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Afghanistan: A former US ally says a new conflict looms

KABUL, Afghanistan — The photographs in Mohammad Younis Qanooni’s house illustrate just how far he and his colleagues have fallen since they first helped spearhead America’s war in Afghanistan.

Displayed prominently, the pictures are of friends he fought alongside in the Northern Alliance. Each of them has been assassinated, in most cases by the insurgents’ endless supply of suicide bombers.

“All those men who were against the Taliban have been physically erased or removed from the scene,” he said.

This month marks the 11th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Today there are roughly 100,000 foreign troops in the country, a stark contrast to when Operation Enduring Freedom began.

Rather than deploy masses of soldiers and risk getting ensnared in a land famous for humbling empires, Washington relied in the beginning on an air campaign and the use of the CIA and Special Forces.

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What was known in the West as the Northern Alliance functioned as its proxy army — a collection of militia commanders, warlords and mujahideen fighters who had defeated the Soviets more than a decade earlier. Together, they had already spent years fighting the Taliban regime.

Kabul was soon declared liberated, but the ease of this early victory papered over cracks that are now being exposed.

The Northern Alliance contained a number of men often hated for the human rights abuses they had committed in the past. This polarized society and undermined American credibility among large sections of the Afghan public.

It was a problem crystallized at a conference in Germany in December 2001. Held to decide the shape of Afghanistan’s political future, the meeting did not include any Taliban representatives — leaving even moderates in the movement with little choice but to go underground. Many of them eventually turned to armed resistance.

Now with the Taliban insurgency raging across much of the country, these old divisions are threatening to plunge the nation deeper into the mire.

Former members of the Northern Alliance are angry with the government and worried that the international community is rushing for the exits as the rebels hunt them down. They believe a new conflict is looming and, if they are correct, history suggests they could be at the heart of the struggle yet again.

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After the Soviets withdrew, a civil war erupted as different mujahideen groups battled each other for control of Kabul from 1992 to 1996. Qanooni had a senior position in one of the competing factions that tore the city apart, but went on to become minister of interior in the early stages of the US occupation.

“We imagined we had turned a new page. We imagined we had ended the war and were trying to build a new government, build the nation and implement democracy,” he told GlobalPost.

Now a member of parliament, his optimism has faded. He accused Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s administration of giving the impression it is “pro-Taliban” and claims its weakness has led to the assassinations of his friends. He is convinced the insurgents are clearing the way to try and retake power after the planned exit of all conventional foreign combat troops at the end of 2014.

Economic, security, and political crises will then unfold and “the people of Afghanistan will stand in two lines fighting each other,” he predicted.

“A number of them will be captured by the terrorists and a number of the people who do not agree with the ideas of the Taliban, extremism and terrorism will stand against them,” he said.

This kind of fear also surfaced in the words of another key former Northern Alliance member, who played a notorious role in the post-Soviet civil war.

After months of quiet —he was rumored to be in hiding — Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf gave a rare public speech in September calling for some suicide bombers to be tortured, maimed and hanged on the main routes into Kabul as an example to others.

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Since then, a study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has warned that the government “will most probably collapse in a few years” and said the insurgents “are expected to launch an advance” starting next summer. For those who helped the US-led invasion, these are alarming scenarios.

Padsha Khan Zadran seized much of the southeast as the Taliban regime fell. Despite being a staunch critic of the Northern Alliance, he initially supported the new political process in part because he hoped it would mean Afghanistan could be ruled by a monarchy — just as it was decades ago.

Crucially, the American occupation allowed Zadran to return from exile in Pakistan. He believed he was entitled to at least some slice of official power. When he realized neither of his wishes would come true, he fell out with the Karzai administration — even clashing militarily with it for a while.

He is no longer in direct conflict with the government but continues to have substantial influence in the provinces of Paktia, Paktika and Khost, where he still enjoys the loyalty of hundreds of armed fighters.

Now his main opposition in that region comes in the form of Jalaluddin Haqqani, who is from the same tribe and leads a faction of the Taliban. Earlier this summer, a roadside bomb killed Zadran’s brother, nephew and cousin, hardening his determination never to compromise with the rebels.

As far as he is concerned, they will only be defeated if men like him are let loose against them. Asked if it was possible to talk Haqqani into ending his resistance, he replied, “Absolutely not. Why are you seeking peace with him and not killing him?” 

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