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Debating Alternate Realities

28 November 2001

The caravan of war wants to move on, but Afghanistan is not quite ready to let go. The planners and politicians in Washington are itching to look beyond Kabul, towards Baghdad or elsewhere, but Afghanistan has not finished with them just yet. The country is still losing and shedding blood, still making winners and losers of the foreign powers who want to influence it and still raising some dark and troubling questions - including some that reach uncomfortably close to home.

Start with the obvious: the fighting is not over. For all the temptation to "pocket" the Afghan triumph and move on to Phase Two against Iraq, this victory is not complete. The Taliban remain in control of their heartland in Kandahar. A thousand US marines have just arrived nearby, charged with finishing the Taliban off - and meeting America's prime objective, the elimination of Osama bin Laden.

So the south is where this epic revenge story will reach its climax, as the Americans finally confront the foe they blame for the great calamity of September 11. The last spasms of Taliban defiance in the north have been snuffed out; officially, it's all quiet on the northern front. But while Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif have fallen, we cannot forget their names just yet.

For those places have witnessed scenes so brutal they should not be notched up as mere successes and filed away. In Mazar just over a fortnight ago 520 Taliban fighters, most of them Pakistanis, were either shot or crushed to death by Northern Alliance tanks - not on a battlefield, but in a school. The Taliban had been holed up in there as they mounted their last, defiant stand. A week later the Red Cross were still pulling bodies from the wreckage.

The Northern Alliance insist this was no massacre; they offered the Taliban the chance to surrender and the Taliban refused. Of course, no one feels much sympathy for Afghanistan's former rulers, least of all for the foreign volunteers who tend to be the movement's most zealous fighters. So no one wanted to look too closely at how those 520 men met their deaths.

Nor did we allow ourselves to be too troubled by those TV pictures of victorious Northern Alliance troops beating Taliban prisoners with rifle butts before shooting them at point-blank range. The liberators' happiness to perform this ritual in front of witnesses and cameras might have given us pause, but mainly we contented ourselves with a string of clichés: we always knew the Taliban's opponents were not choir boys; Afghanistan is a tough neighborhood; war makes for unholy alliances; my enemy's enemy is my friend.

But the latest events in Mazar cannot be soothed away nearly so easily. The fall yesterday of Qala-i-Jhangi, a 19th-century fortress on the edge of town, will require more explanation than that. For now the details of what happened there are wreathed in that greatest of clichés - the fog of war - and the British and American militaries may well want to keep it that way.

The official version is that perhaps 800, mainly foreign, Taliban fighters were brought there from Kunduz, to be held as prisoners of war. Some of them resisted and launched a prison revolt, eventually seizing weapons from the fort's armory. The Northern Alliance moved to quell the uprising with British and American help, and in the process every last one of those Taliban fighters was killed. Depending on how many prisoners were there in the first place, the death toll could be anything from 400 to 800.

Once again, many will baulk at calling this a massacre because the Taliban seemed to bring their fate upon themselves by rebelling, thereby forfeiting their right to Geneva convention protection as prisoners of war. But there are some awkward questions. Was this a revolt of all the captives or just some, and if it was the latter then why was it necessary to kill all of them? Did the dozen or so British and American special forces reportedly directing the entire operation, including the bombing of the fort from the sky, want merely to quash the revolt, or were they seizing the opportunity to do away with the hated foreign Taliban, whom few want to keep alive as inconvenient prisoners? What do we make of Time magazine's Alex Perry, on the spot throughout the battle, who said, "The mission by the Americans and Northern Alliance is to kill every single one of them now"? How does that square with international law on POWs ?

At the very least, the events in Mazar both now and a fortnight ago are a reminder of the perils of letting Afghanistan simply slide, ping-pong style, from the brutish hands of the Taliban to the Northern Alliance. The need for a broader-based government in Kabul is urgent and the talks now underway in Bonn are an essential start. But they won't be enough. The bloodbath of Qala-i-Jhangi suggests the Afghans are not about to construct some new, inclusive rainbow nation: the United Nations will have to be on hand, effectively governing the country for a while to come.

If war in Afghanistan is still hot, so is great power politics. The Washington hawks may be more interested in Iraq, but those closer to Afghanistan are eyeing up the current spoils. Little noticed throughout has been the role of perhaps the war's biggest winner so far: Russia.

The arrival in Kabul on Monday of 12 Russian military cargo planes confirmed Moscow's triumph: they have got in while Britain remains frozen out. The Northern Alliance have welcomed their old Russian sponsor, even as they show the cold shoulder to the 100 British soldiers shivering at Bagram airbase. Now Moscow has what it wants and what it lost more than a decade ago: a compliant friend in Kabul.

Better still, Moscow has won that prize without angering its erstwhile rival in Washington. The US now speaks of Russia as a close ally, with not only shared interests but shared values. In return for siding with George Bush's war on terrorism, Vladimir Putin has won a clutch of rewards. He has a free hand to crush his own Muslim militants in Chechnya; an ever closer relationship, including intelligence sharing, with NATO; a US promise on nuclear arms reduction, and even the prospect of a lucrative deal to sell Russian oil to an America anxious to wean itself off the politically-unstable, Gulf variety. As if to crown Putin's achievement, the Northern Alliance were kind enough to time their seizure of Kabul to coincide with the president's visit to Washington. Everything has gone Putin's way.

Britain cannot say the same. Tony Blair's bid for influence, in the form of a 6000-strong troop presence, was rebuffed by both the US and the Northern Alliance. Blair's aid-and-rebuilding agenda elicits only tepid American backing, suggesting that his instant and full-throated support for Bush has not quite won the clout he hoped for.

Pakistan is a loser, too, forced to watch as its Taliban friend dies a slow death. Iran, an ally of the Northern Alliance, is a winner. That's how it goes in Afghanistan, same as it always has - the chessboard where, even now, the great powers play their great games.

Jonathan Freedland
Published in the Guardian © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001

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