- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 2, 2002

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan About 15,000 hard-core Taliban fighters "melted into" Afghanistan's civilian population last fall and could still come back to challenge the nation's new rulers, a former Pakistani army chief said.
Retired Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, who became chief of army staff in 1988 during the last years of the mujahideen war against the Soviets, said "the reality on the ground" is that Afghanistan has been divided into five autonomous regions, four of which are under the control of warlords allied with the former Northern Alliance.
The fifth region, populated mainly by ethnic Pashtuns who accounted for most Taliban fighters, runs roughly from Kandahar to Jalalabad in a broad belt along the Pakistan border.
When the Taliban "fell back under pressure of the American air power," they retreated to this region with their weapons and "melted into the population," Gen. Beg said in an interview.
"It's very difficult to tell who's a Taliban and who's a non-Taliban," he said. But "they definitely are in the sector."
Gen. Beg, who heads a think tank in Islamabad, said the Taliban is "not strong enough" to challenge the warlords outside the Pashtun areas and therefore is biding its time. The belief is shared by other analysts, such as Peshawar-based Frontier Post Editor Masood Afridi.
Gen. Beg, who retired from the army before the Taliban emerged as a force in Afghanistan, said the first requirement for a Taliban resurgence would be "to unite the Pashtun population."
There are now four or five contenders for the Pashtun leadership, he said, and a revived Taliban is likely to play a role in uniting the Pashtuns as an ethnic group.
However, with the warlords in the other four regions consolidating their positions under U.S. protection, a revived Taliban probably would not attempt to thrust beyond Kabul.
Deposed Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is still alive, "and probably he will be the uniting factor," the general said. But if he does not re-emerge, the Pashtuns will throw up a new leadership, "and you don't have to have a very charismatic figure at the moment to unite them."
The Pashtuns, who have ruled Afghanistan for 250 years, have been pushed into a corner and are brooding over the treatment of fellow Pashtuns in the other four autonomous regions, where "they have been brutalized."
In Peshawar, Mr. Afridi said that if Mullah Omar does not come back, warlord Gulbaddin Hekmatyar could emerge as a new Pashtun chieftain.
But Gen. Beg does not believe Mr. Hekmatyar, who returned earlier this year from exile in Iran, has a chance.
He "acted very unwisely" when he clashed with late Northern Alliance warlord Ahmed Shah Masood about control of Kabul in the 1990s and shelled the city into ruins after he was ousted. Afghans "are not going to tolerate him another time," Gen. Beg said.
The retired general said the division of the country into five autonomous regions had been discussed with the United States, Russia and regional powers even before coalition forces entered Afghanistan to oust the Taliban.
The Tajiks, under warlord Gen. Mohammed Fahim, now control the areas of Badakhshan and the Panjshir Valley, where they are in the majority, while the Uzbeks, under Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, another powerful warlord, are in control of the area around Mazar-e-Sharif.
In the Herat area, Tajik warlord Ismail Khan controls a Shi'ite region with Iranian backing, while the central Hazara areas are under the control of warlord Karim Khalili.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun supported by the coalition forces, is confined mainly to the Kabul area, but does not have a power base among the Pashtun warlords.
The five autonomous ethnic regions had emerged even before the Taliban began a push to seize control of the whole of Afghanistan in 1994-95, Gen. Beg said.
Since the Taliban was pushed back with the help of coalition forces last year, the warlords have gone back to "indulging in [the] narcotics trade, which gives them all the money they need."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide