to do.

Sanjoy Banerjee is a professor in the international relations department at San Francisco State University.

What happens now?

The Northern Alliance forces have now entered Kabul and control the city. After that there are a range of options. They have named [Borhanuddin] Rabbani president, who was president before the Taliban took over. [Rabbani is still recognized by the U.N.] They’re clearly moving politically to create a government, but so far they have been silent on the role of Mohammad Zahir-Shah [the deposed king of Afghanistan]. So we can imagine a government more dominated by the Northern Alliance or they can try to bring in Zahir Shah and then move towards a more inclusive government. I think that they want to reestablish the pre-Taliban government as much as they can and then they can try to be more inclusive of Pashtuns, at least those free of taint of the Taliban.

Other discussions have been going on about bringing in various foreign Muslim armies under U.N. auspices like Turkey, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. The United States is talking about that. Pakistan has volunteered but they’re unpopular with the Northern Alliance because they supported the Taliban against Rabbani and previous groups.

Under these circumstances we can see quite a bit of Northern Alliance consolidation in the north amidst a very fluid situation. We’ll have to see if the Taliban can consolidate in the south. If they can then Afghanistan will be de facto partitioned. If that happens then American goals will be unachieved; al-Qaida will still be ensconced in the south.

Why does the south represent such a potentially difficult battle?

First, there is this big ethnic divide. You would have the Taliban guerillas able to rely on villages that they could not in the north for more enthusiastic and active resistance. They could allow any penetrating army to move as they wish initially and then stage hit-and-run attacks, whereas before they were trying to block access to Kabul. They can rely on the Pashtun population to assist them and also utilize the extensive networks of caves and tunnels. The terrain and the predominant ethnicity tend to favor the Taliban more in the south.

Politically the Taliban is much stronger in the south. We’ve seen, in spite of two months of bombing and offers of inducements to Pashtun leaders to defect, very little success. The few interested parties were killed. That could change now that the tide of battle has really turned. But we cannot underestimate the significance of the Taliban’s strength.

How stable is the Northern Alliance politically?

The odds of their factions fighting against one another before the threat of the Taliban and Pakistan is resolved aren’t high. Many have switched sides many times but history has moved on. Possible coalitions have congealed and changed so there aren’t really a lot of options for leaders to switch sides. Other groups haven’t really fought against one another. I think the Pashtun against non-Pashtun is the big conflict. There are other dangers, though, like a lack of discipline, which may have prompted the reported massacres after the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif.

How strong is the Northern Alliance administratively?

They haven’t demonstrated any great administrative capacity in the past. But it also was not a valid test because there was always outside interference. When they first established a government in the early ’90s, Pakistan intervened. Now they probably have better options. They’ll certainly have access to much greater resources in terms of material and expertise from the U.N. and the West. They have friends in Russia and India. They’re not even dependent exclusively on the West and the U.N., though that is likely to be their first and main target for support because that’s where the money is.

How do you see a future Afghan government? Will it be a strong state?

A lot of the suggestions that were made as of 48 hours ago suggested that Afghanistan would emerge as a semi-sovereign state with a lot of foreign supervision. That prospect may be receding as the Northern Alliance moves in, especially with President Bush expressing support even though he was saying something completely different 24 hours earlier. It’s not even that Bush is doing a big flip-flop — this just wasn’t the scenario he was envisioning. He though that there would be a civil war within Kabul, but when the Taliban pulled out the local population welcomed the Northern Alliance.

Under those circumstances, even with the human rights violations against prisoners, the Northern Alliance capture of Kabul is more legitimate than anticipated. They were consistently popular in the north because of a shared ethnicity with the local population. But even in Kabul, which is less northern in ethnicity, they’ve shown some popularity. Maybe it’s only the co-ethnics in Kabul who are celebrating, but at least they’re not out fighting and protesting.

So the Northern Alliance took the initiative even amidst interest and pressure from global forces. That’s what’s interesting as an observer. Here you have a minuscule force driving history and the U.S. having to change its line over six hours.

What role does Pakistan play in Afghanistan’s future?

That is the great issue of the future. Now, to talk about that I think you have to accurately describe the interaction between the United States and Pakistan after Sept. 11. Both in terms of government rhetoric and the United States media coverage it has been said that Pakistan is a crucial ally in the war against terrorism. That’s true up to a point: Pakistan has permitted American overflights of its territory and some limited non-combat operations from its territory, although Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have done quite a bit more for the American war effort in Afghanistan. Moreover in Pakistan you have these fairly large holy warrior outfits who are the ones now being massacred after they’ve been captured. They’ve been moving into Afghanistan without being constrained by the Pakistani government.

The actual attitude of the United States towards all this isn’t that easy to fathom. If you listen to Bush’s speech to the U.N. a few days ago it contains a few passages whose meaning isn’t self-evident. There were sharp passages directed against terrorists, but they don’t seem to be directed towards Syria and Iraq — which has led some to think that it’s a veiled threat against Pakistan that it needs to deal with the holy warrior outfits on its territory.

So maybe we’ll have a Pashtun buffer zone between the Northern Alliance and Pakistani zone. But that wouldn’t really be acceptable to the U.S. because the U.S. would really like to see radical terrorist outfits excluded in some reliable way from the Pashtun area in the south of Afghanistan.

The United States has quite a tricky problem to solve. Most of it involves Pakistan’s holy warrior outfits and their relationship to the government. From Sept. 11 onwards the U.S. has talked about Phase 1 as getting rid of the Taliban and al-Qaida; phase two was getting rid of the rest of terror networks. The second phase has sometimes been considered Iraq-centric, but the way it has evolved I think it has a lot to do with Pakistan — using economic and other pressures on Pakistan to gradually quiet down the holy warrior outfits and stop fresh production of extremist madrasas and other types of training that go on in and around Pakistan.

If we think of the struggle against terrorism, then that is in many ways the main action because it’s through that holy warrior nexus that the Taliban emerged and al-Qaida and Osama were able to find a sanctuary that Pakistan diplomatically protected for three years. So I think that that’s the next problem that Bush is going to have to deal with.

The short-term challenge is establishing a non-Taliban, non-al-Qaida government in Afghanistan — even, optimistically, in the south. The long-term challenge is to protect that political structure from subversion from Pakistan, which is what happened in early ’90s.

What can Pakistan do in this situation?

It depends on what they’re ready to sacrifice. The Pakistani army is pretty good in terms of training and confidence, plus they have national guard militias which brings the total number of forces under Musharraf to about 1 million. If he decides to move these forces against the holy warriors, which might number 200,000, he could do it, but it would cost him something. He’s using the holy warriors to fight in Kashmir.

If the military and fundamentalists fall out it also opens the way for democratic forces like Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Shariff [former Pakistani prime ministers] who are national democrats as well as the ethnic parties, the majority of which are still not fundamentalists. Musharraf wishes to continue his military dictatorship; he recently announced that wants to remain in power after elections in 2002. The danger is that to some extent Pakistan’s commitment to fighting in Kashmir is connected to preserving the military’s political power in Pakistan itself.

If Musharraf does substantially crack down on holy warriors and the U.S. believes that he’s doing that, then I believe that a lot of money will flow. My hunch is that the aid that has been promised to Pakistan is contingent on that. It’s the U.S. strategy — you play ball with us and we’ll help you out.

Turning Pakistan around is a big part of the challenge. It seems to be something that the Bush administration recognizes but cannot openly say. Bush praises Musharraf but presses him in more elliptical terms.

How likely do you think it is that a centralized government will emerge in Afghanistan?

It’s hard to envision a highly centralized successful government in Afghanistan at this time. Historically, multiethnic states can federalize or move towards tight centralization. But to follow the tight centralization strategy you need a historical opening to allow it to happen like a Tito in Yugoslavia.

The reality is that a lot of Yugoslavs did collaborate with Nazis and that’s what allowed Tito his opening, because many sympathizers were ashamed of their actions during the Second World War. In Afghanistan it would take a temporary period where those that resisted centralization would then be ashamed. The government would have to create something that worked. But Afghanistan doesn’t really have its Tito, the Northern Alliance is not really Tito-like in leadership. So it’s not easy to see a very centralized structure coming up soon, but we could be in for surprises.

Charles Santos is a former U.N. mediator in Afghanistan and former executive at Delta Oil, where he was negotiating the right-of-way for a pipeline that would carry Central Asian oil through Afghanistan.

The Northern Alliance has moved into Kabul and announced that they’re going to return former President Rabbani to power from his exile. Can this be considered a victory for the U.S., given that the Bush administration asked the alliance not to enter Kabul yet? Could this complicate international efforts to build a transition government?

The U.S. position was reasonable. But what we have to do is take a step back. Instead of talking about personalities, which everybody wants to do, and trying to determine who’s a bad guy and who isn’t, we should try to understand the nature of the country and the structure of the government. The problem isn’t a person. It’s more important to focus on what kind of state we want to see in Afghanistan and to understand what drove the conflict during the ’90s. What were the things that turned Kabul into the place where most of the fighting was going on?

The reason was that Kabul is perceived in the Afghan context as the seat of power. Whoever controls Kabul controls everything. But that paradigm doesn’t work for Afghanistan because the people who aren’t a part of the power structure begin to feel very insecure — they don’t have a presence there and aren’t able to assert themselves. That ultimately leads to conflict. A power struggle invariably ensures. The return of Rabbani to Kabul is less important than the notion of the city being perceived as the center of everything. What we need to do is look at how we can encourage a system that decentralizes power in Afghanistan and de-emphasizes the importance of Kabul. A diverse country requires that it reflect the decentralized nature of the communities and devolve power from the center to those regions. That’s the thing that will prevent Kabul from turning into another nightmare.

If you got rid of the Taliban and put in a whole bunch of new people, even representing the different communities, but you still left the central state in Kabul as it is, then you still set up the pressure for further conflicts.

The U.N. and President Bush are calling for a “broad-based” and “multi-ethnic” post-Taliban government, which sounds very centralized. Can that type of government work in Afghanistan after 20 years of civil war?

We should be empiricists and look at what happened in the ’90s. Every U.N. resolution, every U.N. mediation effort, went with that as its core set of principles — that you have to set up a broad-based, multi-ethnic government. But we were not able in a centralized way to establish that. Every effort looked at: How do you create a broad-based government in Kabul? How do you create a broad-based government in Afghanistan so people would feel confident that their interests were being represented in that central authority? That did not work. The very notion of a centralized power in Kabul provokes instability in the region because people never feel secure.

What we’ve got to do is look first at how you encourage confidence among different ethnic communities in Afghanistan; how you encourage goodwill among these different communities. Let’s be honest: A lot of that goodwill has been evaporated over the last 10 years of fighting, driven in part over this desire to determine power for their own groups. We can say the Pashtuns, because they were the largest of the ethnic groups (though still a minority) have held out the longest. But Massoud and Rabbani were also trying to control and hold Kabul as the central authority that controls everything and everyone. That just doesn’t work.

What would this decentralized system of governance look like? You’ve said it could resemble the United Kingdom, where there are powerful regional governments with legislative bodies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Or like Switzerland. I see it as something like a canton system, where a lot of the functions of the central government are devolved out to the regions, where they have much closer connections to the grassroots communities they’re serving. It would be a regional structure that would give a kind of autonomy — economic and cultural — to these regions. There would still be a central government, but it wouldn’t be the kind of central government that controls everything. That’s been the problem in the past.

Maybe in 15 or 20 years a more centralized government will be chosen by the Afghans as the way to go, but in this context we found that it doesn’t work. We need to think of Afghanistan not in terms of what works for us, but in terms of what works for them. What tends to happen is that the United Nations and national governments tend to like central power because it’s easier — you know who to talk to, it’s simple, it’s the way you see the world. But that doesn’t work in Afghanistan. Instead, we need to develop a system that reflects the decentralized nature of the place.

If you had a decentralized system of governance, would it be delineated along ethnic lines?

There are a lot of areas that are mixed ethnically, so you would want to structure this more regionally. Those regions would somewhat reflect an ethnic composition, but it wouldn’t be total.

Could you foresee the Taliban ruling the areas dominated by ethnic Pashtuns?

There are a number of people who may have initially been in the Taliban movement who left it who could play some role. But I think many Pashtun communities are going to be very upset with the road the Taliban leaders led them down, which has been disastrous. I’m less worried about present Taliban leaders playing a significant role — they’ve already been discredited, and not only internationally. Now, with the loss of the north, west and center of country, the very notion they were playing on — one of Pashtun ethnic dominance — has been cracked. These communities are much more now interested in their preservation, not their ability to dominate. Most Afghan Pashtuns would rather find a way in which they can live peacefully within their own communities and be protected. That’s where a decentralized system will play an important role: It will give confidence also to the Pashtuns that their future will be secure. That’s what we’re looking to figure out — how we create a sense of security among these various communities. The centralized power structure in the past has created insecurity. It’s the thing that’s driven the ethnic identification in a significant way. A hundred years ago, people weren’t as ethnically identified in Afghanistan, but today they are. That’s a problem.

Who could be the best mediator for a new system of governance in Afghanistan? Could it be the U.N., given its failure to do so in the past? Could it be the U.S. , which has bombarded Kabul?

The U.N. clearly has a role in this, but I would like to see the U.S. play a leading role. Contrary to what some people think, among the Afghans, it has an enormous amount of respect. Afghans also understand that the U.S. is really the main player in all of this. As a country taking a leading role, that would be helpful. There might even be a place for an international conference that would help to establish such a system.

Pakistan has been a longtime ally of the Taliban. How will their relationship with Afghanistan evolve once the Taliban is out?

What the Pakistanis did by supporting the Taliban created more instability in their own country than stability. It helped further radicalize the Islamicist elements within Pakistan, it put them in jeopardy of being isolated by the world. If you can create a stable political system in Afghanistan, it will spill over into Pakistan. For Pakistan, it’s a recognition that the Pashtuns will have a role to play — and that’s not really anything they can complain about if it happens.

Do you think the Northern Alliance is being fairly portrayed in the Western media? Reports depict Northern Alliance leaders as warriors and barbarians.

I’m amazed. What’s the difference between an Afghan leader and an Afghan warlord? We see this written up in the press all the time. This guy is a warlord, that guy is a leader. Can you explain the difference? Both have armies, both represent communities. Why this kind of reporting?

We also have to understand that this country has been at war for years. Everybody has been involved in the fighting, everybody has taken a side and played a role. To say that because they’ve defended their communities — which is how they would see it — that that somehow makes them bad and unable to play any role is crazy. There’s nobody in Afghanistan right now who hasn’t been involved in something or other that we might not like. The question is whether they have the capacity to administer a government. Has the situation evolved enough, with enough stability, that their communities feel secure enough that such things won’t happen again? We have to understand that there’s a basis for their actions in the past: a very insecure political system.

Rashid Dostum, for example, is being referred to as an “ethnic Uzbek warlord.” I’m amazed that they don’t put the ethnicity in front of Rabbani and say he’s an “ethnic Tajik warlord president” or something like that. I don’t quite understand it. Dostum was a major part of the resistance during the Soviet times and a major figure in the war. I don’t quite understand how those determinations are made. I find that a lot of the reporting seems to be coming out of Pakistan with Pakistani ISI sources, and I just wonder if people are really understanding that they may be being played a bit in all of this. This has always been one of the problems. The Pakistani and Pashtun perspective has always been the one that gets reported because Pakistan seems to be the gateway for reporting about Afghanistan. It’s a disservice because then you only get a piece of the story — it’s not the only perspective. You should want to get a more comprehensive perspective of what Afghanistan is.

Dostum, Ismael Khan and Karim Khalili are all serious leaders who are connected and rooted in their communities. Dostum, who was in charge of Mazar-e-Sharif at the time, was in my mind, was very helpful when a U.N. human rights team came in to investigate atrocities in 1997. One of the amazing things that’s never been reported is that not only did he want to help — he also personally went with them. He was incredibly supportive and said he wanted them to see the mass graves. He went with them and brought his men in order to guarantee their security. He directed the investigators to bodies of civilians murdered by General Pahlawan Malik. Then he’s attacked as being a warlord with no interest in human rights. I’m always amazed that the press always misses those pieces.

These three men have all run decent administrations in the area. Dostum and Khan opened schools, Dostum had a university, girls were allowed to attend school, there was no dress code the way there has been under the Taliban. If you wanted to wear a burqa you could. Women were working — they were working in hospitals, they were working in various aid organizations. There were restrictions, but it was a much more open place in an Afghan context. Of course, you can’t apply Afghanistan to New York City, but in the Afghan context it was one of the most open places you could work and live, and it was quite peaceful during most of his reign. The fighting came after the Taliban’s arrival, and you can’t blame him for that. The same is true with Khan — they both ran multiethnic administrations, they didn’t just dominate with their own ethnic group. It’s extraordinary to me that these guys are being tagged as some kind of wild maniacs — it’s nonsense and it’s not the way it was. Most of the fighting was going on in Kabul.

In his book “Taliban,” Ahmed Rashid writes that U.N. mediators didn’t trust you because you were too aligned with the U.S. and had a “personal agenda.”

Rashid has had a long personal disagreement with me and I’m sad that he needs to carry this out in his book. He’s attacked me a number of times, but what I’ve found is that he’s taken sides himself in all of this. His criticism about my being close to the U.S.? I was close to many different governments because I was trying to encourage them to get interested in Afghanistan because none of them were paying attention to it. The personal agenda he’s talking about is that I was committed to trying to solve this problem. You can see that from my long history of involvement in Afghanistan. But that doesn’t always go over well in a U.N. bureaucracy or any kind of bureaucracy that tends to like to see a more bureaucratic approach to addressing these kinds of problems.

I’m very open — I stepped on a lot of toes in places where I could have probably been more careful, but I thought it was worth it because it meant trying to get issues in front of people. He makes these comments about U.N. officials complaining about me, but there were also high-level U.N. officials who were very supportive of my career who he doesn’t quote who have written quite highly of me in their books. He decided to listen to those two and not others. That’s reflective of his style of journalism — he has an agenda himself and he decides what he thinks is true and what he thinks is not. Unfortunately, people have accepted his position as the gospel truth. But the reality is that he’s a guy with a perspective that’s sometimes a little off the wall. But he’s entitled to his own opinions.

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

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