Afghan Opposition Made of Bitter Rivals
By Terence White/PNS
In 1993, I was captured and taken prisoner on an Afghan battlefield. It is not an experience I would like to repeat. Nor would I wish it on the American or British special forces that have been deployed in Afghanistan.
I remember the rebel tank edging forward, squat and menacing, then the chilling clatter of the treads as it crawled toward the government frontline in a valley northeast of Kabul. Next thing I knew, my companion, an American photographer, was wounded in the foot in the furious crossfire.
Government forces tried to evacuate us by jeep, but the rebels outflanked us and machine-gunned our vehicle. We crawled away into the desert. Soon the tank and infantry were upon us, and we froze in fear. Then the nightmare began the beatings, the looting and the crazy interrogation by hashish-drugged gunmen, who accused us of being foreign military advisers.
We survived that capture, but a wounded government soldier with us was not so lucky the rebels crushed him under the tracks of a Russian armored fighting vehicle.
My American companion and I were visiting the frontlines of the war between the government troops of Ahmad Shah Masood and the rebel faction of Gulbiddin Hekmatyar. Masood, the recently assassinated military leader of the anti-Taliban alliance United Front (called Northern Alliance in most media reports), was then defense minister of the Islamic State of Afghanistan. Hekmatyar is now in exile in Iran. I was the Kabul-based correspondent and photographer for Agence France-Presse.
The two warlords had fought each other nonstop since the mujahedeen seized Kabul from the Afghan communist regime in April 1992. This power struggle between Masood and Hekmatyar resulted in the breakdown of law and order in Afghanistan and paved the way for the emergence of the Taliban two and a half years later.
When we were Hekmatyars prisoners, I remember the hateful stares of his Arab fighters, many of whom are now with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. To them, we were non-Muslim unbelievers, or kafirs. They suspected we were Americans. We told them we were English, true in my case. Just before our release (thanks to the intervention of the U.S. State Department), one of them told us: If I had captured you, I would have killed you.
Because of my experiences in Afghanistan, Im particularly interested in potential U.S. involvement there. If America seeks military support from within the country in order to oust the Taliban, it must understand that many armed factions most with intense rivalries and competing ambitions compose the opposition in the war-ravaged nation.
Today, Masood and Hekmatyar are no longer players in the Afghan game. The rules have changed. Now, the United Front is trying to establish a Supreme Council for National Unity with the exiled Afghan king Zahir Shah. Commander Mohammad Fahim, a rather glum-looking but experienced deputy, has succeeded the brilliant Masood as top gun for Burahnuddin Rabbani, whom the United Nations recognizes as the legitimate president of the Islamic State of Afghanistan. Rabbani was the president of Afghanistan who retreated from Kabul with Masood when the Taliban seized the city in September 1996.
Fahim has inherited Masoods military mantle, but whether he has the necessary mettle to lead the different factions in the alliance remains to be seen although promised assistance from the United States has been a morale boost to his forces.
The only properly trained troops that Fahim personally commands are his officers from the former communist regime; the bulk of his force is best described as guerrilla. They excel at ambush, but are woefully inept at conventional warfare.
In addition to fighting the Taliban, Fahim will have his hands full juggling the territorial and political ambitions of his own allies in the United Front, who are a mixed ethnic bag of Hazaras, Pushtuns and Uzbeks. For example:
The Uzbek leader, General Abdul Rashid Dostam, is a swaggering mercenary warlord whose fighters have a reputation for rape and pillage. In Kabul, they used their tanks to bulldoze war-damaged civilian homes to steal valuable wooden roofing timbers.
The largest Hazara faction, the Party of Islamic Unity, impressed me with its fierce fighting when I lived in Kabul. But it, too, has a reputation for cruelty. Once they kidnapped my driver, tied his wrists to a ceiling beam and beat him around the kidneys with an anti-tank rocket just for being a Tajik.
One Pushtun leader is Rasool Sayyaf, who, like President Rabbani, was a professor of Islamic theology at Kabul University. Both are Muslim fundamentalists, though each is moderate compared to the Taliban. Sayyaf has few fighters in the field, which is fortunate for the Hazaras, whom he has fought in the past for being Shia Muslim. Like most Afghans, Sayyaf is a Sunni.
Haji Abdul Qadir, another prominent Pushtun in the United Front, heads an anti-Taliban group near the eastern frontier with Pakistan. In the past this former provincial governor had a stronger interest in cross-border smuggling than he did in actual administration.
As the United States tightens its military noose, superior weaponry and training should give foreign forces an edge. But those forces must navigate the vagaries of the Afghan battlefield, the various agendas of the anti-Taliban forces, and the personal animosities of some United Front commanders to avoid a quagmire and truly defeat the Taliban.
PNS contributor Terence White knows firsthand the confusion, danger and cruelty that could face any U.S. forces sent to Afghanistan eight years ago he was taken prisoner there. White writes that the Northern Alliance, which the Bush administration has promised to support, is a mix of armed factions with intense rivalries and competing ambitions. White was the correspondent for Agence France-Presse in Kabul from 1992 to 1997, when he was expelled by the Taliban. He has completed a book on his experiences titled Afghanistan Zindabad: From Warlords to Taliban.