If Taliban fell, who would rule in Afghanistan?
Los Angeles Times
If a U.S.-led force were to attack Afghanistan and the ruling Taliban became the latest in a succession of regimes to fall, it would stir up a cesspool of drugs, guns and terror that could only be avoided if the country's political future were mapped out as carefully as the targets of war, experts here warn.
"I have no doubt the situation is not going to improve. It is going to become worse," said Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, who has reported on Afghanistan's wars since 1983. "Some people who did not like the Taliban were supporting them because they were able to give some unity to the country. Earlier, there were seven different warlords, seven different fiefdoms."
In Afghanistan — which harbors Osama bin Laden, wanted by the Bush administration as its prime suspect in last week's attacks on New York and the Pentagon — the United States faces a nation in crisis where all options are bad, but some are much worse than others.
For the Pentagon, one of the most tempting choices would be to ally with the opposition forces already fighting a civil war against the Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic movement that rules 95 percent of the country.
But to many Afghans, the Northern Alliance of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was driven from power by the Taliban, is led by war criminals who destroyed Kabul, the capital. The return of Rabbani and his forces, which are made up of minority Tajiks, Uzbeks and others, also would anger the nation's dominant Pushtun ethnic group.
The best alternative, some argue, is to bring Afghanistan's octogenarian King Mohammed Zahir Shah, who ruled from 1933 to 1973, back from exile in Rome to oversee a power-sharing government.
That idea is angrily rejected by some Afghan warlords, as well as the Taliban regime, which denounces it as a plot hatched in Washington so that the United States can control Afghanistan by pulling the strings of an antique puppet.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose radical Islamic Hezb-i-Islami faction was accused of committing widespread atrocities in Afghanistan, said Tuesday he would return from exile in Iran to fight alongside the Taliban just to prevent the king from returning.
But Afghanistan has fractured into so many pieces during more than two decades of war that it is hard to see how anyone will be able to put them back together again if, as experts here warn, a U.S.-led military action reignites a full-scale civil war.
Yusufzai, the Pakistani journalist, has a rare insight into Afghanistan. He has interviewed bin Laden and Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. Omar is a reclusive man who refuses to be photographed and rarely speaks to the people he rules, except by written edict.
Like most Pakistanis who recognize the intensity of world revulsion after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, Yusufzai accepts that "the Taliban have now become part of the problem. If you want to strike at bin Laden, you have to strike at them. Otherwise you can't catch him."
At the Afghanistan Embassy in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, which is loyal to Rabbani's opposition forces, a military attaché declared Thursday that it is time for the West to send military and financial assistance to the Northern Alliance fighters.
"We need help because we are in the first front against the Taliban," said attaché Soleh Mohammed Registani. "We need the help from the world to win this war."
"We need ammunition, we need weapons, we need economic help. We also need humanitarian help because we have a lot of refugees and they are in very bad condition," said Registani.
Rabbani's government was ousted by the Taliban in 1996. However, it retains embassies in 30 or so cities, including Moscow, and holds Afghanistan's United Nations seat. Only three countries, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have recognized the Taliban government.
Yusufzai insisted, however, that it would be a fatal mistake for the U.S. to make common cause with Rabbani, still recognized as Afghan president though his forces control only a sliver of land.
"You would be removing one armed faction only to bring into power another armed faction, and the Northern Alliance has already been tried once," he said. "They were a disappointing lot."