Our boys in Kabul
The West's shifting attitude towards the Northern Alliance reflects the confusion behind its war aims in Afghanistan.
The Northern Alliance went into Kabul to mixed reactions from the UK media. While the Sun showed Northern Alliance tanks on the streets of Kabul with the headline ‘VK Day’, the Mirror pictured a brutal Northern Alliance summary execution with the headline, ‘Our “friends” in Kabul take over’.
The West’s discomfort with the Northern Alliance is not surprising. The Northern Alliance is, after all, the Mujahideen: the American-sponsored monster created in the 1980s to fight the Soviet Union, and whose subsequent rule of Afghanistan was marked by chaos and barbarity, as numerous factions fought among each other. But the movement’s dubious record is only part of the reason why the US-led alliance’s position towards the Northern Alliance over the past couple of months has been ridden with ambivalence and turnarounds.
This shifting position reflects the extent to which, in this confused and incoherent war, policy has been made on the hoof – guided less by clear aims, than by playing catch-up in response to events on the ground.
Back on 25 September, US president George W Bush declared that America was not interested in ‘nation building’ or supplanting regimes (1). The aim was to capture or destroy Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network (‘we’re focused on justice, and we’re going to get justice’), not to oust the Taliban and create a new government.
But even then, Bush mixed his message, by also urging the cooperation of citizens within Afghanistan ‘who may be tired of having the Taliban in place’. Pakistan – opposed to a Northern Alliance regime in Afghanistan – worried that by this he meant the Northern Alliance, and made strident calls not to ‘give assistance to one side or the other in Afghanistan’: ‘We must not make the blunder of trying to foist a government on the people of Afghanistan.’ (2)
After Pakistan expressed concern, Bush backtracked on his suggestion that bringing down the Taliban was a war aim (3). It seems that the administration was not sure at this point whether bringing down the Taliban was a war aim or not. Reports claimed that some military advisers supported bringing down the Taliban as a means to hunting down bin Laden, while others, such as US secretary of state Colin Powell, did not (4).
On 1 October, it emerged that the USA had already approved covert funding of opposition groups – both the Pashtun groups of the south and the Northern Alliance. US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a US TV programme that: ‘there are any number of people in Afghanistan…that oppose the Taliban. We need to recognise the value they bring to this anti-terrorist, anti-Taliban effort and find ways to assist them.’ (5) But the USA was still keen not to appear to be ‘nation building’. Ari Fleischer, spokesman for President Bush, said that ‘the USA is not going to get into the business of choosing who rules Afghanistan’ (6).
The UK government seemed to be equally unhappy about supporting the Northern Alliance. On 4 October, British sources were reported as saying that they were not yet pressing for the overthrow of the Taliban, as any move to give full backing to the Northern Alliance would infuriate Pakistan (7). On 6 October it was reported that UK officials were adamant that the Northern Alliance would not be allowed to take charge – one official said that such a move would be a ‘recipe for disaster’ (8).
Around the time that the bombing began on 7 October, there was a shift in favour of needing to overthrow the Taliban. With the sentiment ‘Something Must Be Done’ at the forefront of the Western alliance’s mind, and bombing Taliban facilities the only thing it could see to do, the war aim of destroying the Taliban was drafted in as justification. On 6 October Tony Blair agreed with President Vladimir Putin of Russia that the Taliban regime had to be overthrown (9), and on 7 October Donald Rumsfeld ‘made it clear that the USA was seeking to orchestrate the overthrow of the Taliban’ (10).
But there was still uncertainty about how this could be achieved, or who would replace the Taliban. It was agreed, however, that the Northern Alliance should not be allowed to take over. On 8 October British officials were reported as believing that the Northern Alliance ‘cannot be expected to form a credible alternative government’, and that allowing them to take over would be recipe for continuing civil war (11). UK MPs were told that the coalition would not support the Northern Alliance to the extent that they become the sole rulers of Afghanistan, and that the preferred option would be a broad-based coalition of Afghans’ own choice (12).
A number of alternative options were mooted: forming a tribal coalition (a ‘loya jirga’) with help from countries surrounding Afghanistan, or hoping that new opposition Pashtun elements would emerge from the Taliban (13). One UK strategist was quoted as saying that ‘Maybe a Taliban commander will take off his black turban and discover that he is a Pashtun after all’ (14). The CIA reportedly tried to bribe some Taliban commanders to swap sides (15).
Although the Northern Alliance was allegedly receiving covert funding from the USA (16), strategy on the ground was geared towards avoiding significant Northern Alliance gains. One Daily Telegraph article commented that ‘allied action against the Taliban seems aimed at preventing the alliance from taking Kabul’ by avoiding bombing Taliban frontlines (17). The aim seemed to be to get the Taliban to collapse without the Northern Alliance taking over – one senior UK official commented that ‘what is likely is that the Taliban will fragment at a time when the Northern Alliance holds no more territory than it does at the moment’ (18).
But it was almost inevitable that this strategy should lead to Western mission creep – somebody had to take over Afghanistan after the Taliban. The US state department said that turning the country over to the Northern Alliance would not solve the problem (19), and called instead for the next Afghan government to be ‘broad-based and representative of all Afghans’ (20), possibly including Taliban defectors as the Pakistanis had asked.
So there was a shift by the US government towards helping to organise a new post-Taliban Afghan government – on 12 October Bush said that ‘it would be a useful function for the United Nations to take over the so-called nation building’ (21). On 15 October, Colin Powell put the USA firmly in the frame to organise a new Afghan government: ‘We want to be in a position to help the people of Afghanistan to finally be governed by a government that represents the people of Afghanistan and not just one party or group.’ (22)
The Northern Alliance seemed to agree with the US position, making a joint pledge with Russia and the republic of Tajikistan on 22 October that ‘all the ethnic groups should take part in forming the next Afghan government’ and called for a stronger role of the UN and ‘all foreign governments’ in stabilising Afghanistan (23).
But at this point, the Western alliance was still pinning its hopes on provoking opposition from southern rebel groups as well. These hopes, which had long been stalling, were roundly dashed on 26 October when the Pashtun Abdul Haq – longtime ally of the West in the Afghan war against the Soviets – was caught and executed by the Taliban, the US predator drone sent in to shoot at his pursuers missing its target (24).
As hopes of Pashtun uprising seemed to be fading, the USA and the UK became more willing to work with the Northern Alliance as allies. On 25 October Blair was reported as saying that: ‘There is a role for…encouraging those elements anti the Taliban regime, the Northern Alliance’ (25) – and UK diplomat Paul Bergne was sent into the region to ‘coordinate better’ with the Northern Alliance. On 26 October, 10 Downing Street was reported as saying: ‘We see the Northern Alliance as key players in the current crisis and we must improve our understanding of them and their leaders’.
Identification with the Northern Alliance as allies became more clear on 30 October, when Northern Alliance territorial gains were reported to be a US war aim. This represented a fundamental shift. The BBC reported on 30 October that US planes had started dropping ammunition supplies for the Northern Alliance, because ‘America hopes that with fresh ammunition supplies, the Alliance will now launch a long-awaited assault to capture Mazar-i-Sharif’ (26).
On 2 November the USA began bombing Taliban trenches with B-52 bombers, which, according to a commentary on BBC News Online, suggested that ‘the Americans want to inflict greater damage on Taliban forces in the field’ (27). This, ‘in turn, raises questions about a fundamental shift in the Pentagon’s attitude towards the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance’. The commentary concluded that: ‘The USA probably hopes that limited [Northern Alliance] gains can be made – not least to show that the campaign is moving forward.’
At this time, it became clear that US special forces had begun to work with the Northern Alliance in the field. One Northern Alliance representative said that ‘Around the clock [the Americans] are going to the front lines….They are organising the troops and telling our commanders what to do’ (28). In a convoluted statement, Donald Rumsfeld seemed to identify US success with Northern Alliance success: ‘Certainly, one would hope that by providing assistance and creating an environment where it is possible to succeed and have success on the ground, by doing a good deal of damage to the forces opposing them, that we will see a greater degree of cohesion on their part, and that we’ll see more success.’
But although there was more identification with the Northern Alliance as allies (one US general said ‘They’re taking the war to their enemy and ours. We are supporting them as best we can’), there was no illusion about the strength of the friendship. One New York Times article on 8 November said that ‘the Pentagon seems content to let the Northern Alliance do the dirty work on the ground in the winter. The Pentagon has been obliged to take this course largely because an effective anti-Taliban resistance movement failed to materialise in southern Afghanistan.’ (29) Unwilling to send large numbers of its own ground troops in, and without any other realistic opposition to the Taliban, the Northern Alliance were left as the only option for the USA.
Despite its obvious ambivalence about the Northern Alliance, this same New York Times article on 8 November said that the capture of Mazar-i-Sharif by the Northern Alliance was now a US war aim. ‘The administration clearly hopes that the Northern Alliance succeeds in capturing Mazar-i-Sharif, a strategically important city in northern Afghanistan, before winter sets in. That is now the chief immediate military target, Pentagon officials say. Seizing Mazar-i-Sharif would enable the Northern Alliance to open a vital supply line to Uzbekistan to the north. It would also enable the Pentagon to claim that its proxies have taken an important piece of terrain that the Americans might use to set up temporary bases inside Afghanistan.’
But the support for the strategy of supporting the Northern Alliance was far from unanimous. As the fight began for Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, the logic of the move was questioned by one US official: ‘Most of what needs to be done right now is in the south. The Taliban headquarters are based in the south.’ (30)
The seizure of Mazar-i-Sharif prompted Blair to declare jubilantly on 11 November: ‘The momentum is obviously with the international coalition, the Northern Alliance having taken Mazar-i-Sharif and now with the possibility of securing the northern part of Afghanistan.’ Even with Blair’s overt identification of the Northern Alliance with the international coalition, Bush sounded a warning note: ‘We will encourage our friends to head south…but not to Kabul itself’, while Colin Powell urged the alliance to ‘invest’, but not invade the capital (31). UK foreign secretary Jack Straw, meanwhile, said that he would exert ‘considerable pressure’ on the Northern Alliance to ensure that it establishes a multiethnic administration in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif (32).
But yet again there were mixed messages, as UK defence secretary Geoff Hoon was quoted as saying: ‘I would be quite happy to see the Northern Alliance steam across northern Afghanistan and take Kabul.’ (33)
Tony Blair said that the pace of opposition advance was being dictated by the Americans (34), and claimed that the Northern Alliance would not enter Kabul. There were doubts, however, about how much control the USA had over its proxies. US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged that it might be difficult to stop the Northern Alliance if they tried to seize the capital. ‘We don’t have enough forces on the ground to stand in their way’, Rumsfeld said (35).
When the Northern Alliance entered Kabul a couple of days later, President Bush was pushed into a turnaround from his earlier statement, declaring the move to be ‘great progress’ towards the goal of bringing al-Qaeda to justice (36). The Independent reported that Tony Blair was ’embarrassed’ that the Northern Alliance had taken the capital a mere 24 hours after he had predicted that it wouldn’t (37).
As the Taliban is unravelling, it is clear that at no point did the Western coalition plan for this. At every stage, ambivalence and indecision has meant that decisions were forced upon them by events on the ground. Yet again, they have unleashed an Afghan tiger – and as Afghanistan descends into chaos, they scramble to patch the pieces back together as best they can.
Josie Appleton is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.
Friends, allies and enemies?, by James Heartfield
How did we get from Manhattan to Kabul?, by Mick Hume
Apologetic imperialism, by Jennie Bristow
spiked-issue: After 11 September
(1) Daily Telegraph, 26 September 2001
(2) Daily Telegraph, 28 September 2001
(3) Guardian, 29 September 2001
(4) Daily Telegraph, 28 September 2001
(5) The Times, 2 October 2001
(6) Daily Telegraph, 2 October 2001
(7) Guardian, 4 October 2001
(8) Guardian, 6 October 2001
(9) Guardian, 7 October 2001
(10) New York Times, 8 October 2001
(11) Daily Telegraph, 8 October 2001
(12) Guardian, 9 October 2001
(13) Daily Telegraph, 8 October 2001
(14) Daily Telegraph, 8 October 2001
(15) Daily Telegraph, 11 October 2001
(16) New York Times, 9 October 2001
(17) Daily Telegraph, 11 October 2001
(18) Daily Telegraph, 11 October 2001
(19) New York Times, 12 October 2001
(20) New York Times, 14 October 2001
(21) Daily Telegraph, 13 October 2001
(22) New York Times, 16 October 2001
(23) BBC News Online, 22 October 2001
(24) The Times (London), 27 October 2001
(25) Guardian, 25 October 2001
(26) BBC News Online, 30 October 2001
(27) BBC News Online, 2 November 2001
(28) New York Times, 7 November 2001
(29) New York Times, 8 November 2001
(30) New York Times, 9 November 2001
(31) Daily Telegraph, 12 November 2001
(32) The Times, 12 November 2001
(33) Independent, 13 November 2001
(34) BBC News Online, 11 November 2001
(35) BBC News Online, 12 November 2001
(36) Financial Times, 14 November 2001
(37) Independent, 14 November 2001
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