Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 21, 2001
Afghan rebels ambivalent about U.S. effort
At War With Terror

BAGRAM, Afghanistan - Gen. Baba Jan smiled acerbically as a clutch of foreign journalists crowded around him last week, demanding to know when his Northern Alliance forces would attack the Taliban, now that the American bombing campaign was under way.

"The simplicity of the Americans, that they should ask when we will start our attack," mused Baba Jan, whose troops are squared off against radical Islamic Taliban forces at this front line about 25 miles north of the capital, Kabul. "The Taliban is America's enemy. Then you should attack them."

The impudence of Northern Alliance commanders like Baba Jan is striking to some Americans, who believe the beleaguered rebel forces should be grateful for the sudden U.S. interest in pounding the Taliban after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in America.

But in this small corner of Afghanistan, where dedicated holy warriors - mujaheddin - have been struggling with little success against the Taliban for years, there is a pronounced ambivalence about the rapid American buildup against the Taliban for harboring terrorism suspect Osama bin Laden.

When asked about the American bombing, most people here respond automatically that they are happy the United States wants to attack their common enemy. But many remember that the last time America took an interest in Afghanistan, when it supported mujaheddin warriors fighting the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, that attention lasted only as long as the Cold War.

"When United States reached its goal and the Soviet Union collapsed, it forgot about the Afghan people," said Yonus Qanooni, a member of the central committee of the Supreme Council of State, the body that governs the 10 percent of Afghanistan under rebel control.

Many say the American abandonment of Afghanistan in the early 1990s created a vacuum that allowed America's ally, Pakistan, to nurture the development of radical Islamic forces in Afghanistan. Some say the United States enabled the ascendance of the Taliban by standing silently behind Pakistan while the Islamic extremists rose to power.

A few believe the Americans even secretly supported the Taliban as a counterweight to Iranian and Russian support for the Northern Alliance - the United States, after all, had done practically the same thing with Afghan proxies against the Soviets the previous decade.

"Afghans say the United States sacrificed Afghanistan because of its relations with Pakistan," said Qanooni.

As a result, America's newfound interest in attacking the Taliban and Osama bin Laden is regarded with some skepticism. The initial euphoric assumption that U.S. involvement would prompt a quick end to Afghanistan's 23 years of civil war has given way to a more measured, realistic response: Don't expect miracles from a fair-weather friend like America.

"We have been here six years fighting for our freedom from the Pakistani, the Arab, and the Chechen troops who prop up the Taliban forces," said Baba Jan, a celebrated general. "If the United States wants to throw the Taliban out now, fine. That's American business. But we have our own plans."

The U.S. government's reluctance to publicly embrace the Northern Alliance is only further evidence to people here that America is a mercurial partner. The United States has even held back from bombing Taliban front-line positions around the capital at the behest of Pakistan, which fears the anti-Pakistan Northern Alliance will seize control of Kabul if the Taliban collapses.

The Afghan view of the world is a perspective alien to the West. Like many Islamic radicals who joined the fight against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the mujaheddin say they were given insufficient credit for causing the collapse of the Soviet Union. In local lore, the Islamic warriors were the sole force that defeated the superpower.

Likewise, Northern Alliance leaders believe they have struggled without recognition for years against the Taliban and international terrorists, while the rest of the world ignored a problem they said was as serious as communism.

"The people of our country, by sacrificing their own lives and standing firm against communism, saved the lives of millions of people in the neighboring countries and the rest of the world," Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance's martyred military leader, is quoted as saying in banners posted throughout rebel territory. "Indeed, our people defended their liberty and welfare. But, with much regret, Pakistan stabbed our people in the back, the United States was all ears to Pakistan's words, and Europe adopted indifference."

The sense of victimization is strong here. "Before the attacks of bin Laden, nobody came here and asked us about ourselves," said Mohammed Ajan, 25, a nine-year veteran in Baba Jan's battalion.

In portraying themselves as victims, Northern Alliance officials often downplay their own role in failing to inspire the world's confidence. There is little acknowledgment that quarrels among mujaheddin commanders after they ousted the communist government from Kabul in 1992 killed thousands of Afghan civilians, leveled neighborhoods in the capital, and led to such disorder that the Taliban was regarded as a stabilizing force when it captured Kabul in 1996.

Rather, Afghans in the north believe they are destined to fight their divine struggle alone, without help from an uncaring world, said Abdul Malik, the president of Albiruni University, a school created two years ago in the Panjshir Valley city of Gandahar because all the other institutions of higher education had been captured by the Taliban.

"Unfortunately, the world was just looking at Afghanistan as theater, as a movie," said Malik. "The Voice of America and the BBC carried news from Afghanistan, but the rest of the world just watched us without participating."

They listen now to news from the rest of the world, assurances from President Bush and (British Prime Minister) Tony Blair that the West will not forget Afghanistan this time, that there will be an effort to rebuild the country after American bombers complete their destruction.

"I think it is the duty of the United States and allied countries to rebuild our country," said Malik. "It's not possible for Afghan people to do it alone. Now the world tells us they are interested in the future of Afghanistan, and we will see. But if Afghanistan is allowed to go as it went before, perhaps some other extremist elements will come and thrive here." home page   
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