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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Alliance Victory Will Test Military Chiefs' Diplomacy

Rivalry: Political leaders hope the three generals who conquered Mazar-i-Sharif can become cooperating officers of a united army.

November 11, 2001|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JABAL OS SARAJ, Afghanistan — The anti-Taliban opposition's victory in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif is the first test of whether an alliance of often-feuding warlords can become the democratic force Afghanistan so desperately needs.

Three commanders, each from a different ethnic group and two of them old enemies, won the battle Friday for the strategic Afghan city. Now the Northern Alliance's political leaders hope to transform the conquering generals into cooperating officers of a united army.

Abdul Rashid Dostum once led a force--called the Jowzjan after his home province--in the former Soviet-backed regime's war against moujahedeen, or holy warriors. Ata Mohammed, a former moujahed fighter who fought back then in the mountains above Mazar-i-Sharif, was Dostum's sworn enemy.

Now they are not only supposed to get along but also share authority after driving Taliban forces from Mazar-i-Sharif with the help of a third commander, Haji Mohammed Mukhaqiq.

In a country where national identity has been worn away by almost 23 years of war, the commanders' longtime rivalry is compounded by their ethnic differences: Dostum is Uzbek, Ata is Tajik and Mukhaqiq is Hazara. Together, they represent the chief minorities leading the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, which is dominated by Pushtuns, the nation's largest ethnic group.

A Northern Alliance official in Uzbekistan said none of the three commanders is considered in charge. They are equally subordinate to the alliance's top commander, Gen. Mohammed Qassim Fahim, said Ambassador Mohammed Hasham Saad.

The three commanders will not be allowed to carve up Mazar-i-Sharif or the surrounding territory as others have done before, Younis Qanooni, the opposition's interior minister, insisted Saturday.

"That was our past, unsuccessful experiment," he said in an interview in the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul, the Afghan capital. "Now we intend to make a united national force instead of geographical divisions, and I think this will be very successful."

Afghans, who have suffered for years under warlords, find it hard to believe that the commanders will suddenly give up the power of the gun and instead take orders from politicians. But that is precisely what Qanooni, a moderate in the Northern Alliance, says will happen.

Alliance leaders are pressuring commanders, such as Dostum, who have long been accused of human rights violations to behave differently after their current victory over the Taliban.

Qanooni said he has told Dostum "not only once but several times" to avoid being cruel to people.

Dostum, known by his enemies as "the last Communist agent" because he fought to prop up the regime left behind after the decade-long Soviet occupation ended, has a reputation for ruthlessness.

He reputedly tied one of his soldiers to the tracks of a tank and had him minced to death for stealing. He has been accused of responsibility after rivals were killed in suspicious circumstances.

Mazar-i-Sharif will remain under a state of emergency for at least a week, after which the alliance plans to send recently trained police to teach others to keep order and answer to a government instead of a warlord.

Ata, a former teacher, led the main assault on Mazar-i-Sharif. His troops are in control of the city while Dostum's forces are on the outskirts, according to Qanooni.

Ata was born into a wealthy family in Mazar-i-Sharif and is a popular figure in the city, especially because of his resistance to Taliban rule.

"While he is a moujahed, he is professional and a bright-minded democrat," said Qanooni, who is a leader of Ata's faction, the Jamiat-i-Islami. "He is also a moderate Muslim, not an extremist."

Mukhaqiq also is a native of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Dostum grew up in a peasant family in Jowzjan province, whose border is about 30 miles west of the city. He is likely to move with his forces there as some Taliban troops retreat west toward the Iranian border, Qanooni predicted.

"I don't think he and his forces will try to enter Mazar," the interior minister said of Dostum. "This will not be a political problem for him in the future. . . . Ata, Gen. Dostum and Mukhaqiq have acted jointly."

Dostum was a plumber before he became an enforcer for the Moscow-backed Afghan regime, which was led by President Najibullah for three years after the Soviets withdrew in 1989.

Dostum's decision to switch sides was crucial to Najibullah's overthrow. The warlord's successes on the battlefield and his willingness to change allegiance whenever it served his interests allowed him to build a small empire, which then quickly crumbled.

Dostum lost control of Mazar-i-Sharif in May 1997 when one of his commanders, Abdul Malik Pahlawan, and three other rebel generals betrayed their commander and went over to the Taliban.

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