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RAY SUAREZ: For the story on the situation in Afghanistan in general, and more specifically in the South in Kandahar, we turn to Kawun Kakar, an Afghan who until earlier this year, was a U.N. Human Rights Officer in Afghanistan. He is a managing member of the Institute for Afghan Studies. Edward Girardet has covered Afghanistan for the last 20 years for the Christian Science Monitor, National Geographic, and also for “The NewsHour.” He’s the author of Afghanistan: The Soviet War. He was last there in August.
And Michael Vickers, a former Army Green Beret and CIA officer with experience in the region; he’s now director of strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a non-partisan defense policy think tank.
Well, Ed Girardet, let me start with you. This is a week where the Taliban army has been withdrawing from, abandoning cities and yet the fighting is ferocious in Kandahar. What’s the significance?
EDWARD GIRARDET: Well, first of all, the areas they left were non-Pashtun areas in the North. These are areas where they acted more as an occupying force, heavily detested by the local population, for example, in Herat and in Mazar-e-Sharif.
Now, Kandahar is a different situation. It’s a very Pashtun city; it’s the second largest city in Afghanistan. There will be probably a lot of fighting, very furious fighting going on there, but also it’s a very… It’s in the flatlands, so it’ll be very difficult to defend.
And I imagine that a lot of them will eventually leave to go into the mountains to the North and to the eastern parts of Afghanistan. But also, you know, during the Soviet period, there was a lot of fighting amongst the Mujahadeen who hid in farmland areas, with irrigation canals, fruit orchards around Kandahar and the Soviets never really managed to get rid of them. So the area’s also one of the heaviest mined areas in Afghanistan today.
RAY SUAREZ: Kawun Kakar, as the Northern Alliance army moves down into the Pashtun heartland, as Edward Girardet suggests, does the advantage on the ground shift to the Taliban?
KAWUN KAKAR: It’s going to depend on the formation of the government in Kabul. If there isn’t a representative multi-ethnic regime established in Kabul, then it’s likely that the Pashtuns in South and East would have at least some sympathies or that the Taliban would bank on those sympathies and it would make it difficult for anti-Taliban leaders, such as Hamad Karza in Kandahar and others to broker an uprising against the Taliban in those areas.
RAY SUAREZ: Tell us a little bit more about who the Pashtuns are. And are they uniformly Taliban supporters?
KAWUN KAKAR: Not really. Taliban and their policies have been disliked in Pashtun areas, as well. And there have been quite discontent and also difficulties with Taliban. Most of their policies are considered even anti-Pashtun. So there is no love lost among Pashtuns for Taliban.
However, Pashtuns in the South and the East are also concerned about the establishment of a multiethnic regime in Kabul.
RAY SUAREZ: Edward Girardet, are they a minority, a majority in the country?
EDWARD GIRARDET: They represent about 40 per cent. It’s very difficult to know exactly what the figure is.
But certainly the Pakistanis are very keen that they not lose the dominance in Afghanistan, and I think things have changed over the past 20, 25 years with the war. A lot of the other ethnic groups – the Tajiks, the Hazaras, the Uzbeks have come up as very good fighters. So the balance has changed.
But I think it is crucial that, in any future broad-based government, there have to be members of the Pashtuns in the government, including possibly elements of the Taliban, because a lot of the Pashtuns who joined the commanders who joined the Taliban did it really for financial reasons, they were paid off. The Taliban achieved very few military victories in the early stages. A lot of their victories were achieved by payoffs of commanders on the Northern Alliance side.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Michael Vickers, looking at the landscape now and the withdrawal of Taliban forces into specific areas of the country, how does that change the strategy that you use to fight them?
MICHAEL VICKERS: Well, a week ago, the Taliban and their al-Qaida supporters had basically 90 per cent of the country and now they have about 20 per cent — the area basically around Kandahar and then this pocket up in Kunduz in the North.
And I think since the Taliban have largely given up on a lot of the cities and the Pashtun areas are in revolt, we’ll shift now more toward an anti-leadership, anti-Taliban and anti-al-Qaida campaign, hunting them in the mountains. They’ll be more at risk for informants, and they’ll stand out a lot more than a lot of people realize. A lot of the al-Qaida supporters are Pakistanis, Chechens and Arabs, and they won’t be able to work in the Afghan countryside in the way that Afghans did in the war against the Soviets.
RAY SUAREZ: Could this conceivably lengthen the war by allowing a withdrawal for some of these forces into more defensible areas?
MICHAEL VICKERS: No. I think while some of these areas of Afghanistan are very remote, it really depends on what the Pashtuns do. There is opposition forces in several provinces.
To the extent that they rise up and start hunting for these, with American advisors, and with more extensive surveillances over these areas, I think the days for the al-Qaida leadership and Taliban leadership are really numbered.
RAY SUAREZ: Kawun Kakar, you heard Mike Vickers talking about the foreign troops mixed in with the Taliban forces.
Are they in a different position from Pashtun fighters, the generals we’re talking about — Kunduz and how there were a lot of foreign troops there, are they in a do-or-die situation, or are they likely to fight much harder than native Afghan troops?
KAWUN KAKAR: Before the war, before the current war started, it was estimated that there were about four to five thousand foreign troops in Afghanistan that were fighting alongside the Taliban.
Now, these fighters, some of them have actually left Afghanistan. In fact, one of the reasons that the Taliban retreated from Kabul is said to be that many of these foreign troops simply left Kabul through a route in northern Pakistan. And those were left in Kunduz or certainly in a do-or-die situation. But let’s not forget that a lot of these Taliban are from Afghanistan, and it is… It would make it extremely difficult for a multiethnic regime to take roots in Afghanistan if they’re basically exterminated.
Now… so there must be some type of a process where those who have committed crimes are brought to justice and those who have simply been led to fight are simply left out of – somebody is not exterminated in any way.
So, that’s why it is important that the U.N. or the future accord entails a process of accountability, where people, Taliban or anti-Taliban leaders who have committed mass crimes against humanity are brought to justice or some kind of an accountability process. And that would also put the current commanders also on notice that, if they commit any crimes against humanity, that they would be brought to justice.
RAY SUAREZ: Edward Girardet, what do you think? Does it make it easier to convert some of the Taliban leaders in the field if there is not atrocities in some of the already occupied areas, Northern Alliance occupied areas?
EDWARD GIRARDET: Well, I think one shouldn’t underestimate the situation. There will be certainly atrocities committed because they have been committed in the past, there is revenge. And I think that will pose a problem on both sides.
And I think one of the questions as well, is, you know, how will the Northern Alliance hold up over the next few days and weeks. It’s a very fragile grouping of commanders. There’s no one single commander who has emerged yet, and I don’t see any emerging for quite a while, as a single figure.
So I think it’s really going to depend, you know, who remains with the Taliban, what the local populations think in the Taliban Pashtun areas, and also with the Islamic troops, the foreign troops, how hard they will fight. I mean there are some very good, very well trained troops, Uzbeks Chechens, amongst the Taliban. And I think, you know, they’re going to have to fight very hard because they will not be treated very well. And I think, you know, that’s the reality. And the war has never been nice on any side in Afghanistan over the past 23 years.
RAY SUAREZ: Michael Vickers, how do you craft a strategy around assisting armies where everyone’s always telling you the situation is fluid, where whole armies in the field can change colors and start fighting for another side within a period of days?
MICHAEL VICKERS: Well, that’s generally one of the problems of dealing in Afghanistan. But momentum is really shifted substantially to the American side now, and a number of prominent Pashtun leaders, for example, have said that this notion of really hanging on in Kandahar is delusional and that Kandahar will fall shortly. And so more are being emboldened to rise up.
Also, I would add that Kabul was sort of a test case. I mean there was great fears of the Northern Alliance going into Kabul. Kabul has a pretty heavy Pashtun population, and they were welcomed with open arms, and not necessarily that the Northern Alliance were such good governors in the past but it tells you something about the antipathy toward the Taliban and how happy the people of Afghanistan are to get rid of them.
RAY SUAREZ: So what kind of time line do you think we’re talking about here?
MICHAEL VICKERS: Well, looking at the rate of collapse, it could be a matter of a few more weeks. But again, fragments of these leaders could get away, as Secretary Rumsfeld has warned. But the more the opposition really picks up in the South, the tougher it will be for the Taliban and al-Qaida and also more intense commando operations that are apparently under way.
RAY SUAREZ: And Kawun Kakar, forming that new government, is that something that many of these leaders are already talking about?
KAWUN KAKAR: There have been talks about it, but unfortunately, the political process has been lagging behind the military campaign. And that’s an issue of concern.
And especially based on the past what has happened in 1992, let’s also remember that forces from northern Afghanistan entered in Kabul, of course also from southern and eastern Afghanistan as well. At first they were welcomed by the people of Kabul. However, the political process was not well established, and the political disputes led to military fights that resulted in destruction of almost one-third of Kabul into an archeological site and rest of the country breaking down into a chaotic situation.
That of course led to the rise of Taliban. Now, currently, as well, some of the Northern Alliance leaders have shown willingness that they would be sharing power with other groups. However, the head of Northern Alliance, Burhanuddin Rabbani, has so far not stated specifically that he welcomes other groups to come in Kabul and form a government.
RAY SUAREZ: Let me stop you there, Mr. Kakar. I want to move on. And thank you all very much.
KAWUN KAKAR: Thank you.