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Military and political tracks lack cohesion

Despite military success in Afghanistan, a post-Taliban political course remains unclear.

©New York Times,
published October 15, 2001

WASHINGTON -- One week after the bombs started falling on Afghanistan, the U.S. military campaign has run ahead of Washington's political strategy to install a new regime in Kabul.

American and British forces have attacked al-Qaida's terrorist camps, knocked out the Taliban's surface-to-air missiles, blasted its air force, pummeled its command posts and, according to one intelligence report, come tantalizing close to killing its supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, missing him by a matter of minutes.

But while the United States has pursued Osama bin Laden and sought to neutralize the Taliban that shelters him, the behind-the-scenes effort to organize a regime that would replace the Taliban has made no discernible progress.

The CIA has made little progress in organizing resistance to the Taliban among the Pashtun tribes in southern Afghanistan, U.S. officials said. Nor is the CIA working with all of the factions that make up the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban group in the north that is dominated by Uzbeks and Tajiks, officials said.

The ethnically diverse groups that oppose the Taliban have also made scant progress in forging a broad coalition that could rule Afghanistan should Washington find bin Laden and drive from power the regime that supported him. The result is that Washington is still struggling to assemble a durable coalition that could take over if the Taliban government fragments or is toppled.

Concerned about a power vacuum, the National Security Council on Friday completed a review that calls for accelerating the overthrow of the Taliban and supporting a successor regime that could bring stability to Afghanistan.

The faltering efforts to form a new Afghan coalition that could follow the Taliban are also leading Washington to recalibrate its bombing strategy. To that end, the United States has focused many of its strikes on the Taliban's forces near the northern towns of Mazar-e Sharif, Kunduz and recently, according to the Northern Alliance, on Taliban front-line units near the town of Taloqan.

The aim is to enable the Northern Alliance to attack west toward Mazar-e Sharif while discouraging the group from moving south on Kabul, the Afghan capital.

The Northern Alliance is dominated by ethnic Uzbek and Tajiks and is unacceptable to many Pashtuns, the main ethnic group in the country. Other major resistance forces are Shia Muslims and have been supported by Iran.

Washington is concerned that Afghans could rally around the Taliban if the Northern Alliance rushed into the capital.

In contrast, there have been few, if any, attacks on the Taliban forces that are facing off the Northern Alliance just north of Kabul. So far, the trenches along that front have appeared to be such a sanctuary that Taliban soldiers have been jumping in their trucks each night to leave Kabul for the safety of the front line.

Seeking to encourage the Americans to step up their strikes on Taliban ground troops, including their front-line forces near Kabul, a senior envoy for the Northern Alliance indicated that the group would cooperate with Washington by directing its attacks away from the capital for now.

"There is no intention of attacking Kabul," Haron Amin, the Northern Alliance's chief representative to Washington, said in an interview. "I think that we have objectives to secure first before any action around Kabul."

But like many American, British and Afghan leaders, Amin expressed concern that the military and political dimensions of the American operation in Afghanistan were out of synch.

"The military track is way ahead of the political track," Amin said. "There is a military road map, but the American political road map is not clear."

From the start, the U.S. goal has not been merely to hunt down bin Laden and destroy the al-Qaida terrorist network. It has also been to ensure that Afghanistan does not re-emerge as a haven for a new set of terrorists that would threaten the United States and destabilize the region.

Initially, there was considerable debate within the Bush administration about how to accomplish this goal. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has made no secret of a desire to oust the Taliban.

The regime has drawn financial support from bin Laden and has drawn on his Arab fighters to battle the Northern Alliance.

There are also reports that bin Laden is married to a daughter of Omar, the Taliban leader.

But State Department officials have sometimes said that the United States might be able to work with moderate elements of the Taliban if bin's Laden's terrorist network were destroyed, and that Washington did not have a large stake in the outcome of a power struggle in Afghanistan.

The National Security Council review last week concluded that Washington should accelerate its efforts to overthrow the Taliban government and replace it with a coalition that could bring stability to Afghanistan. That review reflected an implicit recognition that the military and political aims of the American campaign needed to be better coordinated.

Although the nature of a post-Taliban government does not seem like an immediate issue, it is central for three reasons.

First, there is a risk that the Taliban could collapse more quickly than expected, throwing the nation into chaos. Although there is no sign that the Taliban is about to crack, there have been defections and the American military has tried to target its leader, Omar. They have struck his compound and command posts. One intelligence report says that he escaped one strike by about five minutes.

A second reason is that U.S. officials are calculating that some groups within the country will not turn against the Taliban unless they understand what regime is to follow and are promised a role in that regime.

Third, Pakistan and other neighboring nations are looking for assurances that Afghanistan will not turn into a chaotic failed state, nor does the United States want the nation to turn into a new haven for terrorists after the Taliban is gone.

Seeking to avoid the impression that it is calling all the shots, the Bush administration has said publicly that the future governing arrangements in Afghanistan are up to the Afghans. But now that the National Security Council review has been completed and the administration has settled on the goal of speeding up the removal of the Taliban, U.S. officials plan to step up efforts to establish a new coalition government.

Administration officials hope the CIA will be more successful in fomenting resistance to the Taliban in the south. The CIA, some officials say, also has plenty of work to do with anti-Taliban groups in the north.

The agency's intelligence agents, officials say, are working with Gen. Mohammed Fahim, who became defense chief of the Northern Alliance after Ahmed Shah Massoud was assassinated by two suicide bombers in September -- an attack that U.S. intelligence officials believe was ordered by bin Laden. Fahim is from the dominant group in the Northern Alliance, the Jamiat Islam, which occupies ethnic Tajik territory in the northeast part of the country.

But the CIA, an official said, has not established an effective working relationship with other factions in the Northern Alliance, including the Hazara group led by Muhammad Karim Khalili, the Uzbek faction led by Abdul Rashid Dostum and a Shia group led by Karim Khalili. The difficulties in forcing a broad anti-Taliban coalition, however, do not stem only from Washington. The groups that oppose the Taliban have done little to cement their union.

The attempt to create a coalition revolves around the 86-year-old former king of Afghanistan, Mohammad Zahir Shah, who lives in Rome. The exiled king is a Durrani Pashtun, like the Taliban leaders. The thinking is that he could serve as the symbolic head of a broad group that would include Afghans who are not Pashtuns.

But the Northern Alliance and Pashtun leaders associated with the king have yet to convene an 120-member council to discuss proposals for a transition government once the Taliban has been ousted and lay the foundation for a more formal loya jirga, or traditional Afghan assembly. In fact, the alliance has yet to choose any of its 60 delegates for the council.

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