Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 214

As the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began on November 16, the ghosts of Ramadans past were back in Kabul. Forces that had fought each other inside and around Kabul from 1992 to 1996, destroying the city and killing some 50,000 civilian inhabitants, seized the capital on November 13-16 without fighting, in the wake of the Taliban’s precipitate withdrawal. After five years of Taliban misrule, the populace has welcomed the new dispensation, just as it had welcomed the Taliban after those four years of depredations by the forces now grouped in the Northern Alliance.

In Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan, the term Northern Alliance is turning into a misnomer, as each of its components are carving out their own fiefdoms. In Kabul itself, it is the Afghan Tajiks–a minority, linked to Russia and its ally Tajikistan–who are now almost singlehandedly in control. It was not the Northern Alliance as such, but its Tajik component that violated prior commitments made to the American-led coalition, and ignored U.S. demarches four times within approximately as many days. First, it promised to refrain from entering Kabul before a basis had been laid for a coalition government. Next, it nevertheless entered Kabul with “police” units, promising to keep the bulk of its troops outside the city, but then brought them in, on a massive scale. Finally, it ignored insistent requests that it not seize government institutions and not install a “government” that would preempt a coalition.

By November 16, the Afghan Tajik military-political movement Jama’at-al-Islami had filled Kabul with troops, seized key ministry buildings, appointed its own leaders as ministers of defense, internal affairs and foreign affairs of Afghanistan, and reinstalled Burhanuddin Rabbani as head of state. These moves were made possible by Russian and Iranian support.

In a flurry of statements on November 17, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov indicated that Moscow plans to use its Tajik proxies to establish both Russian influence in Afghanistan generally and control over what passes for a government in Kabul. Ivanov is the main executor of Moscow’s policy on Afghanistan. President Vladimir Putin appointed Ivanov in September to head the Russian government’s interministerial coordination group on Afghanistan, consisting of: the Foreign Affairs, Defense and Emergency Situations Ministries, the Foreign Intelligence Service, Federal Security Service and other agencies. All of these are represented in the mission that Moscow has now decided to send to Kabul as the “first foreign visit to the officially recognized government” there (Itar-Tass, November 17).

In one of his November 17 statements, Ivanov explained the Northern Alliance’s military advances by: “first of all” Russian arms supplies and “money invested” in the past three years; second, U.S. bombing which “cleared the way for the advance of the Northern Alliance which is armed mainly with our weapons;” and, third, “considerable Iranian assistance… one can not forget about this.” With that Ivanov deliberately minimized the decisive role of U.S. air operations, intelligence and special operations on the ground.

Ivanov admitted that Moscow had cleared the seizure of Kabul: “We knew that the Northern Alliance would be advancing successfully. They informed us about their forthcoming actions in detail.” On November 17, with the Tajik forces–including armor and artillery–firmly ensconced in Kabul, Ivanov falsely claimed that the “Northern Alliance did not even enter Kabul. Only its military police has been sent there” (Interfax, November 17).

The defense minister found four ways of implying that Russia might introduce some troops into Afghanistan. He suggested that “a small security group” would accompany the Russian mission in Kabul, that the Russian military would be assigned to rebuild the embassy in Kabul, that Russian military personnel would be dispatched to supply the Northern Alliance with arms inside Afghanistan and that Russia’s Defense Ministry considers deploying “search and rescue groups” in territory controlled by the Northern Alliance, under the rubric of assisting American air operations over the rest of Afghanistan (Russian television, Interfax, November 17).

At the same time, Sergei Ivanov declared that Moscow has “no plans to participate in peacekeeping activities” in Afghanistan, and advised the “international community”–meaning the U.S.-led coalition–against any “haste” in organizing a peacekeeping operation in the country. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Ministry officials in Moscow and Tajik Afghan leaders in Kabul take the position that an international peacekeeping operation would require approval from the United Nations Security Council. Such a procedure would give Russia–which contributed relatively little to the military campaign–a disproportionate role in decisions on the peacekeeping operation through the right of veto.

As Sergei Ivanov indicated, the Tajik component of the Northern Alliance is to some extent beholden to Iran. The Russian and Iranian foreign affairs ministers, Igor Ivanov and Kamal Kharrazi, conferred in New York on November 17 and “agreed that that they share common positions” regarding the new situation in Afghanistan.” According to Ivanov’s summary, they “concurred that the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani remains the sole legitimate authority” and that “the presence in Afghanistan of foreign armed forces should only occur under UN aegis” (RIA, November 17).

The pro-Iranian warlord Ismail Khan established control last week over the western part of Afghanistan, with his power base in the city of Herat. Ismail Khan is an Afghan Tajik, as are most of his forces in that Farsi-speaking part of Afghanistan. At the present moment, he seeks to expand his domain by driving southward into Pushtun areas. On November 17, Ismail Khan declared: “The Islamic Republic of Iran is an exemplary country. Our aim is to liberate Afghanistan from the Taliban and terrorist groups, and establish an Islamic order.” He went on to assert that “there is no need for the presence of foreigners or even peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan” (Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran [Mashhad], November 17).