Pakistan fears ethnic trouble if regime is toppled

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The Independent Online

Pakistan has reacted with dismay as international efforts to find a replacement for Afghanistan's Taliban regime, its old ally.

The Foreign Minister, Abdul Sattar, said yesterday that the world should not "make the blunder of trying to foist a government on the people of Afghanistan" if US attacks bring down the Taliban.

The Northern Alliance, an anti–Taliban grouping which loathes Pakistan for sponsored the creation of the movement in the mid–1990s, has asked for foreign military assistance. Referring to this, Mr Sattar said: "We fear that any decision on the part of foreign powers to give assistance to one side or the other ... is a recipe for great suffering for the people of Afghanistan."

But Mr Sattar is too late: a new Great Game for power and influence is beginning in Afghanistan. President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who blames the Taliban's ally, the arch–terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden, of fuelling the Muslim rebellion in Chechnya, has already promised help to the Northern Alliance, which holds about five per cent of Afghanistan's territory. The alliance has also contacted the US, calling for aid and telling Washington not to rely solely on Pakistan in its campaign against the Taliban and Mr bin Laden.

Although the Pakistanis had switched their support to the US in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, a Western diplomat said in Islamabad yesterday, that they could not escape all the consequences of their past policies. Since Saudi Arabia severed ties yesterday, saying the Taliban backed terrorists whose attacks "defame Islam and defame Muslims' reputation in the world", Pakistan is now alone in recognising the regime. "You could say it serves them right," said the diplomat.

But a UN source said there were elements within the Taliban who could see which way the wind was blowing. He did not rule out the possibility that Pakistan could seek to retain the movement in power by staging an "in–house" coup, after which Mr bin Laden would be expelled.

Part of Pakistan's concern is ethnic. It faces trouble at home if the Taliban, rooted in the Pashtun community which straddles both sides of the border, is replaced by the Northern Alliance, drawn principally from the Tajik and Uzbek minorities. But as Afghans sense that the Taliban may be on the way out, a race for power is under way. "I know of at least three separate conspiracies to seize Afghanistan by force," said a United Nations source.

Old warlords in the struggle against Soviet occupation in the 1980s, such as Abdul Haq and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, previously the favoured client of Pakistan's Inter–Services Intelligence (ISI), are vowing to return from exile in Dubai and Tehran respectively to join the fight. Abdul Rashid Dostam, the Uzbek commander who has changed sides many times over the years, has rejoined the alliance and is threatening Mazar–i–Sharif, the main city in northern Afghanistan. Ismail Khan, the former governor of the western city of Herat, says he is mustering up to 7,000 men to recapture his old fiefdom.

All this threatens a re-run of the early 1990s, when the mujahedin groups which took Kabul after the collapse of the Communist regime immediately began fighting among themselves. Eventually the ISI presided over the birth of the Taliban, which swept from Islamic schools in Pakistan to conquer a country weary of anarchy. "The Taliban's selling–point used to be that it kept some sort of order, allowed security of travel and cracked down on drugs," said the diplomat. "But it has done nothing to rebuild the country. It recently announced a ban on the import of lobsters: this in a land where people are starving. Even before the events of September 11th tilted the balance, discontent was growing."

He did not believe, however, that there would be a reversion to the warlord era. "The difference is the degree of attention among the international community. Ten years ago it seemed the right thing to leave the Afghans to decide their future, but we won't walk away this time."

The Northern Alliance is by no means sure to take over: it is militarily weak, and, according to the UN source, lacks any credible political programme. "Their only aim in the past three years has been to thwart the Taliban in its attempt to control all of northern Afghanistan." If the international community could set up an interim administration which carried the stamp of legitimacy, he added, "any number" of Pashtuns in southern Afghanistan would be ready to co–operate, particularly among traditional leaders who had been thrust aside by the Taliban.

The UN has held talks in Rome with Afghanistan's exiled king, the86–year–old Zahir Shah, whose presence at the head of such an administration would reassure the country's hostile ethnic groups, and the Northern Alliance has just sent a delegation to see him. But the Great Game is in its earliest stages, there are any number of would–be players, and no one can predict the result.