- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2001

Two days before the suicide missions in the United States, another suicide commando achieved an important "victory" for Osama bin Laden, this time in Afghanistan. The country's most successful leader of the freedom struggle against the Soviets, Ahmad Shah Massoud, was assassinated by two "journalists" who turned out to be Algerians traveling on Belgian passports. When they took a snap of Massoud, the camera exploded, wounding the Afghan leader so badly that he died a few days later. One of the assassins died with the explosion, the other one was shot by Massoud's guards.

This murder is of far-reaching geopolitical consequences, because Massoud was the commander of the anti-Taliban forces called the "Northern Alliance." These troops are backed by a coalition of such unlikely partners as India, Iran, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and lately the United States.

This terrorist attack came on the heels of advances made by the Northern Alliance against the Taliban militia. Half a year ago it looked as if the days of Massoud's last mountain stronghold were numbered. Two developments helped him to bounce back. First, the brutality of the Taliban, especially the cruel treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, made a number of Taliban commanders defect to the Northern Alliance. Second, Massoud received supplies from his bitter foes of yesterday, the Russians.

The reverses suffered by the Taliban prompted Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf to call the U.N. weapons embargo against the Taliban unjust. In this way he confirmed Islamabad's backing for the Taliban. Ironically, the Pakistani press and opposition politicians have condemned Islamabad's support for the Taliban more than any foreign government. Not only are the Taliban guided by military advisers from Pakistan, their dwindling ranks have been filled by some 30,000 Pakistanis, according to conservative estimates. Those are mostly jihad enthusiasts who go to Afghanistan on their own accord, and Islamabad does little to stop them. Among Taliban prisoners held by Massoud's forces are Pakistani nationals. They have been interviewed by some two dozen reporters from various countries.

Lately Gen. Musharraf has warned jihad organizations to stop their recruiting activities. The strong language he used was provoked by the independence of those heavily armed and vainglorious groups. However, there is as yet no Pakistani disengagement from the Afghanistan adventure. The military is bent on having the neighbor country as a vassal state. Many of the Taliban are Afghan orphans brought up in Pakistani refugee camps. Their militia was created to ensure Islamabad's control over Kabul.

The assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud is symptomatic of the unending conflict over this unfortunate country. Afghanistan is a state of several antagonistic ethnic groups. Yet the real problem is interference by too many powers, first and foremost among them Pakistan. Islamabad has a legitimate interest in not wanting to see a hostile government installed in Kabul, but its expansionist policy in Afghanistan is likely to result in precisely such a development.

Pakistan's military government is implicated in the assassination of Massoud, because the Taliban and their protege, Osama bin Laden, are quite isolated in landlocked Afghanistan. Despite their shared anti-Americanism, bin Laden and the Iranian clerics do not see eye to eye. The terrorists' sole outlet to the world is via Pakistan, with borders that are more than porous. It is difficult to absolve Islamabad of anything bin Laden does or gets done, be it inside Afghanistan or outside.

Massoud's death is a tragedy for Afghans who lost in him the one leader whom everybody admired, including those who did not share his Islamist orientation. He was truly a hero of the people who sacrificed the larger portion of his life a quarter century in ceaseless battle without any comfort. Memorial services held for him brought together the largest number of Afghans ever since the outbreak of the Afghan tragedy, in Hamburg, Washington and elsewhere.

Bin Laden's success in eliminating Massoud as the obstacle to Taliban rule is likely to boomerang. The Saudi fugitive has long been hated by most Afghans. Now they consider him a devil. Washington has to keep up the momentum without alienating its Afghan allies. They have been longing to do the job for a number of years, but they want nothing less than to rid the country of the Taliban, no half measures. Once the Taliban dictatorship is removed, bin Laden will be like a fish without water, even if he is not killed or captured right away.

Removal of the Taliban will meet with resistance from Islamist circles in Pakistan, not excluding a section of the present regime. Luckily, those Islamists are unpopular in their own country, just as the Taliban are unpopular in Afghanistan. If Washington compromises with the Taliban in order not to risk a confrontation with the Islamists in Pakistan, the anti-Islamist forces in both countries will be doomed. The United States needs that moderate Muslim majority. Confidence in U.S. leadership can only be restored if moderates need no longer feel like orphans.

Khalid Duran is a former chairman of the Solidarity Committee for the Afghan People.

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