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U.S. Intends to Nurture Opposition

Afghanistan: Bush administration plans to complement military support with incentives to make alternative to Taliban more appealing.


WASHINGTON — With winter threatening the scope of the military campaign, the Bush administration is scrambling to create a model for a future Afghanistan, complete with new political, economic and social "incentives" to bring Afghans into the opposition camp, senior administration officials say.

To foster a political rival to the Taliban regime, the overall U.S. goal in the next few weeks is to help the opposition Northern Alliance capture new territory, probably around the key northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, allowing an Afghan "transition authority" to establish an opposition-ruled enclave, the officials said.

To generate a sense of hope, the United States intends to launch an international trust fund for a country ravaged by more than two decades of war. The plan is to begin rebuilding as soon as territory falls under opposition control, and not wait until the war ends.

To ease conditions during the winter, Washington plans to significantly increase humanitarian aid to Afghans stranded inside the country.

"We can't control what Afghans do, but we can create incentives that are very important in how people calculate their response to events," a senior administration official said. "We can offer a vision that is more compelling than the conditions in which they live."

The United States would particularly like to win over influential players--such as commanders, bazaar merchants and tribal and clan chiefs--who signed on with the Taliban in 1995 and 1996 as the former religious students extended their control over Afghanistan, U.S. officials said. Many aren't ideologically committed to the Taliban, but there is no alternative viable enough to risk changing sides.

U.S. strategy is still fraught with challenges beyond the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in mid-November and the onset of winter.

Infighting Is Common Among Opposition

Petty squabbling among the political opposition is rife. Some opposition military commanders are at loggerheads. The Pushtun-dominated Taliban, however, faces no serious political turmoil in the south, the bastion of Pushtun tribes. And capturing the capital, Kabul, still seems a long way off.

The "enormous ferment" among ethnic Pushtuns also has subsided amid the U.S. bombing campaign, which has dispersed the population and broken the Taliban into smaller guerrilla groups that terrorize the population, said Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author of "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia."

"The U.S. carpet bombing is not forcing the Taliban to retreat, just to dig deeper," Rashid said at a recent U.S. Institute of Peace conference. "There is no anti-Taliban military action, and the Taliban will be quite secure until there is."

But all three U.S. efforts, each designed to complement military strategy, are expected to get a shot in the arm over the next couple of weeks, U.S. officials counter.

On the political front, an oft-delayed summit of diverse ethnic and religious opposition groups--centered on the former king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, and the ethnic minorities in the Northern Alliance--is scheduled to meet in Ankara, Turkey, this week, according to U.S. and opposition forces. The groups intend to form a broad-based Supreme Council for National Unity to supplant the Taliban.

To overcome internal wrangling, U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has concluded, he will have to play a more active role in coaxing, pressing and mediating among the factions, U.S. and Northern Alliance officials said.

"Obviously we'd like to see things move faster," said a well-placed U.S. official who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy. "And it's clear now that we need someone to play the neutral role among the various groups. Brahimi can be a very important facilitator among them."

Next week, the United Nations is expected to host a "six-plus-two" summit of Afghanistan's six immediate neighbors plus the United States and Russia to discuss an internationally acceptable formula for the transition to post-Taliban rule. The idea is to win a U.N. imprimatur for the plan, U.S. officials said.

Winning the support of Pakistan and Iran will be particularly critical because the two countries, which share the longest borders with Afghanistan, have historically supported rival factions. Pakistan helped create the Taliban, while Iran backs the Shiite Muslim minority that forms part of the Northern Alliance.

More Comprehensive Afghan Forum Planned

After the U.N. meeting, Brahimi may hold a larger conference of Afghan opposition forces because the Supreme Council wouldn't be comprehensive, U.S. officials said. The council excludes some groups that want to be part of the post-Taliban process, including a wide array of civil society organizations, from women's groups to lawyers to former Kabul University professors.

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