Sending in the marines

Nov 26th 2001 

>From The Economist Global Agenda

As hundreds of American soldiers fly into southern Afghanistan, and the
Taliban’s last stronghold in the north falls to the opposition, the war
may be entering its final phase. A meeting due to start in Germany on
Tuesday marks the formal start of the peace process

Defecting Taliban
THE arrival in Afghanistan, early on November 26th, of hundreds of
American marines, ferried in by helicopter from ships off the coast of
Pakistan, signals the beginning of a new stage in America’s war against
the Taliban and the al-Qaeda terrorist network. The Pentagon says that
the deployment, at an airport near the Taliban’s last stronghold,
Kandahar, will involve more than a thousand soldiers. It has not
specified what their mission will be. But it seems likely to be twofold:
to help Afghan forces complete the rout of the Taliban; and to intensify
the search for al-Qaeda’s leaders, including Osama bin Laden. The
capture or killing of Mr bin Laden has always been one of America’s
primary war aims.

It was not until November 9th that the armed opposition to the Taliban,
the Northern Alliance, won its first big territorial victory of the
campaign, with the capture of the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif. But
after that, Taliban control over most of the country collapsed. Within
days it had been reduced to scattered pockets of resistance, and two big
concentrations of fighters: at Kunduz in the north and at Kandahar, the
Taliban’s heartland, in the south. Kunduz now appears to have fallen,
after a two-week siege, and repeated aerial bombardment by American
planes. The final battle for Kandahar seems imminent. Anti-Taliban
forces are surrounding the city, which is also being subjected to heavy
American bombing. There are also intensive negotiations under way as
elements of the Taliban try to save themselves by surrendering or

As in Kunduz, these negotiations are complicated by two factors: the
bloody record of some Northern Alliance commanders when they were in
power in the 1990s; and the presence in Taliban ranks of thousands of
Arab, Pakistani and other foreign fighters, who have reason to fear
especially vicious reprisals. The depth of Taliban desperation has
already been illustrated by a bloodbath in Mazar-i-Sharif. Some 800
Taliban fighters, who had surrendered to Rashid Dostum, an Alliance
commander with a bloodthirsty reputation, staged a rebellion in the fort
where they were being held prisoner. In the fighting that followed,
which lasted for six hours and involved heavy artillery and American
air-strikes, several hundred were killed, along with a number of
Alliance fighters. At least one American was also hurt.

Before this battle, the Alliance’s foreign backers had been
congratulating it on the restraint its commanders have shown in victory.
There have been intense diplomatic efforts to avoid a repeat of the
massacres, which have disfigured previous turning-points in
Afghanistan’s two-decade-long conflict. Fresh atrocities would bring
criticism on America and its coalition partners for their backing of the
Alliance. They might also wreck whatever chances there are of reaching
some kind of durable peace in Afghanistan.

United Nations officials insist those chances are better now than for
many years. On November 27th, a UN-convened conference on Afghanistan is
due to open in Königswinter, near Bonn in Germany. It will bring
together some of the warring factions, in the hope of reaching agreement
on the composition of a ruling council that can replace the Taliban and
prepare for a traditional Afghan grand council, or loya jirga, to agree
a new transitional government. That, in turn, would ready the country
for general elections, in about three years' time.

Four groups are to be represented at the conference. The Northern
Alliance itself will be there, although its leader, Nurhanuddin Rabbani,
who remained the internationally recognised president of Afghanistan
during the five years of Taliban rule, last week dismissed the talks as
“largely symbolic”. His party, Jamiat-i-Islami, an ethnic-Tajik faction
which took control of the capital, Kabul, two weeks ago, is one of eight
groups making up the Alliance. It is dominated by minority ethnic groups
from the north of the country—not just Tajiks but also Uzbeks, Hazaras
and others.

Dismissive Rabbani 
The other three delegations at Königswinter all represent different
tribes or factions of the largest ethnic group, the Pushtuns. In UN
terminology they are known as “the Rome process”, “the Cyprus process”
and “the Peshawar convention”. Rome is the home in exile of Zahir Shar,
an octogenarian former king who was ousted in a coup in 1973. Many
Afghans and foreign diplomats, including, most notably, the Americans,
hope he can be a symbolic figurehead to unite the disparate parts of a
broad-based government.

The Cyprus process refers to a series of meetings held over the past few
years to discuss how to bring peace to Afghanistan. Taking part was a
wide range of exiled politicians and intellectuals. Many of them are
seen to be close to Iran. 

Peshawar is a Pakistani border town, where other Afghan exiles have made
their base. The delegation from there is being assembled by Syed Pir
Gailani, a Pushtun tribal leader regarded as among the most moderate
members of the seven-party mujahideen government that took power in

Simply listing the groups represented in Königswinter highlights two of
the big difficulties the conference will face. First, the Pushtun
representatives are largely exiles. There are no delegations from either
the Taliban, or from the various tribal leaders who have taken over from
them this month in different areas of the south. The role of the Taliban
has been especially controversial, with Pakistan insisting on the
presence of Taliban “moderates”, and the Alliance, Iran and Russia
refusing to countenance this. In an encouraging sign that some
compromises are possible, Mr Rabbani has dropped his blanket objection
to the participation of any former Taliban in a new administration. He
has now said that “those that don’t have obvious guilt and are elected
by a loya jirga are acceptable.”

The last battle?
Second, all of the factions have their backers in foreign governments,
whose interests compete and conflict. The Alliance, for example, is
backed by Russia and India (as well as by some of Afghanistan’s direct
neighbours, such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan). Iran has links not just
with the Cyprus process but with the Hazara minority, who share its
Shi’ite Muslim creed. Pakistan is intensely suspicious of the Alliance
and sees itself as having a duty to protect the interests of the
Pushtuns (who also make up perhaps a fifth of its own population).

For centuries now, such foreign rivalries have played a big part in
fuelling Afghanistan’s endless internal conflicts. One reason now for
guarded optimism is that so many countries are united in rejoicing at
the rout of the Taliban, and keep repeating that they are ready to help
rebuild Afghanistan, both through providing money for the task and, if
necessary, by sending soldiers to keep the peace. Francesc Vendrell, the
UN’s deputy envoy to Afghanistan has pointed to “a great deal of
international commitment” as being one of the big differences in the
latest attempt to bring peace. But, as he has also said: “The root cause
of the conflict in Afghanistan over the past 20 years is the lack of
popular legitimacy of successive Afghan governments.” And efforts to
establish a government with such legitimacy have only just begun.


This email was sent to:

Or send an email to: [EMAIL PROTECTED]

T O P I C A -- Register now to manage your mail!

Reply via email to