A Poison Pill?

Khodemuddin is an Afghan warlord with a thing for flowers. The Northern Alliance leader has converted two rooms in his house into a makeshift greenhouse filled with orderly rows of potted red geraniums. High on the wall hangs a wicker cage with a bright yellow canary. Sometimes, when the commander is sitting there having green tea with guests, he'll open the cage door and let the bird fly around the room a bit. While his pet is enjoying its ration of freedom, the commander will show off his other favorite possession: a Soviet-made heavy machine gun. He's happy to pose with it, Rambo-style, ammunition belt draping to the floor.

In many ways, Khodemuddin's house is a lot like the Afghan war. A study in jarring contrasts, it's a perfect illustration of a conflict where ambiguity is the order of the day. It was in this room, about ten days ago, that the flower-loving commander--who, like many Afghans, uses only one name--explained to me why the Northern Alliance shouldn't even contemplate taking Kabul. The Alliance, he said, would have no way to supply the capital once it was captured. "If we capture Kabul, Pakistan will close the border. And the price of a kilo of cooking oil will go up to [an astronomical] $4. When that happens, people will start to leave." And if that were to happen, he predicted, any Alliance triumph in Kabul would be short-lived.

Yet earlier this week, there was Khodemuddin, one of the first Alliance commanders to lead his ecstatic troops in Kabul. No doubt he was savoring the opportunity. But after spending a month in Alliance-controlled northern Afghanistan, I find it hard not to feel pessimistic about the Alliance's latest victories. His argument is still sound. Kabul remains isolated from much of the rest of Alliance-controlled territory, and that means that the city's new rulers will be hard-pressed to keep it in fuel and food unless the Pakistanis decide to keep their border open to traffic to the captured capital. That's uncertain, though: there's little reason to believe that Pakistan will want to do the Alliance any favors, considering that both sides harbor a deep and mutual hatred for each other.

There are plenty of other reasons why the Alliance shouldn't have taken Kabul. Perhaps most importantly, the Alliance didn't "take" Kabul at all--the Taliban handed it over, simply vacating the city without a fight. According to reports so far, the Taliban suffered less than 20 casualties during their withdrawal--an indication that they must have staged an orderly retreat long before the first Alliance forces entered the city. This fact alone may be a warning signal. Some observers have suggested for weeks that Taliban leaders wanted the Alliance to take Kabul because they knew the opposition couldn't maintain order and stability there without a political agreement already in place.

In addition, Taliban commanders knew that their troops made prime targets for U.S. bombers as long as they stayed concentrated in frontline positions and cities exposed to the eyes of Alliance spies. There have been several reports (some attributed to Osama bin Laden himself) suggesting that the withdrawal may be part of a conscious Taliban strategy to lull U.S. and British forces into a false sense of security. Some analysts believe that bin Laden's ultimate object in this war is to lure U.S. forces into a ground war in Afghanistan, where they can be savagely bloodied by a Taliban insurgency reminiscent of the televised slaughter of U.S. soldiers in Somalia in 1993.

The mysterious speed of the withdrawal has even led some observers, within Afghanistan and without, to speculate that the Northern Alliance and the Taliban might have arrived at a secret deal to partition the country among them. (The ethnic power base of the mainly Tajik and Uzbek Alliance is in the north, while that of the largely Pashtun Taliban is in the south.) That conspiracy theory looks more dubious, though, in the light of reports that the Taliban are even retreating from the southern city of Kandahar, the movement's spiritual capital.

As for Kabul itself, Northern Alliance leaders spent most of the past two months or so prior to the city's fall telling everyone who would listen that they weren't planning to move in any time soon. Again, all the arguments against occupying the city made perfectly good sense. Back in 1992, the Islamist guerrillas who drove Soviet invaders out of the country three years earlier moved into Kabul after toppling the communist Najibullah government. The reign of the victors soon degenerated into bloody infighting. It was, at least partly, popular disgust with the mujahedin's feuding in Kabul that helped boost the Taliban into power in the years that followed. So right up until the start of last week's offensive, Alliance officials were still repeating the mantra that there could be no Alliance move on Kabul until the basis for a broad-based postwar government had been laid.

This, too, seemed eminently reasonable--particularly considering that the Alliance had already arrived at a deal with the former Afghan king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, on how such a government might be formed. Part of that agreement included an Alliance promise that none of its forces would enter the capital until a postwar government was established. Now the Alliance--apparently unable to resist the temptation of a Kabul abandoned by its enemies--has reneged on that promise. The city's new masters will presumably try to soften the blow by keeping most of their troops outside the Kabul city limits, and maintaining order with the help of a police force they've been training specifically for the purpose. This, too, would be part of an attempt to avoid the debacle of 1992, when the security of Kabul fragmented amid the fighters of competing guerrilla groups. "Back then," a senior Alliance police official told me a few weeks ago, "there were no police, only mujahedin. We don't want to repeat that mistake again."

Current reports, however, suggest the police have yet to move into Kabul in force. Meanwhile, the former king's representatives are criticizing the Alliance for breaking its word. Pakistan is pressing for the city to be placed under a government of United Nations representatives. And U.S. officials are said to be grumbling that the Alliance seized Kabul despite a public plea by President George W. Bush to hold off. Unless the Alliance does something soon to prove its good intentions to these various interests, its easily won victory could quickly turn sour. And political complications like these could prove to be the least of the Alliance's worries. Thousands of undefeated Taliban soldiers are now dispersing through the countryside, perhaps on the verge of regrouping. Even after the fall of Kabul, Afghanistan's war is still a long way from being over.