- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 17, 2001

There have been many doubts expressed in the media about the Northern Alliance, the Taliban's chief military opposition. The leaders of the Northern Alliance have been portrayed as "war lords" from smaller ethnic groups that do not represent Afghanistan, but who want to form the next government. They are also depicted as "war criminals" that brought the country into civil war before the Taliban, and will do so again after the Taliban. These doubts arise from a serious misunderstanding of Afghanistan's politics and history.
I spent many months with the Northern Alliance in 1998 negotiating a common policy of national reconciliation. The "Northern Alliance" is a name given by the West. They call themselves the "United Front." This name portrays their underlying policy of uniting all of the diverse ethnic, religious and political groups. It is essentially an inclusive group.
The four major ethnic groups in Afghanistan are Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara. The Northern Alliance is composed of all these groups, but with a limited involvement of the Pashtuns, who make up the Taliban leadership. However, two of the nine leaders who signed the agreement I negotiated were Pashtun, and I met a number of Pashtun soldiers and advisers during my stay.
One reason why they have not had a larger Pashtun involvement is that the territory they control has been mostly in non-Pashtun areas. It has always been a policy of the Northern Alliance to increase the involvement of the Pashtuns. The leaders of the Northern Alliance understand that Tajik, Uzbek or Hazara soldiers cannot be used to control Pashtun areas. The phenomenon of one ethnic group dominating other ethnic groups is a chief cause of civil war in Afghanistan. Therefore, for the Northern Alliance to be successful in bringing peace to Afghanistan, it must bring the Pashtuns fully into their alliance. The group's recent alliance with the former king, Zahir Shah (a Pashtun), is designed to accomplish this, as is the recent call for amnesty for all Taliban soldiers who defect to the alliance.
To say that the leaders of the Northern Alliance are merely war lords obscures the fact that each commander heads a military council, and each military group has a corresponding political council. Their military councils are subject to the scrutiny of their political councils. When I met with the Uzbek general Dustom, it was only after I had numerous discussions with his political council, composed of scholars and clerics.
And when I met with Defense Minister Ahmed Shah Massoud, (who was assassinated Sept. 9), he insisted that I also meet with advisers, from his political council (two of which were Pashtun). The military and political councils of the various groups unite to form a "supreme council" that makes up the Northern Alliance. The supreme council has now been reorganized to include the former King Zahir Shah.
Clearly, we should not idealize the Northern Alliance. They have seen nothing but war for 22 years. Life in a war zone is cruel. And no doubt, many atrocities have been committed. But atrocities are not a matter of policy for the Northern Alliance. When I visited the military headquarters in Panshir Valley, I met with prisoners of war and found them to be well treated. And at the request of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, I advised a woman official on how to form a human rights commission after the war was over. The important thing is that the leadership of the Northern Alliance is committed to building a democratic and human rights-based government for Afghanistan.
Before the Taliban took power in Kabul, many of the leaders of the Northern Alliance were locked into a civil war. Jealous rivalries are partly to blame. But the main reason for the civil war was that Pakistan put its support behind a Pashtun leader (Gulbeddin Hekmatyar) to establish a government. After Hekmatyar began losing power, Pakistan put its support behind the Taliban, also Pashtun. Pakistan, with a large Pashtun population, has a long-standing policy of supporting a Pashtun dominated government in Afghanistan. The other ethnic groups oppose this, of course, insisting on a government that represents all of the ethnic groups.
The only way to prevent a civil war after the Taliban are removed from power is to support a political process of reconciliation that is purely Afghan, and includes all of the ethnic groups. As President Bush has said, a "Marshall Plan" of aid is needed for Afghanistan to rebuild itself, but neither the United States nor Pakistan should impose its idea of who should govern.
In the world of Islam, councils are the way in which problems are resolved. The greatest of all councils in Afghanistan is the Loya Jirga. The prime purpose of a Loya Jirga is to resolve the issue of a new national government. It is traditionally composed of tribal leaders, which can number into the thousands. Unlike a Western-style parliament, such a gathering is very informal, with Afghans sitting together in small groupings deliberating. Somehow a consensus is formed, and a new government is elected.
The king and the Northern Alliance are now in the process of appointing 120 persons to form a council, a type of small Loya Jirga. This council will decide on the composition of a transitional government (to last from six months to a year) to replace the Taliban. During this transitional period, a full Loya Jirga will be formed to elect a new government.
The Loya Jirga will most likely be composed of more than a thousand Afghans, representing its many ethnic, religious and political interests. The large number will ensure that no one group or interest will dominate the formation of the new government. As the king and the leaders of the Northern Alliance have affirmed, the new government of Afghanistan will be broad based, representing all the ethnic groups. Only such a government, formed by the collective will of the Afghan people, can ensure lasting peace in Afghanistan.

Roger L. Plunk is an international mediator and author of "The Wandering Peacemaker."

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