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Most Afghans Don't Share This Optimism

14 November 2001

The power vacuum has already been filled with killing and looting.

They should have been celebrating. After all, most western media and politicians were doing just that. But these were Afghans with relatives still in Kabul and Herat, and at a late night meeting on Monday, as news of the Northern Alliance's advance to Kabul was breaking, their mood was one of deep foreboding.

Afghans have had to live through 25 years of war rather than just observe the last six weeks of it, and relief at being rid of the Taliban's repression is overshadowed by anxiety about what may come after it. Most loathed the Taliban and in particular their allied Arab fighters but do not buy the western coalition's assumption that things can only get better.

Afghans fear a power vacuum. They remember the last "liberation" of Kabul at the hands of the Northern Alliance in 1992. The interim government under Burhan-uddin Rabbani (still nominally leader of the Northern Alliance), made up of the key commanders who have just swept the Taliban out of northern Afghanistan, degenerated into ethnic civil war. Much of the blame rested with the Pashtun fundamentalist, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is no longer on the scene, but even between the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras there was tension which led to thousands of deaths. In all, some 50,000 people are thought to have been killed in Kabul, which is why the Taliban were also welcomed initially as "liberators" who would end lawlessness and terror. There were scenes yesterday of looting and killing in Kabul. Who knows whether this will be the pattern of the weeks ahead.

The military advance has been so fast that it has left any political initiatives straggling dangerously behind. The US pressed its new friends to refrain from taking the capital, but even as Washington was talking of a government that should include the Pashtun tribes that dominate the south, the Northern Alliance were bringing their police into the city.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy, is about to embark on a shuttle through the region, and the contact group of Afghanistan's six neighbors, plus the US and Russia, met yesterday. But no one has any idea what sort of administration could take over or how soon. There are no UN peacekeepers or any "coalition of the willing" from Islamic nations to guarantee order. Kabul at least has an army of foreign TV crews to act as a restraining influence. In other key towns and cities there is no such presence. In Mazar-i-Sharif, where journalists and aid workers are still barred, the streets were said to be empty yesterday and the few people who spoke by phone were lying low, guarding their homes and shops from looters. There is one clear case in which several hundred Pakistani fighters for the Taliban were killed, apparently after surrendering. Infighting has broken out between Uzbek and Hazara sections of the Northern Alliance.

It has often been said that the US intervention in Afghanistan is three-pronged: military, diplomatic and humanitarian. The assumption is that all three point in the same direction. The reality is that the military prong has so far impeded the humanitarian effort by causing hundreds of thousands of new refugees and slowing aid deliveries. The fall of Kabul and other Afghan cities and the reduction in bombing which now ought to follow may allow a real humanitarian push to get under way at last.

Aid workers say it is too early for optimism. If Uzbekistan can be persuaded to open its borders, food convoys can start moving to the north. But we should be wary of publicity stunts showing mercy aid flights and propaganda pictures of aid lorries on the move across the border into Afghanistan. Washington and Downing Street knew last week that failure to do something about the humanitarian crisis would make it impossible to keep public opinion on board. The coalition can now pass the buck to the aid agencies. The challenge remains to get food delivered not just to Afghan cities but up into the remote areas before they are cut off by winter.

Remember too the purpose of the US intervention - to capture Osama bin Laden and destroy the al-Qaida networks. That has not been done, and even if the Taliban are driven out of their stronghold of Kandahar, it remains unfinished business. Bin Laden and those of his allies still in Afghanistan (most of them left long ago) will go on resisting, slip into Pakistan where they can continue to foment trouble, or escape individually to pursue their campaigns elsewhere.

The post-September 11 war on Afghanistan has exacted a severe cost in human dislocation, destroyed homes, and at least several hundred civilian bombing deaths. The change of power in Kabul could be a step to a less bloody future, but it is too early to uncork the champagne.

Felicity Lawrence and Jonathan Steele.
Published in the Guardian of London.
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001.

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