The US armed forces have launched combined military operations with fighters of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, according to a source familiar with developments in Afghanistan. Even as they provide support for Northern Alliance ground operations, US planners remain concerned about the potential for human rights abuses as anti-Taliban fighters begin to capture territory.
On October 14, Northern Alliance political and military leaders vowed not to enter Kabul until a political framework for a post-Taliban government was in place. This pledge, constituting a major policy reversal, was a pre-condition for US air support of Northern Alliance military operations, the source said. Just days earlier, alliance leaders had vowed to launch an all-out assault on Kabul in the near future.
Some military observers say that, at present, Taliban forces remain better armed and more motivated than their Northern Alliance opponents. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Thus, US air support is considered crucial for the Northern Alliance's ability to mount a serious military challenge to the Taliban.
The US military began directly supporting the Northern Alliance on October 14, when US reconnaissance planes mapped out frontline areas and jets followed-up with limited bombing raids against some Taliban forward positions, according to the EurasiaNet source.
US air support remains contingent on the Northern Alliance's staying out of Kabul. An early takeover of the Afghan capital, US strategic planners fear, could upend plans to install a multi-ethnic government now taking shape under the direction of Afghanistan's exiled monarch, Mohammed Zahir Shah. Washington views a broad coalition that includes all of Afghanistan's major ethnic groups as the best hope for the creation of a stable post-Taliban order.
The Northern Alliance, which is comprised primarily of ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks, is widely perceived as a divisive political force in Afghanistan. Many observers say the alliance's capture of Kabul would alienate Pashtuns, who are the major ethnic group in southern and eastern Afghanistan, sharply increasing the difficulty of assembling a coalition government.
Also stoking US concerns is the fact that Northern Alliance leaders had an abysmal human rights record during their years in power 1992-96. According to an Amnesty International report compiled in 1995, Northern Alliance commanders engaged in arbitrary detentions and killings, as well as permitting widespread looting and rape.
Since being driven out of Kabul by Taliban forces in 1996, Northern Alliance leaders have continued to commit abuses, primarily against Pashtuns, who form the core of the Taliban's power base, human rights advocates say.
"The U.S. and its allies should not cooperate with commanders whose record of brutality raises questions about their legitimacy inside Afghanistan," Sidney Jones, executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said in a written statement October 6. "Any country that gives assistance to the Afghan opposition must take responsibility for how this assistance is used."
US-Northern Alliance cooperation will face its first tests in the coming days. According to the EurasiaNet source, US strategic planners expect Taliban units this week to begin switching sides to the Northern Alliance, possibly including the Taliban garrison in the northern city of Kunduz. Northern Alliance forces are also expected to recapture the main city in northern Afghanistan, Mazar-i-Sharif, by the end of October.
Northern Alliance behavior will be closely monitored, especially in the recapture of Mazar-i-Sharif. According to Human Rights Watch, Taliban forces, upon capturing the city in 1998, massacred at least 2,000 Northern Alliance supporters. US officials worry that the Northern Alliance will carry out reprisal killings upon recapturing Mazar-i-Sharif.
Justin Burke is the editor of EurasiaNet.