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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Alliance's Advance Puts U.S. in a Bind

Afghanistan: More military aid to ethnic minority forces in the north would likely alienate anti-Taliban opposition in the south.

November 11, 2001|JOHN HENDREN and ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Fresh from their first major victory against the Taliban, opposition commanders are seeking increased U.S. support that would transform lightly armed men on horseback into a high-powered fighting force.

But closer links with the Northern Alliance holds potentially serious pitfalls for the United States. President Bush noted as much Saturday in urging restraint by the opposition as they plot their next move after the capture Friday of Mazar-i-Sharif, a key city in northern Afghanistan.

Alliance commander Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum is asking the Bush administration to deliver helicopter gunships, tanks and heavy artillery across a bridge--when it becomes accessible--to Uzbekistan, where U.S. forces are based, said Philip S. Smith, who represents Dostum in Washington. The Pentagon has hinted that it may send in U.S.-manned Apache helicopters to give low-flying cover to opposition troops.

Yet in responding, the administration will have to maintain a precarious balance. Stronger ties to the ethnic minority groups in the north not only would put U.S. troops at greater risk of ground fire but would threaten to alienate the Pushtuns to the south, who make up about 40% of the country's population and remain deeply suspicious of the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras of the alliance.

"If we worked very closely with the Northern Alliance, other ethnic groups, particularly the Pushtun, may conclude that we're the enemy," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based public policy group. "If we don't work with the Northern Alliance, they may not prevail."

Deciding how to answer emboldened opposition commanders is just one of the administration's headaches. The strength of the anti-Taliban coalition depends in part on Northern Alliance leaders refraining from the revenge killings and human rights violations that occurred in their 1992 seizure of Mazar-i-Sharif and nearby villages.

Hoping to avert an ethnic rift, Bush said in New York on Saturday that he wanted Northern Alliance forces to stop short of the ethnically diverse capital, Kabul. Bush said: "We will encourage our friends to head south . . . but not into the city of Kabul itself."

That plea was echoed by Hamid Karzai, an anti-Taliban Pushtun leader supported by the U.S. who is in Afghanistan trying to help form the beginnings of a post-Taliban government.

"I make an appeal to the Northern Alliance not to massacre the innocent people of Mazar-i-Sharif, and I appeal to Commander Dostum: If there are Taliban you have arrested, you should not kill them because they too are Afghans," he said in an interview Saturday with the BBC's Pashto-language service. "You should feed them and take care of them."

For their part, alliance leaders said they have learned their lesson. Younis Qanooni, the group's interior minister, said the group will seek to surround Kabul but not enter its gates.

Yet two decades of bloody confrontations among ethnic groups have made trust scarce in Afghanistan. At the Quetta, Pakistan, home of Gul Agha Shirzai, a former Afghan leader among the Pushtun tribes who has been a staunch Taliban opponent, a steady stream of Toyota Land Cruisers arrived Saturday for a strategy session about Mazar-i-Sharif.

Shirzai has long said he would return to Afghanistan with his supporters to fight the Taliban if the moment were right. But the advance by the Northern Alliance, whose leaders he opposes, has pushed him to reconsider his views.

"If the Northern Alliance is coming to Kabul, we prefer the Taliban to stay there," said Khalid Pushtoon, a top aide to Shirzai. "We don't like the Taliban, but we dislike the Northern Alliance more than the Taliban."

When the alliance held power in the early 1990s, he said, "They ruined Kabul; they raped innocent women; they abducted innocent people."

In promising restraint, Northern Alliance forces are seeking to consolidate their gains and draw an anti-Taliban curtain across northern Afghanistan.

To help accomplish that, Dostum wants to make a "quantum leap" in arms, from horses to tanks and Apache helicopters.

"Before the liberation of Mazar-i-Sharif, these sorts of requests may have seemed a little bit overly ambitious," said Smith, his Washington aide. "But I think now it's within the realm of reason--not only reasonable but necessary to conduct an effective campaign against the Taliban."

As the U.S. seeks to limit alliance ambitions, the challenge for a broader anti-Taliban coalition is to develop a military and political strategy in the Pushtun-dominated south.

"Nobody's going to fight unless there's something to fight for," a U.S. diplomat said.

Senior Pakistani government officials said the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif was a significant blow to the Taliban that would likely create a domino effect.

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