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Inside Afghanistan

September 28, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The United States is reaching out to potential allies inside Afghanistan who are opposed to the ruling Taliban government. Potential Afghan allies elsewhere are being contacted, too. A U.S. Congressional delegation will meet with the exiled King Mohammed Zahir Shah in Rome this weekend. At the same time, there are a number of reports of dissension within the Taliban itself. The militant Islamic government controls around 90 percent of the country. Its base is made up of Pashtun- speaking people, who are the majority of Afghanistan. The rest of the country is controlled mainly by a coalition of groups known as the Northern Alliance or United Front. Its ranks include such minority groups as Tajiks and Uzbeks.

For more on all this, we turn to Ashraf Ghani, adjunct professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. He was born in Afghanistan and taught there before he came to the United States in 1977. And Patricia Gossman, she’s an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and a consultant on human rights issues in Central and South Asia. She has traveled to Afghanistan three times in the past year as a consultant for the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Mr. Ghani, what are you hearing from your contacts in Afghanistan about the Taliban? There have been reports of dissension, even defections. What are you hearing?

ASHRAF GHANI: That indeed is what I’m hearing. One, people are voting with their feet. They’re leaving the cities. They’re leaving the country, showing that they do not have trust in the Taliban to be able to stay. Second, when the leader of the Taliban refused to abide by the decision of the council and ask bin Laden to leave and instead said that bin Laden could not be found, this proved a major issue for some of his supporters because they thought that he had not obeyed the procedure that he himself established.

Third, rank and file are showing movements in contacting other groups to see how they would deal with this situation after the key leadership is gone. And as a result of this, there’s tremendous amount of jockeying for power within and maneuvers to secure future.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Patricia Gossman, what are your contacts telling you?

PATRICIA GOSSMAN: Very much the same thing. I’ve heard in some parts particularly toward the West of Afghanistan, checkpoints that are normally staffed by Taliban have been deserted; that they’re losing control over parts of the West, and that of course in Kabul; too, you see a breakdown in the control of the city. I would like to add though while people are leaving the country, leaving Kabul and the cities, they’re also leaving out of fear of what may follow and fear of the Northern Alliance forces as well.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Can you imagine, Patricia Gossman, a scenario in which the Taliban could give up Osama bin Laden to save their own selves?

PATRICIA GOSSMAN: I don’t think any of the signs we’ve seen so far indicate anything like that is likely. Instead you see the hardening of the hard-line Taliban leaders in their position on this. I don’t really think that there is a possibility of that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Ashraf Ghani, is there a chance the government could simply fall?

ASHRAF GHANI: There is a possibility, of course, but the key issue is who rules Afghanistan today? It’s not really clear whether it’s Osama bin Laden or the Taliban because the Arab regiments that are in the country have become a major staying force in the repressive arm….

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let me interrupt you. What do you mean when you say Arab regimen?

ASHRAF GHANI: There are a very large number of Arabs who first fought in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation and subsequently a lot of these people have left their own countries in belief of an internationalist agenda of building a very puritanical type of Islamic state. And they see it as their duty to fight in Afghanistan and to carry this struggle forward. And they are the ones who become rather important presence in Afghanistan and are distinguished from local Afghans who initially rallied to the Taliban but have subsequently felt very alienated.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Miss Gossman, the U.S. is reportedly exploring an alliance with Northern Alliance to go after Osama bin Laden and perhaps to do more in Afghanistan. Who are the Northern Alliance?

PATRICIA GOSSMAN: Well, they’re not exactly strangers to us. The factions that make up the Northern Alliance are mainly those that took control of the country following the fall of the Communist government in 1992. And their record on governance and human rights is atrocious. They, in Kabul alone, they managed to destroy a third of the city and engaged in massacre of civilians, rape and other atrocities. So these are people one should be very wary about in signing on as allies.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Can they be useful in capturing bin Laden?

PATRICIA GOSSMAN: It’s possible but I think there are others in the country that also need to be tapped, precisely for that. The real danger is if you only pursue this as, with a military strategy and let forces like those of the Northern Alliance come back into power, you’ll lay the groundwork for further terrorist operations Afghanistan, another failed state, which would give rise to this kind of terrorism. There are other forces in Afghanistan who also know who these Arab fighters are, who know bin Laden’s ranks, have seen them cooperating with the Taliban in atrocities against Afghan civilians. I think there needs to be a broader reaching out in order to find those who can really track down these people.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I’m going to come back to that in a minute but, Mr. Ghani, before we leave the Northern Alliance specifically, tell us a little more about it and about the ethnic groups in Afghanistan and who is in the Northern Alliance and who isn’t and the significance of that.

ASHRAF GHANI: Afghanistan is composed of linguistic groups. They really cannot be called ethnic groups because there is so much cost cutting measures and ties and a lot of people are bilingual. But under the Taliban regime, there has been much more salience attached to Pashtoons who have been aligned to the Taliban versus those groups who speak Persian, the Afghan version of Persian, or the Turkic languages.

And initially, as Ms. Gossman mentioned, they took American Kabul in ’92. They failed to establish elementary forms of governance or welfare for the people and they were pushed back. There are two things about them. One is that they have a very distinguished military commander who was just assassinated before the tragic events of September 11. So their own cohesion is an issue. Second, that there are groups in the country who, to some extent, are affiliated with these.

And those groups need accommodation within a broad-based government in Afghanistan that Afghanistan’s new government can simply not be managed by one group at the exclusion of others; there has to be a formula to allow all groups to live in peace.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Let me interrupt you a second here, Mr. Ghani. I’m going to come back to that. On the question of the Northern Alliance, the government of Pakistan is very opposed to the U.S. being too closely tied with it. Briefly, why?

ASHRAF GHANI: Basically because the government of Pakistan, until these events, was the sole major military supporter and strategic supporter of the Taliban and made it its agenda to eliminate the Northern Alliance as a military power. And internally, Pakistan has a very large number of Pashtoons on its side of the border and they’re quite concerned that events like the period of ’92 to ’94 could cause considerable alienation among their own population and will not allow Pakistan to articulate its interests.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Ms. Gossman, is it true that the Northern Alliance is funded partly by India, Iran and Russia and this is also disturbing to Pakistan? And I mention this because the U.S. wants to cooperate with Pakistan here, too.

PATRICIA GOSSMAN: Yes. The Northern Alliance has received the bulk of its military assistance from Iran and Russia. And recently there have been increasing reports that India is particularly more active in financing their operation. So yes obviously this would be a great concern to Pakistan.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ms. Gossman, moving on now to the question of what other options might exist for this kind of broader alliance that both you and Mr. Ghani seem to be talking about, what are the other options? What could happen — what is being done actually?

PATRICIA GOSSMAN: Well right now in Afghanistan Afghans who are made up of disaffected members of the.. from the Northern Alliance, people who know what the Northern Alliance did in the past and don’t want to see a repeat of that, as well as disaffected Taliban leaders who were unhappy with the growing presence of Arabs within the ranks and their influence they had over Taliban policies. And a wide network of former civil administration officials from different eras, tribal leaders, elders, others who have local legitimacy are reaching out now to try to find a way to establish a kind of transitional process that would lead to a different kind of government in Afghanistan. And I think what they need is recognition from the outside world about this and support principally led by the U.N., I think.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Just briefly, there has been talk of some kind of large, and this is a centuries’ old thing to do, some kind of a large national council. Could you describe that?

PATRICIA GOSSMAN: Yes, this is something that has been talked about for sometime in Afghanistan, to convene a grand assembly, to discuss a new constitution and how a new government would be formed. The Rome process, which involves the former King Al Shahra, has advocated this as a way out of the situation in Afghanistan. But this involves people who have been principally outside Afghanistan for 20 years or longer. While it does bring in a lot of technocrats, people with skills that would be necessary to create the institutions that are now completely absent in Afghanistan, they need the connection with local constituencies, local leaders who have legitimacy in Afghanistan to make anything like that possible.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Ghani, how do you see the other options of the role in the U.S. and – or what do you think the U.S. should be doing vis-à-vis those other options?

ASHRAF GHANI: Well, the first thing is to really call attention to the plight of the refugees because there is a humanitarian crisis. And it requires sustained attention and it requires U.S. leadership to mobilize a wider coalition to assist the refugees because if the issue of the refugees is not addressed at this moment and they are internally displaced, we could have a humanitarian catastrophe on our hands. And that is people are reacting precisely to the threat of war. So that’s the first thing.

The second is an agenda for recovery and reconstruction. A road map needs to be laid out very clearly to say to the population of Afghanistan very clearly as to what they would get by joining the world community because the people of Afghanistan are absolutely tired of violence and would like to move forward. And the third -

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let me interrupt quickly just on that one. Who? How? How does this word get out? Is this through the king? How should it be done if it is?


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How is it being done, if it is?

ASHRAF GHANI: Almost 80 percent of the Afghans regularly listen to the… BBC and “Voice of America”. Afghans are following developments keenly and they will not miss a single broadcast. — a strategy that tells them credibly from the U.S. side that these, this is a road map and these are things that cooperation with the international community will involve would send a signal of assurance to very large groups of Afghans that indeed they are not going to be forgotten again.

The things that Afghans are worried about most is if the U.S. arms randomly various commanders in order to go after Osama bin Laden, they will be engaging in a new round of civil war and who will clean up the place after that? Afghanistan could be emptied out and the fear if that happens, and the right signals are not sent, there could be a backlash. Today the Taliban are a spent political force.

They are there because of repression. They do not command legitimacy. But if the right signals are not sent, and if quick military action takes place without providing a road for recovery and reconstruction and for legitimate political process, there could be a backlash.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ashraf Ghani, Patricia Gossman, thanks.

ASHRAF GHANI: Thank you.