Gods and monsters

The good people of Mazar-e-Sharif have been liberated! By whom? Your garden-variety enemy turned ally turned enemy turned ally.

Published November 10, 2001 11:29PM (EST)

Hooray! The Northern Alliance has announced that it captured Mazar-e-Sharif! With the first good news from the war front, America turns to the northern notch of Afghanistan to see whom we should now be saluting.

Speaking by satellite telephone to CNN-Turk television, Uzbek warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum claimed that the northern Afghan city that had once been under his control -- until the Taliban chased him into exile in 1998 -- had finally fallen after several days of fighting. Dostum said that Northern Alliance forces had killed 500 Taliban soldiers.

In a conference call with British reporters, Vice President Dick Cheney said he couldn't confirm the report, though it wouldn't surprise him. "I think we've made significant gains there in the last few days," he said. "The key has been to get some of our people on the ground with the units of the Northern Alliance; in this case, commanded by General Dostum. And once they're on the ground, they're able to spot targets and help our air units do a much more effective job with our precision bombing of hitting Taliban positions. And it's bound to have an impact."

Hooray for Gen. Dostum! Hooray for Jabha-yi Muttahid-i Islami-yi Milli bara-yi Nijat-i Afghanistan! Hooray for the United National Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan aka "the Northern Alliance"!

"In a short period of time we entered Mazar-e-Sharif and we are in Mazar-e-Sharif," Dostum said. "Yes, we have everything, including the airport."

Who is our new hero, Gen. Dostum, and his brave Junbish fighters, with whom the U.S. military has been working?

In "Reaping The Whirlwind: The Taliban Movement in Afghanistan," author Michael Griffin calls Dostum "a backwater Saddam Hussein." The Junbish, Griffin wrote, were feared by Afghan civilians "who named them galamjam -- or carpet-thieves," a term Afghans apply to people with bad intentions.

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Dostum led the Junbish, an Uzbek militia of 20,000 men, to fight alongside the Soviets against the U.S.-armed mujahedin Muslim soldiers. But the Soviets withdrew in defeat in 1989, and in 1992 Dostum switched sides and fought with the mujahedin against the troops of communist Afghan president Muhammad Najibullah. After Najibullah fell, Dostum joined the new government of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, which was headed by President Borhanuddin Rabbani, a Tajik and head of the Jamiat-e Islami party.

But fighting broke out among the various mujahedin factions -- most perilously between Rabbani and fundamentalist Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar -- and Dostum soon mutinied against Rabbani, too. Dostum was briefly allied with Hekmatyar and his Islamist extremists -- who were indiscriminately firing rockets at Kabul, killing thousands of Afghan civilians.

Eventually Dostum and his forces retreated north, taking control of an area covering six provinces, including the city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Dostum's idea of punishing criminals was to crush them alive with tanks. The Taliban took control of Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998, and Dostum remained in exile in Turkey until April of this year, when he rejoined the Northern Alliance, re-re-allying himself with Rabbani.


In response to the news of the capture of Mazar-e-Sharif, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said that "until things settle and we see where forces are after a day or two, our inclination is to withhold comment." That said, she added, if the report proves true, "it could facilitate a land bridge to Uzbekistan, which could aid movement of humanitarian and other supplies. What we have seen is encouraging."

"There's a lot of dust in the air right now," said Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem. "There are skirmishes across these various fronts and with that dust in the air it's very hard to tell what's exactly going on."

Somewhere in that dust is Dostum's enemy turned ally turned enemy turned ally, Tajik commander Atta Mohammad, who was likewise pleased. "We have the entire city," said his spokesman, Mohammad Ashraf Nadeem. "The Taliban didn't put up a fight, they ran away."

The Tajik faction of the Northern Alliance is its largest, ostensibly headed by Rabbani (the president of Afghanistan as recognized by the United Nations) and once controlled by Defense Minister Ahmed Shah Massoud. Massoud is the legendary "lion of Panjshir" who was assassinated on Sept. 9 by operatives believed to have been working for Osama bin Laden.

Dostum, Mohammad and Haji Muhammed Muhaqqiq, the Iran-backed commander of Hizb-i Wahdat, the Hazara Shiite ethnic faction of the Northern Alliance, met on Oct. 30 to strategize about their attack on the city. They agreed that once it was recaptured they would divide it into thirds and split them among each of their factions.

The factions haven't always gotten along so well. In March 1995, Tajiks under the command of Massoud captured a Hazara neighborhood of Kabul. The U.S. State Department reported that "Massoud's troops went on a rampage, systematically looting whole streets and raping women."

But bygones will be bygones -- and that includes with the Taliban. "We won't enter Mazar-e-Sharif with a sense of revenge," Hazara leader Muhaqqiq pledged to reporters on Friday, promising amnesty for Afghans who previously had cooperated with the Taliban and saying that prisoners would be dealt with in accordance with Islam.

The reassurances may be needed. According to Patricia Gossman, adjunct professor at Georgetown University and a human rights consultant, one of the last times Muhaqqiq was in Mazar-e-Sharif, in May and June of 1997, forces under his control took at least 3,000 Taliban troops into custody and summarily executed them in the middle of the desert. "He has a reputation for brutality," Gossman says.

Clearly he's now turning over a new leaf. So hooray for Muhaqqiq!

The news was received well in London. "I think at every level -- political, diplomatic, military -- the momentum is now against the Taliban regime and the terrorist network in Afghanistan," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "As we can see from the advances made in and around Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, that momentum is continuing." In Rome, a small group of U.S. congressmen, meeting with 87-year-old former Afghan King Mohammad Zaher Shah, who was overthrown in 1973, also applauded the news. Some U.S. officials, however, said that Northern Alliance forces have yet to truly wrest control of the city from the Taliban, though they were confident that they would.

Human Rights Watch recently recommended that when planning for a post-Taliban government, the world's powers "actively discourage and refuse to support in any way any group or coalition that includes commanders with a record of serious violations of international humanitarian law standards."

The first two names on the list are our best friends today: Dostum and Muhaqqiq. Another name on the list is Shiite Islamic Unity Party leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, also a member of the Northern Alliance, who is alleged to have ordered the massacres of thousands of Hazaras.

"Not a single Afghan commander has been held accountable for human rights abuses," said Sidney Jones, executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "The time to break this cycle of impunity is now, and the United States and its allies will have the leverage to do it."

OK. Maybe later, though -- after the parade. Hooray for the Northern Alliance!

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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