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Race to fill Afghan void

By CNN's Joe Havely in Hong Kong

(CNN) -- The stunning speed of the Northern Alliance advances in Afghanistan and the surprising ease with which Kabul fell to their forces has sent diplomats across the world scrambling to fill the power vacuum.

For Afghanistan's neighbors and the key players in the U.S.-led coalition against terror the rapid turn of events on the ground has raised several challenges.

The Afghan capital may have fallen, but the war is by no means over.

The Taliban no longer rule Afghanistan -- in the sense that they no longer control its capital city -- but they certainly have the potential to cause more than a headache for anyone else trying to do so.

For the time being they are also still in control of their southern heartland around the city of Kandahar and it remains to be seen what sort of fight they put up to defend their positions there.

On top of that, the U.S.-led military operation appears no closer to flushing out Osama bin Laden, believed by American and British intelligence officials to be hiding out in the tunnels and caves of southern Afghanistan.

Then there is a large question mark over the future government of Afghanistan and the impact this will have on the U.S.-led coalition, particularly the involvement of Pakistan.

A government of unity

Already diplomats at the United Nations are racing to cobble together a post-Taliban administration that -- so the plan goes -- will avoid the factional infighting that has characterized so much of Afghanistan's recent history.

At present the U.N. still recognizes the former Afghan government ousted by the Taliban in 1996.

That will be replaced -- but with what is, as yet, far from clear.

The international community's "common objective", U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has said, must be "a stable Afghanistan, living in peace, carrying out its international objectives and posing no threats to any of its neighbors."

In an effort to push things forward the U.N. is dispatching a senior official aide to Kabul to organize a conference of Afghan factions on the future of the country built around the framework of a two year transitional government.

The fear is that without urgent action Afghanistan will descend into another, more bloody cycle of factional violence -- the ramifications of which could spread far beyond Afghanistan's borders.

The U.N. move has the backing of the White House, which has expressed its support for efforts to fashion a new Afghan administration of national unity.

"The new government," Bush said Tuesday after talks on the subject with Russia's President Putin, "must export neither terror nor drugs and it must respect fundamental human rights."

Pakistan's alarm

Pakistan's President Musharraf had been pressing Bush not to allow the Alliance to take over Kabul
Pakistan's President Musharraf had been pressing Bush not to allow the Alliance to take over Kabul  

To a large extent Washington has found itself being forced to play diplomatic catch up.

The Alliance takeover of Kabul came in direct defiance of President Bush who had called on Afghan commanders to halt their forces on the outskirts of the city.

That sudden move has already caused alarm bells to ring in Islamabad.

In the relatively short period since the September 11 attacks Pakistan has been an important player in the U.S. military campaign.

But so too has the Northern Alliance which has been substantially aided in its advance against the Taliban by U.S. airstrikes.

For his part Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who has been playing a delicate balancing act at home, will be looking for some sort of payback from Washington for allying his country with the U.S. side.

Just a day before Kabul fell, he had urged Bush not to allow the Alliance to take the city fearing that an uncontrolled advance would bring a group unfriendly to Islambad to power and, ultimately, directly to Pakistan's border.


Neither the Alliance nor Pakistan make any secret of their distrust for each other.

Until September, Pakistan was the Taliban's number one ally with the country's powerful intelligence agency, the shadowy ISI, providing vital military and financial support.

With the rapid Alliance advance Musharraf now faces the prospect of a hostile and unstable neighbor on his country's northern frontier.

Fearing such a prospect in recent weeks Pakistani officials have repeatedly pointed to the violence and bloodshed that characterized the Alliance's hold on power in Kabul, between 1992 and 1994.

Citing the need to avoid a repeat of past atrocities, Musharraf is calling for Kabul to become a de-militarized city with a multinational UN peacekeeping force to be deployed there as soon as possible.

A similar option appears also to have the backing of the Bush administration.

Shortly before news came in of the fall of Kabul, Secretary of State Colin Powell told the New York Times that moves were underway to construct a "coalition of the willing," led my soldiers from Muslim nations, to bring stability to Afghanistan.

In an interview published on Tuesday he said several Muslim nations including Turkey, Bangladesh and Indonesia had offered to contribute troops to a U.N-controlled force - one which, he said, would most likely not include American soldiers.

Unifying figure

Diplomats seeking a unifying figure for Afghanistan are focussing attention on former King Zahir Shah (center)
Diplomats seeking a unifying figure for Afghanistan are focussing attention on former King Zahir Shah (center)  

That still leaves the delicate process of constructing a new unity government to bring Afghanistan out of its cycle of violence.

The fear among many diplomats is that the longer Alliance forces remain in sole control of Kabul, the less willing they will be to share power.

Throughout its years of conflict Afghanistan has been deeply divided by tribal loyalties. The Northern Alliance, for example, is made up almost entirely of ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks -- two minority groups.

They are viewed warily by the largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, who make up about 40 percent of the population.

The Pashtuns are concentrated mainly in the south of the country and diplomats say they must be included in any successful broad-based, multi-ethnic coalition if the country is not to risk being torn apart.

So the focus is now turning to finding some kind of unifying figure, capable of bringing together Afghanistan's various ethnic groups.

Many are pointing to Afghanistan's former king, 87-year old Mohammad Zahir Shah, himself an ethnic Pashtun who has been living in exile in Rome.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said she believes he could play an important role as a "legitimate force" in unifying a post-Taliban administration.

"The role of the former king is important not so much that he be reinstated as king," she said, "but that he be the one that provides some kind of leadership in getting this government together.

A lasting solution

Above all, the U.N. says, the international community must be committed to a lasting solution for Afghanistan's people.

"We are not going to give up on them this time," the Secretary General's special envoy to Afghanistan, Algerian diplomat Lakhtar Brahimi told the Security Council Tuesday.

He said Afghans must be made to feel in charge of their own future and flying in outside experts who lack credibility simply would not work.

Speaking to the Security Council Tuesday Annan called for an end to "the end of interference in Afghanistan's affairs by neighboring countries."

"Unless this happens on the level of reality rather than just rhetoric," he said "there can be little hope of lasting stability in Afghanistan."

-- CNN United Nations Correspondent Richard Roth and CNN writer Joel Hocmuth contributed to this report


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