Afghanistan: Division in the ranks

Anti-Taleban forces within Afghanistan and abroad show clear signs of division as the US/UK alliance starts to tremble.

The hitherto rock-solid US/UK alliance begins to indicate signs of a rift in policy. While the British favour an all-out assault by the Northern Alliance on Kabul before a Winter break is called, the United States has asked the Northern Alliance to advance to Kabul but not to enter the city.

In an interview given to the Sunday Times, British Defence secretary Geoff Hoon said “I would be quite happy to see the Northern Alliance steam across northern Afghanistan and take Kabul”. George Bush, on the other hand, made US policy clear in a joint press conference with Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf. He stated, “We will encourage our friends to head south but not into Kabul itself”.

Colin Powell, US Secretary of State, is of the same opinion: “It would be better if they did not enter Kabul”. The reason why: “There would certainly be much tension if the Northern Alliance took the city by force because the city of Kabul is not, at present, favourable to them”.

Neither is Pakistan. Pervez Musharraf made this clear to President Bush, stating that Pakistan does not support the idea of the Northern Alliance taking Kabul and setting up a government because this grouping is mainly Tajik and not Pashtun, the ethnic group in the southern half of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. The attack on Afghanistan has divided the country into Pashtun and non-Pashtun.

There are also divisions of opinion as to whether Mazar-i-Sharif has actually fallen. Since 1997, there have been numerous claims that the Taleban have lost the city, only for some days later, the Northern Alliance to admit it was near the airport (15 kilometres outside the city). The Taleban admitted on November 10th that half of the city had fallen to the Northern Alliance troops, heavily backed up by the US/UK alliance, and led into battle by British SAS and American Special Forces.

The Taleban claim that they have made a strategic withdrawal in the north of the country and that the situation was planned and is under control. The special UN envoy for Afghanistan, Fransesc Vendrell, refused to comment on whether Mazar-i-Sharif had been taken by the Northern Alliance. What he declared was that “The United Nations Organisation will request the USA to cease its military actions during Ramadan”. He stated that if these actions continue, the whole region could be destabilised “putting many of those who today support the anti-terrorism coalition against it”.

Regarding a post-Taleban scenario, the situation is far from clear. King Mohammed Zahir claims that he will call a Loya Jirga (Supreme Council of the Peoples of Afghanistan) as soon as possible but both the Northern Alliance and ex-president Rabbani have pronounced themselves against this. As Fransesc Vendrell said, “While the Taleban have so much political and military strength in the country, we cannot speak, in real terms, about a future Afghan government”.

The differendum between Britain and the United States is not limited to policy over Kabul. British daily The Guardian claims that there are serious differences of opinion between Tony Blair and George Bush on the objectives of the campaign, humanitarian aid, the possibility of the US to attack Iraq (which London opposes) and the failure of the white House to force Israel to adopt a more practical and less aggressive stance regarding the occupied territories.