25 October 2001

Outside powers field Afghan proxies in new 'great game'

25 October 2001
The Times of India

Outside powers field Afghan proxies in new 'great game'


New Delhi: As the US campaign to overthrow the Taliban progresses, differences over the composition of a future government for Afghanistan are coming into sharper relief.

Though committed to a "broad-based government", virtually every country with a stake is working overtime to ensure its favoured militia gets a headstart. Although the question of including Taliban "moderates" has become a point of division between the external powers, the real issue, say Indian officials, is that the Bush administration fears a Northern Alliance government will be closer to Moscow, New Delhi and Teheran than to Washington and its proxy, Islamabad.

After first trying to get Mullah Akhond, deputy chair of the Taliban to move against Mullah Omar, Pakistan is now trying to woo Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil and tribal affairs minister Jalaluddin Haqqani. The latter was formerly of the Khales faction of the Hizb-e-Islami - once powerful in the Jalalabad region - and is one of the few Taliban leaders to have fought the Soviets.

Pakistan is also cultivating Prof Abdur Rasool Sayyaf of the Northern Alliance. Sayyaf, whose troops have a key presence in the Panjshir valley, had opposed Masood's reliance on military aid from India and Russia. In May, there were reports the ISI was trying to broker a deal between the Taliban and Sayyaf in which the latter would emerge as the prime minister of a "broad-based" government.

The fact that the Northern Alliance has at least three components - the Jamiat-e-Islami of Burhanuddin Rabbani and the late Ahmed Shah Masoud, the ethnic Uzbek militia of Gen Rashid Dostum, and the Iran-backed militias of Ismail Khan and Hezb-e-Wahdat - further complicates the picture.

The US is closest to Dostum, with whom it has cultivated ties through his principal backer, Turkey. US military advisers are already working closely with the general and Washington is keen for him to seize Mazar-e-Sharif as the first major opposition bridgehead inside Afghanistan.
In contrast, the US is not overly enthusiastic about the Rabbani forces - now commanded by Gen Mohammed Fahim - pushing southwards towards Kabul. While Russia and India are helping Fahim, most US airstrikes have been designed to assist Dostum. The Fahim group has also hurt its case in Washington by saying it will oppose US attempts to "dictate" the nature of the post-Taliban government.

As for the Iran-backed groups led by Ismail Khan and Abdul Karim Khalili which are trying to expand their pockets of resistance in and around Bamiyan, the US does not appear keen to help them.

Yet another wildcard is Hizb-e-Islami chief Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Currently based in Iran but without an army, he has come out strongly against the US bombardment of Afghanistan. As a prominent Pushtun figure, however, Pakistan may seek to turn him into an ally as and when the Taliban regime crumbles.

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