Here is what we know about the Northern Alliance, the main military opposition to the Taliban in Afghanistan: They are mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks, though other ethnic groups have joined them as well. They possess a motley collection of weapons. Their soldiers are famously brave and famously unreliable. They have been funded by the Russians, the Uzbeks, Iran. Ex-members of the Clinton administration say they helped the CIA try to kill Osama Bin Laden. A documentary about their murdered leader, Ahmed Shah Masoud, has become a cult film in Paris.
Here is what we don't know: Are the Northern Alliance our allies in Afghanistan? Should they be?
Just before the bombardment of Afghanistan, Donald Rumsfeld made it sound not only as if they were but as if he was already in contact with them as well. They "know the land," he said at one point, "They can be a lot of help." Echoing him, the Washington Post pointed out that the alliance has "been fighting the Taliban since the mid-1990s, and no one knows the territory more than they do."
As the bombing campaign began, however, our new friendship with the Northern Alliance lost its bloom. In the early days, American planes did not bomb Taliban front lines, apparently on the grounds that the administration did not trust the Northern Alliance and did not want its commanders to march into Kabul too quickly. The press coverage changed tone as well. Salon, among others, accused the alliance's leaders of "shocking human rights records, thievery and sheer governing incompetence." A more recent Washington Post report described the alliance as "tired, hungry and ill-equipped to face the Taliban."
In the past few days, however, we seem to have returned to square one: The most optimistic scenarios for the war have been abandoned. Three weeks have passed, but we haven't found Bin Laden and haven’t forced the Taliban leaders to make mistakes. Fewer Taliban soldiers have defected than expected. Perhaps this explains why, according to this morning's reports, we have finally begun to bombard Taliban artillery that threatens the alliance. Like it or not, the Northern Alliance are the only serious fighting force in the country. Like it or not, they are still our only potential friends in Afghanistan.
For many, this will seem like bad news: The Afghan conflict has been extremely brutal, and there have indeed been abuses, thuggery, and theft on all sides. No Northern Alliance faction is exempt from criticism. In this conflict, there are no men in white hats.
There is, however, some good news as well. Here are a few reasons to feel a sliver of optimism:
- They aren't fanatics. While many of the Northern Alliance are devout and even orthodox Muslims, they have a very different reputation from the Taliban. When the Northern Alliance leader Ishmael Khan was in charge of Herat, girls went to school. When the Taliban took over, the girls were sent home. Generally speaking, the alliance culture is the culture of pre-Soviet invasion Afghanistan: easygoing, relatively liberal. They've never had any ambitions to export Islam at all.
- They aren't unknown. Contrary to some reports, not all of the Northern Alliance commanders are semiliterate, drug-dealing, cave-dwelling guerrillas. While this may be an accurate description of some of their soldiers, the Northern Alliance is also still the only Afghan government widely recognized around the world. They have ambassadors or representatives in Washington, London, Berlin, Paris, and Warsaw, among other places. Their foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, is well-spoken, well-regarded, and well-traveled (particularly of late). These are people that the West has dealt with before.
- They are meritocrats. By this, I mean that Tajik military commanders have become military commanders on the grounds of military ability, not on the grounds of their tribal or clan position. During the war against the Soviet Union, not all ethnic groups followed this rule. A great deal of mysterious infighting still takes place among alliance factions, but they do seem to be capable of making some compromises and following leaders of other ethnicities.
- They are adaptable. In the 1980s, the Northern Alliance fought the Russians. Now Russia has changed, the war has changed, and they seem happy to accept Russian support. This is a small point, but it does reveal something about the Northern Alliance mentality. Unlike Bin Laden, who hates all Americans—bankers, postmen, politicians—on principle, the Northern Alliance can distinguish between Russia and the Soviet Union. This speaks well for their ability to work with us.
- More important, they've been our allies before. Many of the Northern Alliance commanders did fight, successfully, with the United States against the Soviet Union. Masoud, perhaps tragically, was not the main recipient of U.S. aid during the Afghan-Soviet war: That was in part because the United States, relying on the advice of the ISI, the Pakistani secret service, had been talked into backing more fanatical groups. We shouldn't allow the ISI, who deeply oppose the Northern Alliance, to mislead us on Afghanistan again.
- Even more important, we haven't got a choice. There simply isn't another large, organized, native military force that is prepared to fight the Taliban on the ground in Afghanistan, and it would be madness for us to consider fighting them in any other way. If Afghanistan is not to be partitioned, any postwar solution for the country must certainly include other ethnic groups, especially the Pashtun, and all political options, perhaps even moderate members of the Taliban. But we haven't got there yet, and it may be years before we do. As things stand right now, the alliance may not be the best allies, but they're the only ones we've got.