The Taleban's fight for control

The Taleban movement in Afghanistan has launched its long-awaited summer offensive, attacking positions held by the opposition Northern Alliance around the strategic Panjsher valley. It is now almost five years since the Islamic Taleban movement sprang from nowhere to seize the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. The Taleban have launched major offensives each summer since then, taking new cities and gradually extending their rule throughout most of Afghanistan, currently holding more than 80% of the country. Some observers believe that the Taleban cannot afford to wait another year before trying to capture the remaining territory held by the Northern Alliance. They say this summer's campaign could be crucial. Afghanistan's neighbours will be watching closely. The fighting directly affects the interests of regional countries, many of whom support Afghanistan's various warring factions.

While Pakistan - the Taleban's main backer - will be hoping for an all-out Taleban victory, countries like Iran, Russia and some Central Asian states hope that the Northern Alliance can fight off further Taleban advances. They are concerned that if the Taleban win the whole country they might seek to export their brand of extreme Islamic ideology to other parts of the region. Western countries will be also be watching carefully, aware that this summer's fighting could affect the Taleban's campaign for international recognition. Although the movement has been in power in Kabul since 1996, the United States and the European Union, in particular, have opposed moves to recognise the Taleban's largely Pashtoon administration and give it Afghanistan's seat at the United Nations. They argue that the UN should not recognise an administration which does not control the whole country and which does not represent the entire Afghan population.

The Americans, in particular, point to the Taleban's sheltering of the Saudi dissident, Osama Bin Laden, whom they accuse of being behind the bombing of American embassies in Africa last year. Western nations remain strongly critical of the Taleban's discriminatory policies against women and their failure to take action to curb Afghanistan's booming drugs trade.

But even the Taleban's sternest critics admit that its members have made advances in their attempts to set up a working administration in Afghanistan. They point to Taleban efforts to install a telephone network linking Afghanistan with the outside world and to efforts to improve relations with international aid agencies based there. And they say the past 12 months have seen a major improvement in the way in which the Taleban have presented themselves to the outside world. Some problems between the Taleban and the West are likely to persist. Osama Bin Laden is still thought to be inside Afghanistan, despite continuing rumours of a possible American campaign to capture him. Human rights issues will continue to be a source of friction. But Western governments fear that if the Taleban manage to make major military gains this summer, it will make it increasingly difficult to fight off a renewed campaign by the movement for recognition when the UN General Assembly opens in September.

Who are the Taleban?

BBC Regional specialist Pam O'Toole examines the Islamic Taleban in Afghanistan: The world first became aware of the Taleban in 1994 when they were appointed by Islamabad to protect a convoy trying to open up a trade route between Pakistan and Central Asia. The group - comprised of Afghans trained in religious schools in Pakistan along with former mujaheddin - proved effective bodyguards, driving off mujaheddin groups who attacked and looted the convoy. They went on to take the nearby city of Kandahar, beginning a remarkable advance which led to their capture of the capital, Kabul, in September 1996.


The Taleban's popularity with many Afghans initially surprised the country's warring mujaheddin factions. As ethnic Pashtoons, a large part of their support came from Afghanistan's Pashtoon community, disillusioned with existing ethnic Tajik and Uzbek leaders. But it was not purely a question of ethnicity. Ordinary Afghans, weary of the prevailing lawlessness in many parts of the country, were often delighted by Taleban successes in stamping out corruption, restoring peace and allowing commerce to flourish again. Their refusal to deal with the existing warlords whose rivalries had caused so much killing and destruction also earned them respect.

Islamic state

The Taleban say their aim is to set up the world's most pure Islamic state, banning frivolities like television, music and cinema. Their attempts to eradicate crime have been reinforced by the introduction of Islamic law including public executions and amputations. A flurry of regulations forbidding girls from going to school and women from working quickly brought them into conflict with the international community. Such issues, along with restrictions on women's access to health care, have also caused some resentment among ordinary Afghans.

Support wanes

With extreme poverty and disease on the increase, in some areas support for the Taleban is beginning to erode. Kabulis - almost half of who depend on foreign assistance are particularly concerned by the latest confrontation between the Taleban and the international community which led most aid agencies to pull out of the capital two weeks ago. The Taleban have yet to achieve the international recognition they crave. Indeed, their rigid form of Islam has antagonised most of their neighbours and Islamic states who believe they are giving Islam a bad name.

Shia Iran has described the Sunni Taleban as "medieval" while Russia and former Communist Central Asian states fear they may try to spread their form of militant Islam across the region. Not surprisingly, these states are said to be supporting the anti-Taleban opposition coalition. They will be watching the latest Taleban victories with increasing anxiety.

(By regional analyst Pam O'Toole)


The Northern Alliance, A Brief Introduction

On the basis of the Geneva accord, when the former Soviet Union pulled out its last soldier from Afghanistan on Feb 14, 1989, many observers including the Mujahideen (holy warriors) believed that the puppet communist regime in Kabul would fall within months if not weeks in the face of attacks by the resistance forces and give way to the installation of an Islamic government in Afghanistan. Although this belief did not come true as many had hoped for, it did set out in motion a new wave of struggle for power in post-communist Afghanistan not only among the regional countries but among the various Mujahideen parties as well. Regional countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and to a lesser extent India and the former Soviet Central Asian Republics bordering Afghanistan were actively seeking the installment of a government in Kabul which would protect their short term and long term interests in the country and the region. On the other hand, internally, among the resistance forces, various factions and parties resorted to both political and military means to position themselves in a situation where they can have either complete or significant control over the country's future government. Notable among those struggling for power were Ahmad Shah Mas'ud of Jami'at-e Islami Party and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the chief of Hezb-e Islami. Both these individuals had been fighting each other for military and political supremacy since the early eighties and the departure of Soviet troops from Afghanistan presented each with fresh opportunity to out-maneuver the other. Mas'ud, despite the fact that other Mujahideen factions and parties had their own power bases in provinces such as Parwan, Baghlan, Takhar and Badakhshan was mostly in control of these areas through a council called Shora-e Nezar (Supervisory Council) which he had established for the purpose of coordinating all the resistance forces under his authority. When the Soviet troops left Afghanistan, Mas'ud was able to quickly capitalize on the situation and expand the control of Shora-e Nezar forces by capturing areas such as Keran-o Munjan, Kalafgan, Taloqan, etc. in Badakhshan and Takhar provinces. By mid-1991, his power extended over most of the north-eastern provinces including parts of Baghlan, Kunduz, Samangan and Balkh. Towards the end of 1991, a new politico-military situation arose in the northern parts of Afghanistan, namely the rebellion against the communist President, Najibullah, by General Abdul Rashid Dostam, the head of Najibullah's malitia forces in the north. Dostam was immediately joined by his ally Mansour Naderi, the head of another militia forces controlling the northern parts of the Salang Highway. Mas'ud who was hoping to extend his control over the entire northern Afghanistan took advantage of Dostam's defection and asked him to join him in liberating the northern parts of Afghanistan from Najib's government. Meanwhile, the Iranians, who until this time had no significant influence over the resistance forces, saw the window of opportunity open for establishing a lasting influence on the outcome of affairs in Afghanistan. Behind the scene, Iran by enticing ethnic and linguistic sentiments encouraged Mas'ud, Dostam, and Hezb-e Wahdat, a pro-Shi'a party, to enter into a politico-military alliance. By the beginning of 1992, a new alliance composed of the aforementioned individuals was established under the name of Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance was instrumental in bringing down Najib's government in April of 1992. The alliance secretly dealt with some members of the Parcham faction in Najib's government which put it (the alliance) in a position to seize control of Kabul single handedly, circumventing the formation of a Peshawer based tanzeem government. However, by mid-1993, due to a struggle for power between Dostam/Hezb-e Wahdat and Mas'ud, the alliance unofficially disintegrated. But, when the Taliban captured Kabul from Mas'ud's forces in September of 1996, the former foes joined hands once again and resurrected their once defunct Northern Alliance.


Excerpt from Afghanistan: Persistent crisis challenges the UN system, August 1998 By Barnett R. Rubin

Northern Groups

The groups arrayed against the Taliban formed a nominal alliance called the National Islamic United Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (Jabha-yi Muttahid-i Islami-yi Milli bara-yi Nijat-i Afghanistan). The fate of several of the elements of this group after the Taliban capture of the North remains unclear. While this group's membership varies from time to time, at least the following belong to it: Islamic State of Afghanistan (Jamiat-i Islami-yi Afghanistan) /Supervisory Council of the North (SCN, Shura-yi Nazar-i Shamali). This group, primarily composed of Tajiks, is led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, leader of Jamiat and President of the Islamic State of Afghanistan (ISA), the government deposed from Kabul by the Taliban. Jamiat was one of the original Islamist parties in Afghanistan, and Rabbani was a lecturer at the Islamic Law Faculty of Kabul University. Rabbani became President pursuant to an agreement among exiled mujahedin party leaders in Peshawar in 1992. The most powerful leader of this group is Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Jamiat commander of the Panjsher Valley, who was officially Rabbani's deputy and Minister of Defence. Both are Sunni Persian-speakers (hence "Tajiks") but from different subregions and with different power bases. There are recurrent rumours that Massoud is about to break with Rabbani, but this has not happened. Though the ISA holds Afghanistan's UN seat and claimed to rule the entire area outside of Taliban control, even before the Taliban victory in the North, it did not control a coherent state structure. Massoud controlled an area including much of Parwan and Takhar provinces through the regional administrative structure he established in the late 1980s, the Supervisory Council of the North. In late August 1998 he still controlled his home base in the Panjsher Valley, but had told the population to feel free to move elsewhere to flee an anticipated Taliban attack. Some commanders in control of parts of Badakhshan support Rabbani, though a number defected to the Taliban in August 1998. Massoud's front line has been 25 km north of Kabul, and until the Taliban victories he controlled the Bagram air base, from which he could shell Kabul. He has since retreated into the Panjsher Valley. 

A National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan (Junbish-i Milli-yi Islami-yi Afghanistan - NIMA). This group brought together Northern, mostly Uzbek, former militias of the Communist regime who mutinied against President Najibullah in early 1992. It also included former leaders and administrators of the old regime from various ethnic groups, mainly Persian-speaking, and some Uzbek mujahedin commanders. It has lost all territory under its control and many of its commanders have defected to the Taliban. It is not clear if it has any future. Its founder and principal leader was Abdul Rashid Dostum, who rose from security guard to leader of Najibullah's most powerful militia. This group took control of Mazar-i Sharif in alliance with other groups in early 1992 and controlled much of Samangan, Balkh, Jawzjan, Faryab, and Baghlan provinces. A coalition of militias, it was subject to internal disputes. Dostum is thought to have assassinated a principal rival, Ghulam Rasul Pahlawan, whose brother, Abdul Malik Pahlawan, sought revenge by revolting against Dostum and allying with the Taliban in May 1997. Malik then turned on the Taliban and is accused of killing several thousand Taliban prisoners taken in Mazar at that time. Dostum fled to Turkey but with the assistance of Uzbekistan returned to Afghanistan in September to oust Malik and lead the successful relief of Mazar against another Taliban assault. NIMA was the strongest force in the north during 1992-1997, ruling several provinces partly through the remaining state structures of the former regime, but its internal disputes weakened it considerably.

Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan (Hizb-i Wahdat-i Islami-yi Afghanistan). The principal Shia party in Afghanistan with support mainly among the Hazara ethnic group, this group was originally formed under Iranian sponsorship in order to unite eight Shia parties. Its leader, Muhammad Karim Khalili, has to some extent asserted his independence from Iran and is based in Hazarajat. The leader of its executive council of the North, Haji Ayatollah Muhammad Muhaqqiq, commanded the party's forces in Mazar-i Sharif and was favoured by Iran. Wahdat became the major military force in north Afghanistan and provided the backbone of resistance to the Taliban's attempts to capture Mazar-i Sharif. In March 1995 the party's founding leader, Abdul Ali Mazari, was killed in Taliban custody in an incident, details of which are disputed. It continues to control the Hazarajat, which in late August 1998 is under Taliban blockade from both north and south. Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan (Hizb-i Wahdat-i Islami-yi Afghanistan) - Akbari faction. A breakaway faction of Wahdat led by Hujjat-al-Islam Sayyid Muhammad Akbari. Akbari is a non-Hazara Shia (from the Qizilbash group), with religious training in Iran. This faction allied with Massoud and Rabbani at times when the main Wahdat allied with Dostum against the leaders of the "Islamic State".

Islamic Movement of Afghanistan (Harakat-i Islami-yi Afghanistan). A Shia party that never joined Wahdat, led by Ayatollah Muhammad Asif Muhsini, long allied with Jamiat. Its relations with Iran are strained. Its leadership is mostly non-Hazara Shia. Islamic Party of Afghanistan (Hizb-i Islami-yi Afghanistan) - Hikmatyar. This formerly radical Islamist party, led by Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, was favoured by Pakistan throughout the jihad and subsequently became Pakistan's main vehicle for attempts to oust the Rabbani regime. In the face of the Taliban, who captured most of his heavy weapons and became Pakistan's newly favoured clients, Hikmatyar joined Rabbani's government as Prime Minister in June 1996, thereby claiming a role he had formally exercised under an agreement reached in Islamabad in March 1993. After a sojourn in Iran, he returned to north Afghanistan to join the United Front. He now controls few military or political resources.

Council of the East (Shura-yi Mashriqi). This faction regroups some former leaders of the shura of Jalalabad, notably Haji Abdul Qadir. Former Governor Abdul Qadir reportedly made millions of dollars through smuggling consumer goods from Dubai to Pakistan and involvement in the drug trade, of which his province was one of the centres. Some small groups in the East are still said to be loyal to this group. Like Hikmatyar, he is Pashtun, and his presence serves to show that the northerners aspire to a genuinely national identity. The "United Front" functioned, and rather poorly, mainly as a framework for negotiating with the Taliban. It did not have joint political or administrative functions in the areas under these groups' control. Until August 1998, the northern areas had four main administrative and political centres: Mazar-i Sharif, which some groups aspired to turn into a temporary capital for a government in exile of the ISA; Taluqan, the headquarters of Massoud's SCN; Shiberghan, Dostum's headquarters; and Bamiyan, headquarters of the Hizb-i Wahdat administration of Hazarajat. By late August, only the last was still out of the Taliban's control. Some elements of the former state administration survived in each region, but political power resided in the various armed groups rather than in a unitary structure. The coalition among Junbish, Jamiat, and Wahdat (primarily) that had ruled Mazar broke down as the city's population became even more Hazara (due to migration from Kabul and Hazarajat), and Junbish was weakened by factional struggle. Through the middle of 1998, the city remained in a tense stand-off, with the city centre controlled by Wahdat troops led by Muhaqqiq, and Dostum's forces surrounding them. These groups had somewhat different aims. Wahdat and Junbish articulated the need for regional autonomy and power-sharing among various groups in Afghanistan. Hazara groups in particular insisted on control over their own areas and recognition of Shia law (fiqh-i Ja'afari) in their own affairs. Jamiat's articulated plans for the future Afghan state seemed as centralized as the Taliban's, though Massoud was said to have developed a plan for a federal system based on nine regions. These groups' attempts to establish a temporary government in Mazar-i Sharif suffered a major setback when a plane carrying 40 of their leaders, including Abdul Rahim Ghaffurzai, the Prime Minister designate, crashed, killing all passengers, in August 1997. Ghaffurzai, a Pashtun from Afghanistan's royal clan (the Muhammadzai) with extensive foreign affairs experience, would have given this alliance a more national image and a better international presence. Since then, the United Front was unable to agree on a Prime Minister. On paper, several of these groups acknowledged the ISA and held positions within it: Dostum was deputy to the President and military commander of the northern regions, Muhaqqiq was Minister of Internal Affairs, and an official of the Akbari faction was a deputy Prime Minister. All groups, however, maintained their own military and command structure, and they did not carry out a unified strategy to mobilize resources in their struggle with the Taliban. This disunity was accentuated by the divisions among the northerners' several patrons.

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