The San Diego Union-Tribune

September 22, 2001

How much help Taliban foes can offer is unclear

By OTTO KREISHER 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 


WASHINGTON -- One way the United States may try to get at Osama bin
Laden and his terrorist organization in Afghanistan is by bolstering the
opposition fighting the ruling Taliban that supports him.

Although experts concede that the Northern Alliance is militarily and politically weak compared with the Taliban, they argue that the resistance group could provide vital assistance to U.S. special operations forces infiltrating the rugged country.

In addition to taking the enemy head on, special forces are schooled in
training and organizing rebel forces.

But experts differ about how much help the Northern Alliance could be in
helping the U.S. break up terrorists networks in Afghanistan.

The alliance could be a "very powerful tool," said Michael Vickers, a former
Army Special Forces officer and CIA agent with experience in Afghanistan.

"There's nothing like having lots of people on the ground," he said.

Terisita Schaffer, a South Asia scholar at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, was not sure how effective the Northern Alliance, the
remaining opposition group, could be against the Taliban.

"They've pretty much been driven back into one valley in Northern
Afghanistan, and they've lost their best commander," Schaffer said.

The alliance is thought to control about 15 percent of the country. Their
charismatic leader, Ahmed Shah Massood, died last week after being
wounded by a suicide bomber, thought to be a bin Laden follower.

Michael O'Hanlon, a national security analyst with the Brookings Institution,
suggested the Pentagon "may want to help the Northern Alliance go on the
offensive."

But he added, "They are very weak today. They are going to need a lot of
help."

O'Hanlon offered the example of the allied effort to rearm and train the
Muslims and Croats in Bosnia, which allowed them to go on the attack
against the Serbs and force Belgrade to agree to a truce.

L. Paul Bremer, a retired diplomat who was stationed in Afghanistan and later served as chairman of the National Commission on Terrorism, argued that there can be no satisfactory solution to terrorism "that doesn't include regime change in Kabul," the capital.

"I hope it can be done by the Afghans," Bremer said, suggesting that U.S.
work with the Northern Alliance.

But the experts all conceded the Northern Alliance has military weaknesses
and is also hampered by its ethnic composition in a nation that is fragmented
by multiple nationalities and tribes.

The Taliban is made up exclusively of Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in the
country, while the alliance consists of the minority Tajiks and Uzbeks.

Because of their ethnic makeup, the alliance "would not be seen as a
legitimate government of Afghanistan even if they were able to impose
themselves militarily," O'Hanlon said.

Bush administration officials said they will consider helping to arm the
Northern Alliance.

A Washington representative of the alliance said it could offer 30,000 fighters
to aid any U.S. attack on the Taliban. But most U.S. authorities believe the
resistance group has only about 15,000 troops. The Taliban is thought to have more than 50,000 fighters with better weapons, but they are scattered
throughout the country.

O'Hanlon said it would take some time to rearm the alliance to make it a
better match for the Taliban.

There is the potential unintended consequence of arming rebels. Some of the
Taliban fighters, including bin Laden, were among the U.S.-backed rebels
who thwarted the Soviet Union's attempt to occupy Afghanistan in the 1980s.

But Schaffer said the Taliban is not popular with many Afghans. Although it
rules most of the country by force and agreements with other tribal leaders,
"this is a country of shifting alliance. There could be some changes," she said