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Our Friends in the North Are Just as Treacherous and Murderous

19 November 2001

'When our Northern Alliance boys go on a killing spree, we have to take responsibility'

When the Iranian army massed on the western border of Afghanistan in 1998 and prepared to storm across the frontier to avenge the Taliban slaughter of its diplomats - and its Afghan allies - in Mazar-i-Sharif, it received a message from the Taliban leadership in Kandahar.

"You will decide the date of your invasion," came the two-sentence communiqué from Mullah Omar's men. "We will decide the date of your departure." The Iranians wisely held their fire. It may have been a reply from the Taliban - but it was a very Afghan reply. The US and Britain - or the "coalition" as we are constrained to call them - are now getting similar treatment. The Northern Alliance watched the American bombers clear the road to Kabul. They were grateful. Then they drove into Kabul and now they are asking the British to leave. Poor old Jack Straw had trouble contacting the Afghan foreign minister to sort things out. The Afghan satellite phone was not switched on. You bet it wasn't.

The mystery is why we ever expected these people to obey us. Afghan rules don't work that way. Ethnic groups and tribes and villagers don't take orders from foreigners. They do deals. The West wanted to use the Northern Alliance as its foot-soldiers in Afghanistan. The Alliance wanted to use the American bombers to help it occupy the capital. For the Tajiks and Uzbeks and Hazaras, it was all very straightforward. They destroy the Taliban - and then take over Afghanistan, or as much as they can swallow. And if they indulge in a little revenge here and there - 500 or 600 Pakistani fighters massacred in a bloodbath at Mazar, a possible human rights atrocity in the making in Kunduz - what's so surprising?

Even now, faced with the bitter fruits of our coalition with the Northern Alliance, we are reacting with an odd replay of our Bosnian adventure: calling for restraint while at the same time reminding the world that the Afghans are a warlike, cruel people.

As the Alliance gunmen prepare to storm into Kandahar, Mr Blair calls for "restraint". Yet the western media are now set upon informing their readers and viewers that nothing more than a massacre could have been expected of our foot-soldiers. An Irish journalist came on the line to me last week with a familiar complaint. Wasn't I being a bit finicky, getting upset about a little slaughter in Mazar? Weren't the Afghans steeped in age-old traditions of warfare? Wasn't it a bit much to be asking the Afghans to behave in a civilized way?

I tried to remind my interviewer that Afghanistan's civilization predated Ireland's - and indeed much of Europe's - and that the missiles, tanks, artillery pieces and rocket-propelled grenades with which the Afghans were destroying each other had been provided by the civilized outside powers. Hadn't I listened to this same nonsense about "age old traditions of warfare" peddled by the British foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind when he was trying to wash his hands of Bosnia?

The real point, however, is that we cannot adopt someone's army as our own and then deny responsibility for its behavior. We didn't allow the Germans to do that after the Second World War. And when our Northern Alliance boys go on a killing spree, we have to take responsibility for the bloodshed that results.

Take the case of Kunduz. More than 50 US planes have been bombarding the Taliban lines around the area in a deliberate attempt to break the morale of the defenders and allow the Northern Alliance gunmen to capture the district.

The Alliance has given the Taliban a deadline. It's pretty clear what will happen if the Taliban ignore that deadline. They are going to be killed in cold blood. I hope this is not true. I fear it is. But are we going to shrug our shoulders when the knives come out? Are we going to admit we helped the Alliance to gain the upper hand but then eschew all interest in the results? Isn't there even a faint, horrible parallel with Osama bin Laden? If he merely inspired murderers to commit the crimes against humanity of 11 September, surely he was guilty of the death of 5,000 people. But if we facilitate Alliance murderers, it seems we are innocent of the crime.

Meanwhile, outside Kabul, the familiar Northern Alliance anarchy is falling into place. The warlords of Jalalabad are feuding over who rules which part of Nangahar province. The Pashtu tribal leaders around Kandahar are threatening to fight the Northern Alliance. Hazara elements of the alliance are threatening their Tajik and Uzbek comrades if they do not receive a sufficient share of power in Kabul.

Amid all this, in clops the poor old UN donkey, dragged into the pit to undertake the most impossible task ever faced by statesmen in the history of the modern world: to sort out Afghanistan. Would the Alliance please be kind enough to allow the Pashtuns to have a proportionate share in the government? Could we have a few moderate Taliban - perhaps with shorter beards - in a broad-based administration? I can just see the Afghan delegates to these talks when they hear the phrase broad-based. Broad-based?

The only broad-based phenomenon the Afghans know about are ceasefires. And even then, only for Afghans. The most sinister element of the Kunduz ceasefire offer is that it only applies to Pashtuns - not to foreign (ie Arab) fighters - trapped in the area. They, presumably, are to be massacred or - in the chilling words of a BBC reporter with the Alliance yesterday - "given no quarter".

My own experience of armies that give no quarter is that they intend to commit war crimes - as has already happened in Mazar - and that this will only stiffen the resolve of those men who escape the bloodbath. For it is worth remembering the moral basis upon which we are prosecuting this war. This is, remember, a war "for civilization". It is a war for "democracy". It is a war of "good against evil". It is a war in which "you are either for us or against us".

So when we see the pictures of the next massacre, let's ask ourselves whose side we are on. On the side of the victims or the murderers? And if the side of good happens to coincide with the side of the murderers, what does that make us? We're hearing a lot about the Allied success in the war. But the war has only just begun.

Robert Fisk.
Published in the Independent/UK.
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.

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