- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 14, 2001

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan Burhanuddin Rabbani may head Afghanistan's government-in-exile, but it's clear that he doesn't hold the hearts and minds even of the staff of his own embassy here.
In front of the embassy is displayed an array of photographs of Ahmed Shah Masood, the charismatic military leader of the exiled government's coalition of forces battling the Taliban, who was slain last month. Mr. Rabbani's portrait is consigned to a back hallway.
In a heated, private discussion of Mr. Masood's slaying, one upset embassy official laments, "My leader is dead" without a mention of Mr. Rabbani.
It is a reflection of how Mr. Rabbani, the president ousted by the Taliban in 1996 but still recognized by the West as the legitimate head of state, has been eclipsed by other figures in the opposition alliance.
As the United States leads the bombardment of Afghanistan's Taliban rulers and as the West tries to lay the groundwork for a new Afghan government, Mr. Rabbani's status is ambiguous.
It's doubtful Western powers would be pleased to see Mr. Rabbani return to power. His 1992-1996 regime and his "Northern Alliance" fighters are stained with accusations of cruelty as bloody as those against the Taliban.
Mr. Rabbani, a 61-year-old ethnic Tajik scholar and poet whose main residence is in the opposition-held Afghan city of Faizabad, is affiliated with Jamiat-e-Islami, the main party of the five factions battling the Taliban from enclaves in northern Afghanistan. His government holds the Afghan seat at the United Nations and the country's embassies abroad.
But it's not clear how much of a role he takes in planning military strategy against the Taliban that holds sway over more than 90 percent of the country.
Far more prominent on the front was his defense minister, Mr. Masood, who was lionized for his battlefield wiles and charismatic bearing. He was slain in a suicide bombing conducted days before the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States.
Asked about Mr. Rabbani's influence, embassy First Secretary Mohajeddin Mehdi gave a lukewarm response.
"He is my big boss, of course," Mr. Mehdi said. He hastened to add that Mr. Rabbani was more influential than he might appear, that he had wide support from Afghanistan's ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazars. Those ethnic groups comprise only a minority of Afghanistan's people, most of whom are ethnic Pashtun.
Mr. Rabbani is, at best, an "interim" figure, and others are likely to emerge, said Alexei Malashenko, an expert on Islam at the Moscow Carnegie Center.
Mr. Rabbani "could probably be classified as one of yesterday's people," said David Fouquet of the European Institute of Asian Studies.
The Northern Alliance itself is shot through with ethnic fault lines. The five factions that have loosely joined to create it are each dominated by a particular ethnic group or by religious affiliation, that is, allegiance to Shi'ite or Sunni Islam.
Because of the enduring ethnic and religious enmities within the alliance, "their past record of abuse and impunity gives no reason to believe that commanders will be discouraged from committing further abuses," the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said in a report this month.

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