Afghanistan - Asil Khan, the commander of the anti-Taliban forces in this
town on the front line north of Kabul, is surrounded by many of the same
lieutenants who have served him loyally through 15 years of warfare.
are all from Sayod, a village built on the high banks of the Panjshir
River. During free time, they talk about their town, and they talk about
the Koran, and they talk about the American bombs that fall on the Taliban
positions a few miles away.
thing they say they do not talk about is ethnicity -
"nationality" in the local terminology. Asil Khan and half his
commanders are Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan. The
other half are Tajiks, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan's north and
the dominant group in the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.
don't pay attention to which one is which," said Asil Khan, a
soft-spoken man whose troops regard him with great respect. "I speak
Tajik almost as well as I speak Pashtun. All the people are the same. Even
my children are Tajik since I married a Tajik girl."
harmony with which the two groups coexist here seems exceptional.
Afghanistan has been cleaved for centuries along ethnic lines, and the
current conflict between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance is laced
with ethnic rivalries. These differences complicate any talks about a
peaceful settlement in Afghanistan.
towns such as Sayod, however, where Tajiks and Pashtuns are roughly equal
in number, residents say they have lived harmoniously for generations.
"People attend the same mosques, go to the same markets," said
Asil Khan, whose great-grandfather settled here from more traditional
Pashtun areas in the south. "The only difference is language."
and other Pashtuns who are members of the Northern Alliance opposition
blame the Taliban and its sponsor, Pakistan, for heightening ethnic
tensions to divert the attention of discontented Pashtun nationalists who
dominate Pakistan's population in the north.
divisions between the ethnic groups is the propaganda of our
enemies," said Asil Khan, 32, who joined the jihad when he was 13 and
became a commander as a teenager.
it were only so simple. Afghanistan long has been a nation where rival
ethnic groups and their foreign allies have vied for supremacy.
northern minorities that make up most of the opposition forces now are
unified by their hostility to the Taliban. But they have been bitter
rivals themselves in the past.
Tajiks, whose roots and language are tied to ancient Persia, are closely
allied with Iran. So are the Hazaras, predominantly Sunni Muslims who
physically resemble Central Asians. The Uzbeks are Turkic people whose
primary population lies in Uzbekistan. The Pashtuns, by contrast,
historically have been oriented toward the south.
the Soviet Union left Afghanistan and the communist government fell in
1992, Afghanistan descended into chaos as various warlords and mujaheddin
commanders fought one another for influence and control.
government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, a Tajik, came under fire from
rivals who complained his government gave too much power to the minorities
of the north. The deadly squabbling ended when the fundamentalist Taliban
arose and seized control of Kabul in 1996.
Taliban leadership is exclusively Pashtun, supported by hard-line Islamic
troops from Arab countries and Pakistan who came to fight the Soviets
during the 1980s holy war. Now it was the northerners' time to complain
that they were excluded from the government.
first most Pashtun groups greeted the Taliban with relief. Hoji Abdul
Qadir, the Pashtun governor of Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan,
initially welcomed the mullahs and their guest Osama bin Laden - until
they overran Nangarhar and drove him out.
when I started to fight the Taliban," said Qadir, 47. Then based in
Pakistan, he had time to organize a guerrilla force in Afghanistan before
he was expelled from Pakistan. He now is a member of the Northern
Alliance's Supreme Council.
you are a Pashtun, it doesn't mean you have to be a Talib," said
Qadir, whose brother, Abdul Haq, was captured and executed by the Taliban
on Friday while on a mission in Afghanistan to organize Pashtun groups to
reject the Taliban.
prominent Pashtuns also joined the Northern Alliance. Its deputy prime
minister is Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, who heads Islamic Unity, the only
opposition party whose membership is largely Pashtun. Sayyaf's party
backed Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf war and has offered to wage war
to oust Americans from Saudi Arabia.
Khan, the soft-spoken commander in Sayod, maintained his loyalty to the
Rabbani government until it fell to the Taliban. After that, he and his
troops retired to their farms around Sayod.
Taliban at the beginning wanted to bring peace to the country, and I
believed what they said, that they were acting in the name of Islam,"
said the commander, who keeps a Koran at his bedside, wrapped in an
elaborately embroidered cloth. "Later I came to think they were worse
than the Russians."
1998, the Taliban arrested Asil Khan for not supporting the government. He
spent two winter months held in a 20-foot steel shipping container with 18
other former mujaheddin.
Taliban eventually released him with the promise that he and his troops
would help guard the Taliban's front line in the Shamali Plain, the basin
25 miles north of Kabul where the Taliban and the Northern Alliance have
squared off. Asil Khan said the Taliban leaders assumed he would support
them because he was Pashtun.
a month after he was released, he received a call from his old commander,
Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary mujaheddin chief and - until he was
assassinated Sept. 9 - leader of the Northern Alliance forces. Massoud, a
Tajik, asked Asil Khan to join the fight against the Taliban.
young commander said he joined without hesitation, and his troops helped
the alliance to reclaim much of the Shamali Plain in early 1999. "The
Taliban never understood how much I hated them because they imprisoned
me," he said.
allegiance and those of his troops were not based on ethnic connections
but on individual loyalties - perhaps the strongest tie in this
semi-feudal warlord society.
am a commander of the Islamic State of Afghanistan," he said, using
the formal name for Rabbani's government in exile, which the United
Nations still recognizes as Afghanistan's legitimate government.
a Pashtun. I obey the defense minister, who is a Tajik. That's all that