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Afghans' Top Rebel Group Has Mixed Record of Its Own

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Yahoo! Top Stories - The New York Times

Saturday October 06 02:55 PM EDT

Afghans' Top Rebel Group Has Mixed Record of Its Own

The Northern Alliance's record raises serious questions for Afghanistan, and for the alliance's backers in Washington, as to how it might rule.

By DAVID ROHDE with JOHN F. BURNS The New York Times

JABUL-SERAJ, Afghanistan, Oct. 6 Sipping tea in an elegant garden here just 50 miles from Kabul, the foreign minister of the rebel Northern Alliance makes a soothing claim for the future government it hopes to be part of. In it, he said, "the people of Afghanistan will have the right of self-determination."

But in past years the alliance itself has been accused of shelling civilians, carrying out summary executions, and engaging in opium and weapons trafficking, according to human rights groups. The groups say the alliance has also burned and looted the houses of suspected Taliban sympathizers.

The last time the alliance's leaders tried to run Afghanistan, Kabul dissolved into factional civil war. More than 25,000 people died in the fighting, which reduced a third of the city to rubble and carved the country into fiefdoms essentially run by warlords.

The record raises serious questions for Afghanistan, and for the alliance's backers in Washington, as to how the Northern Alliance might rule. It also suggests that if rebel groups regain power, in the event of American attacks on the Taliban, they may barely be able to work together.

The last time the allied groups held power, in the early 1990's, the situation became so chaotic that the Taliban came to power, promising to restore order to the nation with their strict interpretation of Islam. Now the Taliban accused of harboring Osama bin Laden.

Adding to the complexity, the Northern Alliance appears to be leaderless as this critical moment. Just two days before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, two men believed to have ties to Mr. bin Laden attacked the alliance's charismatic leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, in a suicide bombing. He died days later, depriving the alliance of a veteran of Afghanistan's long struggle against the Russians and someone whose reputation carried beyond his own faction of mujahedeen, or holy warriors.

In the weeks since, it is still not clear who is the power broker in the Northern Alliance, though new leaders said that a new generation is emerging.

"So much depended on Ahmad Shah Massoud," one retired Central Intelligence Agency officer said.

"He was far from blameless, but he had an unquestionable commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan," the former officer said. "Al Qaeda, if it was Al Qaeda, knew what they were doing when they killed him before setting off the apocalypse that's going to finish the Taliban."

The alliance's designated successor is General Mohammad Fahim, who is not the charming character that Mr. Massoud was. The group's titular leader, Burhannudin Rabbani, is seen as largely a figurehead and it is not apparent whether any of the alliance's civilian officials have any real power.

In any case the alliance stands to play a powerful role in any future government, a position strengthened by its warming relationship with Washington.

Another reason for its influence is sheer power: it can threaten to keep doing what it has been doing for two decades using its soldiers, now 15,000, to keep up the fight.

The foreign minister of the rebels, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, who evidently is determined to cleanse the alliance's image, says that the group has matured greatly over the last five years, and that accusations against it are false or outdated.

In 1992 Mr. Rabbani saw his hour come and go after the mujahedeen triumphantly took Kabul when Soviet forces withdrew from the country. Mr. Rabbani twice brokered deals that elected him president of Afghanistan. But they split the mujahedeen, and these other factions responded by launching a full-scale civil war.

From 1992 to 1996 fighting among the various factions, which were largely divided along political or ethnic lines, raged around the country. During this time, the real power behind Mr. Rabbani emerged, Mr. Massoud, the military commander, both ethnic Tajiks.

By 1996, the Pakistan-backed Taliban had won control of large parts of Afghanistan, forcing Rabbani and Massoud to force the "Northern Alliance" with other factions opposed to the Taliban. The newly created alliance consisted of Massoud's faction, dominated by ethnic Tajiks, and other factions dominated by ethnic Uzbeks, ethnic Hazaras and Shia Muslims. The Taliban are dominated by southern-based ethnic Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group.

The newly allied groups, which had intermittently fought each other over the previous four years, had only one thing in common their opposition to the Taliban. Their efforts failed and the Taliban took Kabul and other big cities in 1996.

It was during period that General Massoud's forces were accused of indiscriminately firing rockets into the capital, killing civilians.

Since then the fractious alliance has suffered military setback after military setback. The Taliban, backed by Pakistani weapons and volunteers, won control of 90 percent of the country.

Hardly anybody in Afghanistan believes the killing of Mr. Massoud and the attacks in America were unconnected, and not only because the two- man assassination squad, posing as a television team, followed procedures that looked as though they were taken straight from Al Qaeda's Encyclopaedia of Holy War, a thick document that American and European investigators recovered from suspects in earlier Al Qaeda attacks.

Edward Girardet, a British expert on Afghanistan who traveled with the assassins for three days before the attack, said that they carried Moroccan passports, almost certainly in false names, were clean-shaven, and wore neatly-pressed blue jeans and clean white t-shirts. All of this could have been taken from the instructions that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has said were given to the men who hijacked the four American airliners.

In any case, the death of Mr. Massoud left the alliance at risk. General Fahim and General Rashid Dostum, to name only two of the alliance's current leaders, both have vexed records from the past, as men whose loyalties were often in question, and who, in Gen. Dostum's case, switched sides at least twice in the civil war of the early 1990's.

American officials worked closely with the mujahedeen factions now harnessed to the alliance in the years after 1987, when the Kremlin first signaled it would withdraw its forces, through to the mid-1990's, when the Taliban took control of most of Afghanistan south of the Hindu Kush and reduced what is now the alliance to a rump fighting to hang on to ever- diminishing territory in central and northern Afghanistan.

Many of those officials now sigh when asked whether they believe that the fractiousness of those earlier years will be put aside in the quest for a new government.

There have also been questions about how the alliance has financed its operations. Alliance officials publicly confirmed this week what has long been known that Iran and Russia have supplied it with weapons and financing.

General Massoud was also known to generate funds by selling emeralds mined from the alliance-controlled Panjshir Valley. Alliance officials defend that as legitimate economic activity.

There have also been allegations that the alliance condones opium production and takes a cut of profits to finance operations. Weapons smuggling has also been rumored.

Dr. Abdullah vehemently denied these charges. He said alliance officials had worked to contain opium production by local farmers, who he said profit alone from the trade.

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