The Northern Alliance doesn’t seem much like a force in the middle of a war, much less one that has just conquered its country’s capital. In a home commandeered in the middle of the diplomatic quarter, Gen. Qaseem Fahim, the Northern Alliance’s defense minister and commander in chief, last week seemed strangely distant from the fall of Konduz in the north and the battle for Kandahar to the south. In fact, according to his household staff, he was still in bed at 11 a.m. on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the presidential palace’s temporary occupant, President Burhanuddin Rabbani, had left that day to visit his grandchildren in the United Arab Emirates.
In fact, since its arrival in Kabul on Nov. 13, the Northern Alliance has done little more than hunker down and look for a way to make a few thousand easy Afghanis. The Alliance’s authority hardly extends past the gates of Kabul in the east, and not even to the next major town headed south. The city’s residents, meanwhile, are increasingly concerned about corruption and lawlessness. Soldiers assigned to guard the approaches to the Intercontinental Hotel, which sits atop a steep hill, now force all taxis to stop at the base of it and pay 240,000 Afghanis (about $8, or a month’s salary for a soldier) before they are allowed to pass. At the foreign ministry, visas are on sale for prices ranging from $50 to $280, no receipts provided. Some 300 cars were stolen in the city in a week’s time, according to security officials with an international agency. When the owners went to the Interior Ministry, which runs the police, to complain, they were turned away at the gates. The explanation: Interior Minister Younis Kanouni was in Bonn, Germany, at the diplomatic talks.
Outside of Kabul, the Alliance looks even more dubious. In Taloqan, nearly all of the 80 or so Western journalists based there fled after Alliance soldiers robbed and murdered Swedish television cameraman Ulf Stromberg, 42, in the house where he was staying with colleagues. Relations between press and the Northern Alliance in that northern city had already been deteriorating, as poorly officered soldiers took to aggressively fondling female journalists and sometimes male ones, too. Officials from the “foreign ministry” even said the Swedish journalists were to blame for what happened because they had not stayed in the right house—meaning one that paid them a hefty kickback.
The fall of Konduz early in the week was even more ignominious. That city had been under siege for two weeks by two Northern Alliance factions, Uzbek warlord Gen. Rashid Dostum from the west and Gen. Mohammad Daoud Khan from the east. Officials of both factions accused one another of deliberately calling in U.S. airstrikes on their rival’s forces instead of on the Taliban.
Worse still, hundreds of foreign Taliban fighters surrendered to Dostum, who sent them to a prison inside his fortress headquarters near Mazar-e Sharif. Inadequately guarded, they staged an uprising, seizing weapons from their guards and from armories in Dostum’s fort. The reaction of Alliance troops was so ineffective that U.S. and British special forces had to direct the counterattack (including the CIA’s Johnny Michael Spann, who was killed) and U.S. airstrikes were launched to suppress the uprising.
American air power, in fact, is pretty much responsible for all of the Northern Alliance’s successes. With the exception of holdouts in Konduz, who were surrounded and cut off, the Taliban never stood and fought but simply withdrew under relentless bombing. That was as true in Herat, the western city now nervously ruled jointly by a Sunni and a Shia warlord, as it was in Kabul itself.
In many cases, in fact, the only serious fighting Northern Alliance troops have engaged in is against disarmed Taliban and foreign prisoners, whom they beat and shot to death. And those were the lucky victims. Many Taliban bodies were found with their beards scalped or otherwise mutilated. International pressure did, however, bring some of the excesses to a halt the international Red Cross reported that Taliban POWs, both Afghan and foreign, were being well-treated wherever they were able to visit them. “Everybody is relieved that there isn’t mass murder in the streets of Kabul—at least not yet,” says a United Nations official. “But these guys should not even be here, and they certainly don’t look like they’re planning to leave, whatever happens in Bonn.”
Local military leaders in Kandahar who have turned against the Taliban say they’re putting their faith in American military power, including the 1,000 Marines on the ground 80 miles to the southwest—not Northern Alliance troops. “The only way to dislodge the Taliban is by continued heavy U.S. bombing and U.S. ground support,” says Mullah Malang, a Pashtun leader based in Quetta, Pakistan, who says he commands troops inside Afghanistan by satellite phone. The Taliban are dug in and vowing to fight on. “We know every village, valley and mountain,” a young Taliban commander named Azim confidently told a NEWSWEEK reporter in Quetta. He had slipped into the Pakistani city to get medical care for his wounded brother then was heading back to rally around Kandahar. “It’s our land and our home. We will defend it to the last man in a hit-and-run war against the Americans.” One thing is sure: when it really does come to the Talibs’ last stand, the Northern Alliance will be the last thing they have to worry about.