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Wednesday, 19 September, 2001, 19:03 GMT 20:03 UK
Afghanistan's Northern Alliance
Hamburg demonstration in support of the Afghan Northern Alliance
The death of Ahmed Shah Masood shook the alliance
By BBC News Online's Fiona Symon

The Afghan Northern Alliance is made up of an ethnically and religiously disparate group of rebel movements united only in their desire to topple the ruling Taleban.

Made up of mainly non-Pashtun ethnic groups, it relies on a core of some 15,000 Tajik and Uzbek troops defending the northeastern stronghold, Badakhshan, eastern Takhar province, the Panjshir Valley and part of the Shomali plain north of Kabul.

Until recently, the alliance's main backers were Iran, Russia and Tajikistan.

General Fahim
New leader: Can he keep the alliance together?

General Ahmed Shah Masood, leader of the alliance until his death earlier this month, made a series of alliances with former opponents, some of whom the Taleban had driven into exile.

This extended the area where the Taleban faced challenges into eastern, central, northern and northwestern parts of the country.

Main groupings

There are now three main elements in the alliance.

  • The ethnic Tajik Jamiat-I-Islami, led by Masood's successor General Mohammed Fahim Khan.

  • In the west central Ghor and Herat provinces, Ismael Khan, a member of Jamiat-I-Islami and former Herat governer is also key figure.

  • The second main grouping is the ethnic Uzbek Junbish-i-Milli-yi Islami, led by General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former opponent of General Masood who joined the alliance earlier this year.

  • The third main element is the ethnic Hazara shia groupings of the Hizb-i Wahdat led by Karim Khalili and Mohaqiq.

In addition, some of the commanders formerly under the leadership of the Pashtun leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, are now fighting with the alliance.

Military setbacks

As a strategic thinker, General Massoud excelled in the complex task of military and political co-ordination between this disparate patchwork of guerrilla zones.

But his success in forging alliances did not translate into significant military success on the ground.

Panjshir valley
Traditional stronghold: The Panjshir valley
In recent months that paid off in a series of guerrilla operations in central and western Afghanistan that diverted Taleban forces that might otherwise have been deployed against the alliance's northeastern base.

But the alliance has until recently lacked the manpower, training and equipment to do much more than hold its own against the Taleban.

The alliance controls under 5% of Afghanistan - the Panjshir valley, stronghold and birthplace of Gen Masood, and a small enclave in the mountainous north-east.

Morale boost

General Masood's death might well have meant the end of the alliance if the bombing of the World Trade Centre and Pentagon had not inspired possible US moves to take military action against Osama Bin Laden and his Taleban backers.

This has boosted the morale of the alliance.

The alliance's political leaders are confident now that their enemy will be eliminated and have stated that they are willing to fight alongside the Americans against the Taleban.

However, a leading figure in Afghanistan's anti-Taleban opposition, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has cast some doubts on that, alleging that the Americans are wrong to blame Osama Bin Laden for the attacks in New York and Washington.

He said Americans had no right to attack Afghanistan and warned that if they did, his and other groups would fight against them.

Mr Hekmatyar and his Hizb-e Eslami party were major players in the struggle to end the Soviet occupation of the country and in the subsequent power struggle between rival Afghan factions before the Taleban practically swept the board in the mid-1990s.

BBC Afghan analyst Zahir Tanin says the alliance expects the Taleban to collapse and it is this hope that is likely to hold them together under General Fahim's leadership - at least in the immediate future.

Official figurehead

The official head of the Northern Alliance is the ousted President Burhanuddin Rabbani.

An ethnic Tajik and former lecturer at the Islamic law at Kabul University, he is the most senior figure in the movement and the one who could still play an effective mediating role between the different groups.

Official figurehead, Burhanuddin Rabbani
Rabbani is confident that the Taleban will be eliminated

Rabbani holds the country's United Nations seat and has embassies in 33 countries.

His seat of government in Faizabad is dependent on goods smuggled from Taleban-controlled areas.

The Northern Alliance follow a milder form of Islam than the Taleban.

In Faizabad, women can work and girls can gain higher education.

But during Rabbani's period in office, they were not noted for their respect for human rights.

Zahir Tanin believes that although people are tired of the Taleban, the Northern Alliance proved a disappointment and was unable to unite the country when it held power briefly after the expulsion of Soviet forces from the country.

People are looking for a third way, possibly by restoring the monarchy of King Zaher Shah, ousted in 1973.

See also:

18 Sep 01 | South Asia
Letter from Afghanistan
18 Sep 01 | South Asia
On edge: Afghanistan's neighbours
18 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Afghanistan
17 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan - a tough military option
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