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Robert Fisk: Just who are our allies in Afghanistan?

'The Alliance have not murdered 7,000 innocent civilians in the US. They have done their massacres on their home turf'

Wednesday 03 October 2001 00:00 BST

"America's New War," is what they call it on CNN. And of course, as usual, they've got it wrong. Because in our desire to "bring to justice" – let's remember those words in the coming days – the vicious men who planned the crimes against humanity in New York and Washington last month, we're hiring some well-known rapists and murderers to work for us.

Yes, it's an old war, a dreary routine that we've seen employed around the world for the past three decades. In Vietnam, the Americans wanted to avoid further casualties; so they re-armed and re-trained the South Vietnamese army to be their foot-soldiers. In southern Lebanon, the Israelis used their Lebanese militia thugs to combat the Palestinians and the Hizbollah. The Phalange and the so-called "South Lebanon Army" were supposed to be Israel's foot-soldiers. They failed, but that is in the nature of wars-by-proxy. In Kosovo, we kept our well-armed Nato troops safely out of harm's way while the KLA acted as our foot-soldiers.

And now, without a blush or a swallow of embarrassment, we're about to sign up the so-called "Northern Alliance" in Afghanistan. America's newspapers are saying – without a hint of irony – that they, too, will be our "foot-soldiers" in our war to hunt down/bring to justice/smoke out/eradicate/liquidate Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. US officials – who know full well the whole bloody, rapacious track record of the killers in the "Alliance" – are suggesting in good faith that these are the men who will help us bring democracy to Afghanistan and drive the Taliban and the terrorists out of the country. In fact, we're ready to hire one gang of terrorists – our terrorists – to rid ourselves of another gang of terrorists. What, I wonder, would the dead of New York and Washington think of this?

But first, let's keep the record straight. The atrocities of 11 September were a crime against humanity. The evil men who planned this mass-murder should (repeat: should) be brought to justice. And if that means the end of the Taliban – with their limb-chopping and execution of women and their repressive, obscurantist Saudi-style "justice" – fair enough. The Northern Alliance, the confederacy of warlords, patriots, rapists and torturers who control a northern sliver of Afghanistan, have very definitely not (repeat: not) massacred more than 7,000 innocent civilians in the United States. No, the murderers among them have done their massacres on home turf, in Afghanistan. Just like the Taliban.

Even as the World Trade Centre collapsed in blood and dust, the world mourned the assassination of Ahmed Shah Masood, the courageous and patriotic Lion of Panjshir whose leadership of the Northern Alliance remained the one obstacle to overall Taliban power. Perhaps he was murdered in advance of the slaughter in America, to emasculate America's potential allies in advance of US retaliation. Either way, his proconsulship allowed us to forget the gangs he led.

It permitted us, for example, to ignore Abdul Rashid Dustum, one of the most powerful Alliance gangsters, whose men looted and raped their way through the suburbs of Kabul in the Nineties. They chose girls for forced marriages, murdered their families, all under the eyes of Masood. Dustum had a habit of changing sides, joining the Taliban for bribes and indulging in massacres alongside the Wahhabi gangsters who formed the government of Afghanistan, then returning to the Alliance weeks later.

Then there's Rasoul Sayaf, a Pashtun who originally ran the "Islamic Union for the Freedom of Afghanistan", but whose gunmen tortured Shia families and used their women as sex slaves in a series of human rights abuses between 1992 and 1996. Sure, he's just one of 15 leaders in the Alliance, but the terrified people of Kabul are chilled to the bone at the thought that these criminals are to be among America's new foot-soldiers.

Urged on by the Americans, the Alliance boys have been meeting with the elderly and sick ex-King Mohamed Zahir Shah, whose claim to have no interest in the monarchy is almost certainly honourable – but whose ambitious grandson may have other plans for Afghanistan. A "loya jerga", we are told, will bring together alll tribal groups to elect a transitional government after the formation of a "Supreme Council for the National Unity of Afghanistan". And the old king will be freighted in as a symbol of national unity, a reminder of the good old days before democracy collapsed and communism destroyed the country. And we'll have to forget that King Zahir Shah – though personally likeable, and a saint compared to the Taliban – was no great democrat.

What Afghanistan needs is an international force – not a bunch of ethnic gangs steeped in blood – to re-establish some kind of order. It doesn't have to be a UN force, but it could have Western troops and should be supported by surrounding Muslim nations – though, please God, not the Saudis – and able to restore roads, food supplies and telecommunications. There are still well-educated academics and civil servants inAfghanistan who could help to re-establish the infrastructure of government. In this context, the old king might just be a temporary symbol of unity before a genuinely inter-ethnic government could be created.

But that's not what we're planning. More than 7,000 innocents have been murdered in the USA, and the two million Afghans who have been killed since 1980 don't amount to a hill of beans beside that. Whether or not we send in humanitarian aid, we're pouring more weapons into this starving land, to arm a bunch of gangsters in the hope they'll destroy the Taliban and let us grab bin Laden cost-free.

I have a dark premonition about all this. The "Northern Alliance" will work for us. They'll die for us. And, while they're doing that, we'll try to split the Taliban and cut a deal with their less murderous cronies, offering them a seat in a future government alongside their Alliance enemies. The other Taliban – the guys who won't take the Queen's shilling or Mr Bush's dollar – will snipe at our men from the mountainside and shoot at our jets and threaten more attacks on the West, with or without bin Laden.

And at some point – always supposing we've installed a puppet government to our liking in Kabul – the Alliance will fall apart and turn against its ethnic enemies or, if we should still be around, against us. Because the Alliance knows that we're not giving them money and guns because we love Afghanistan, or because we want to bring peace to the land, or because we are particularly interested in establishing democracy in south-west Asia. The West is demonstrating its largesse because it wants to destroy America's enemies.

Just remember what happened in 1980 when we backed the brave, ruthless, cruel mujahedin against the Soviet Union. We gave them money and weapons and promised them political support once the Russians left. There was much talk, I recall, of "loya jergas", and even a proposal that the then less elderly king might be trucked back to Afghanistan. And now this is exactly what we are offering once again.

And, dare I ask, how many bin Ladens are serving now among our new and willing foot-soldiers?

America's "new war", indeed.

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