Sunday, November 25, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former president of the Islamic State of Afghanistan who holds the country’s seat at the United Nations and is the nominal head of the Northern Alliance, insists that he will step down if the Bonn talks succeed in naming a new head of state for a transitional government.
“As far as my future is concerned, the people will determine the role of every concerned personality,” he said in a rare interview. “I will accept the decision of the [Bonn] meeting. I have no personal ambitions. We want peace and security and a government of national unity in the country so that people do not face hardships and problems. But this meeting is only the first step and no doubt it is very useful and auspicious, but we hope this will be the last gathering outside the country and the next meeting will be inside the country.”
Mr. Rabbani, a Tajik, is not giving much away, but he is also playing a waiting game. Other Northern Alliance leaders say he knows that if the Bonn meeting fails, he will then be in a much stronger position to remain as president, even though such a move will alienate many of the factions in the alliance and make reconciliation with the Pashtuns in the south of the country virtually impossible.
“Rabbani has the clandestine blessings of Russia and maybe even Iran, that if everything falls apart at Bonn, then he will remain the de facto president,” said a senior alliance leader. “But if Bonn succeeds, I am certain he will hand over the presidency, because he knows he cannot defy the will of the people, the U.N. and the whole international community.”
Mr. Rabbani ran the alliance government from 1993 to 1996, which Kabulis still remember as a disaster because in its effort to cling to power, it made little attempt at ending the civil war in which central Kabul was destroyed by rival groups led by the Pashtun extremist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was backed by Pakistan. As president, Mr. Rabbani’s own standing plummeted as alliance forces carried out widespread human rights abuses.
Mr Rabbani privately concedes that the Northern Alliance made many mistakes at the time, which is why he is trying to reach out to all ethnic groups at the moment. His office was full of Pashtun delegations from the south whom he is attempting to woo.
However, the Tajik faction of the alliance, which now holds Kabul, is watching Mr. Rabbani’s every move. The triumvirate that rules the city Abdullah Abdullah, the foreign minister; Younis Qanooni, the interior minister; and Gen. Mohammed Fahim, the defense minister is committed to the vision of their assassinated leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, that a new broad-based government must be formed with possibly Zahir Shah, the former king, heading it.
The Tajik triumvirate wants Bonn to succeed so that the Pashtuns and the king are brought into government, but it also cannot afford to antagonize Mr. Rabbani, who holds the trump card of the U.N. seat and the support of Russia and Iran, which have backed the alliance militarily in their six-year war against the Taliban.
At the same time, all the Northern Alliance leaders are apprehensive of the new game in Kabul, as Afghanistan’s neighbors lobby for influence and restart their interference among the factions, which for 12 years blocked U.N. attempts to bring the Afghan factions to the peace table. In particular, they are nervous about Pakistan, which abhors the Northern Alliance and is still trying to galvanize a Pashtun force in the south that could offer a credible alternative to the alliance.
But Mr. Rabbani was in a conciliatory mood, asking for better relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“We want a new page to be turned. My message to President Pervez Musharraf is that we should forget the bitter memories of the past and start a new friendship, based on mutual respect, non-interference and territorial independence.”
Mr. Rabbani said he told U.N. Deputy Special Representative Francesc Vendrell, whom he met in Kabul earlier this week, that the United Nations should impose tough sanctions on any country that tried to interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Although the Northern Alliance has secured law and order in Kabul, the capital is little more than an enclave, with hostile Pashtuns to the east and the south.
On Wednesday, the Northern Alliance sent down $200,000 in an attempt to buy off 1,200 Taliban and Arab fighters based at Maidan Shahr, just 20 miles from the capital, who were refusing to disarm. The Taliban commander, Ghulam Mohammed, took the money but refused to surrender his weapons. On Thursday, alliance troops attacked the Taliban force, setting a dangerous precedent for future interethnic war, because the alliance troops are Tajiks while the Taliban forces are Pashtuns.
When Northern Alliance commanders called in American aircraft to bomb the Taliban positions on Thursday, they never came, a sign that Washington also sees this as a local dispute. Other key components of the alliance, the Uzbeks in the north and the Hazaras in the center of the country, are nervous of the fact that the Tajik faction of the alliance has already established itself in important ministries in Kabul, which could make dislodging it much more difficult if the Bonn meeting sets up a new government.
If the Bonn meeting fails, then all the Northern Alliance cast of characters will be forced to take sides: back Mr. Rabbani for the presidency and ensure the antagonism of the Pashtuns or make another attempt at forming a new government.
Kabulis are hoping and praying that Bonn will bring about a reconciliation between the Northern Alliance and anti-Taliban Pashtuns, who are loyal to the former king.

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