Afghanistan After The Taliban

 

The sudden military victory by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, where they have taken the capital, Kabul, has outstripped political preparedness by the US-led international coalition. The vacuum thus created could be highly destabilising for the region if it is not filled rapidly. Pakistan in particular has declared it cannot tolerate a successor regime dominated by the Northern Alliance. Immediate action by the United Nations to install a transition administration representative of the country's many ethnic and regional groups is the best way to ensure an orderly transition. It must be accompanied by an international military force and urgent humanitarian aid.

The US bombing campaign has proved far more effective than many assumed in destroying the Taliban's military lines facing the Northern Alliance. It was unclear yesterday whether the Taliban have effected a strategic retreat from the northern part of the country to its southern strongholds or are undergoing a military rout which could see them lose power altogether. Colourful scenes of celebration in Kabul and other towns coincided with reports of summary executions, recalling Afghanistan's grisly history of revenge and reprisal in which tens of thousands have died over the last three decades. It remains to be seen whether the war has been displaced to continue in the south, possibly drawing in Pakistan, or may be drawing to a speedy end.

Either way it is essential that the political vacuum in Kabul be filled as speedily as possible by a legitimate transitional coalition endorsed by the United Nations. Since in war possession confers control it will be difficult to impose a solution unacceptable to the Northern Alliance now that it has conquered the capital. Pakistan's military leaders feel betrayed by the turn of military events and may become more vulnerable to popular pressures or army disaffection sympathetic to the retreating Taliban forces. That is an alarming possibility in a nuclear power which believes its rival India's support for the Northern Alliance will be used to lever the dispute over Kashmir. Other surrounding states have similar motives to intervene and fears of being outmanoeuvred.

Yesterday there were encouraging indications that these questions are being tackled with the urgency they deserve. Meetings are being arranged by the UN on a political transition and several Muslim states have indicated their readiness to participate in an international force. The overall international environment is improved by the cordial meeting between President Bush and the Russian leader, Mr Putin, in Washington yesterday. They have reiterated their commitment to cooperate in ensuring a stable Afghanistan at peace with its neighbours and are determined to discipline the Northern Alliance in that way. It should be remembered that even if a major transition is successfully engineered in Afghanistan as a result of these events the objective of bringing the perpetrators of the attacks on New York and Washington to justice remain to be achieved. The chief suspects, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organisation, are still at large.