Analysis /

Toppling the Taliban may not be as easy as it seems

By Zvi Bar'el, Ha'aretz Middle East Commentator

The undeclared goal of the assault on Afghanistan - to eliminate the Taliban government and to replace it with another regime - sounds good from a distance. According to this scenario, the Taliban government will be pressured to leave Kabul and will be replaced by the Northern Alliance leadership. This scenario does not include any reference to the desire of the Afghan people and takes even less heed of the structure of Afghan society, which gave rise to the Taliban and initially even welcomed it.

In the West, the conventional wisdom is that because the Taliban is oppressing its citizens and violating human rights, especially those of women, a change of government will be welcomed. But those in Afghanistan remember well the days of the Mujahadeen government, whose leaders currently hold a central position in the leadership of the Northern Alliance.

Rape of women in Kabul and Kandahar, the production and sale of drugs, and the abuse of innocent civilians - all of this moved the people behind the Taliban when it initiated its campaign, in Kandahar in 1994, and helped it capture about 90 percent of the country in less than two years.

A tribal state like Afghanistan would not have surrendered so easily and so speedily if it did not think that an enthusiastic, young religious-extremist government was preferable to tribal wars and a lack of control. Indeed, the Mujahadeen leaders did fight well against Russia, but they
weren't able to establish a stable state after the Russian retreat.

The Taliban are indeed religious zealots, but they represent the largest minority in the state - the Pashtu minority which comprises about 38 percent of the population. The Northern Alliance, by contrast, is a jumble of tribal leaders from different communities and speaking different languages - Uzbek and Tajik, Shi'ites and Sunni, speakers of Iranian dialects, - with each of them having their own local interests. The Afghan Shi'ites, for example, enjoy the support of Iran, while the Tajiks and Uzbeks get support from Russia, and some of the other alliance forces are sometimes helped by Pakistani intelligence.

What's more, the western view that all Afghan citizens see the Taliban through western eyes and detest them, is inaccurate. In practice, local leaders rule in village and mountain areas - heads of tribes and ethnic leaders that continue their old style of government, undisturbed by the Taliban.

This is because the Taliban imposed their representatives on those areas where there was no agreement and no leadership. But in areas where there was already strong local leaders, the Taliban permitted them to continue to rule without interference, as long as they did not assist the Taliban's enemies.

Replacing the government in Kabul, therefore, is not something that can be listed in an organized Western work plan. The Northern Alliance leaders, who at present enjoy popularity and support from the U.S. and Russia, also know this. They will only have to return to the history books to check what happened to the resistance movement the U.S. tried to build in Iraq, to the Shi'ites of southern Iraq and the Kurds in the north.