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Thursday, 4 October, 2001, 02:04 GMT 03:04 UK
Afghanistan: The hazards of nation-building
A Northern Alliance fighter
The record of the Northern Alliance is bad
By diplomatic correspondent Barnaby Mason

As it plans military action in Afghanistan to try to lay hands on Osama bin Laden and his network of alleged terrorists, the United States is already looking further ahead.

It is sounding out factions in the country opposed to the ruling Taleban.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair: Ambitious commitment to remove the Taleban
The administration says that toppling the Taleban is not an explicit objective.

US President George W Bush says he is not into nation-building.

Contrast that with the ambitious commitment made by the UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair: to work with the Afghan people to make sure that any government succeeding the Taleban unites all ethnic groups and offers a way out of poverty.

But the policy underlying the words may be much the same.

The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, says that if the anti-Taleban factions come together and push the regime aside, then so be it.

And Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says it is in America's interest that the factions in favour of the Afghan people and against international terrorism are the ones that prevail.

Tricky business

History suggests that engineering the emergence of a government in another country is a tricky business. The United States would do well to be careful.

Over the years, Washington has given money to an assortment of exiled Iraqi groups in the hope of increasing the chances of President Saddam Hussein being overthrown, and of grooming a potential alternative government to fill the vacuum if he was.

In London, where many of the Iraqi exiles are based, Mr Blair's government at one stage called a conference at the Foreign Office, with the idea that they would agree on a common plan of action.

It came to nothing. The Iraqi opposition parties spend a lot of energy quarrelling among themselves and have little influence inside Iraq.

Kosovo experience

The experience of Kosovo was little more encouraging.

After several weeks of bombing, Nato succeeded in getting Slobodan Milosevic to pull repressive Serbian forces out of the province.

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic
Nato took Milosevic out of Kosovo, but got Albanian rebels in Macedonia
But a by-product was the strengthening of the ethnic Albanian guerrillas and their demand for independence.

Since that is not available in Kosovo, at least for now, Albanian fighters turned their attention to Macedonia, where they clearly expected Nato to give them a free hand against another Slav government.

The Americans and Europeans had to exert huge political pressure and put another military force into Macedonia to head off another Balkans war.

Afghanistan example

The most obvious example of support for one side going wrong was in Afghanistan itself.

In the 1980s the CIA joined Saudi Arabia in backing Islamic militants fighting to expel occupying troops of the Soviet Union.

The motive was the battle against communism.

Osama Bin Laden
Osama Bin Laden turned against the US
The Russians eventually pulled out. Their defeat contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But the war also gave a boost to a variety of puritanical Islam that emerged from religious schools in Pakistan and took power in Kabul in 1996 in the form of the extremist Taleban.

In the meantime, Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi-born militant who had fought in Afghanistan and benefited from American support, had turned against the United States.

The reason was the stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia, which he regarded as defiling the holy places of Islam.

In a twist of history, he and the Taleban are now Public Enemy Number One in Washington.

Candidates

And the Bush administration is casting around for local opponents of the Taleban to lend a hand.

It seems the old slogan - the enemy of my enemy is my friend - is not entirely discredited.

Mohammed Zahir Shah,
A coalition under the former king, Zahir Shah, would risk disintegration
The main candidate is the Northern Alliance, a loose coalition of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, which was in power in Kabul in the early and mid-1990s.

Its record is bad. Fighting among the different tribal groups wrecked the parts of the capital that had escaped earlier Soviet bombardments.

The Taleban are mainly Pashtun, the largest ethnic group that dominates the south of Afghanistan.

Any new government excluding them would probably be doomed to fail.

So the idea has been put forward of getting the ageing former King of Afghanistan, Mohammed Zahir Shah, to return from exile in Rome to preside over a nationwide traditional assembly and transitional administration.

The task of persuading the rival factions to work together is complicated by the views of Afghanistan's neighbours, who all have their favourites.

Regional interests

Pakistan wants a friendly government in Kabul. In effect, that means a Pashtun one, since there is an important Pashtun minority in Pakistan.

Iran is bitterly anti-Taleban, partly because of its treatment of the Shia Muslim minority in western Afghanistan.

It wants them protected by any new government.

Uzbekistan, naturally enough, supports the Afghan Uzbeks; Tajikistan favours the Tajiks.

In these circumstances, the danger of a broad-based coalition disintegrating as soon as it is formed is obvious.

Both history and political reality tend to discourage intervention by the West.

That is one reason why the United States is moving cautiously as it looks for the least bad option.

See also:

02 Oct 01 | South Asia
Deal to oust Taleban sealed
01 Oct 01 | South Asia
Musharraf admits failure over Taleban
03 Oct 01 | Media reports
Battle for Afghan airwaves
03 Oct 01 | South Asia
Pakistan studies Bin Laden evidence
25 Sep 01 | South Asia
Pakistan warns of Afghan instability
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