As U.S. and British armed forces carry out air strikes in Afghanistan, some of the commanders of the rebel Northern Alliance have expressed disappointment that the U.S. isn't leading a ground assault that would overthrow the Taliban. The factions also feel that they're being impeded by regional tensions between Pakistan and India.
Recently, BusinessWeek Correspondent Frederik Balfour, who's in Pakistan right now, caught up with Raza Naz, special envoy to Pakistan for the Hezbe Wahdat-e Islami Afghanistan. It's one of the factions in the Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan, the umbrella party representing about 7 million ethnic Hazaras in the Northern Alliance. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:
Q: What's your reaction to [Pakistani President] General Musharraf's statement that the Northern Alliance should not take advantage of the situation in Afghanistan right now?
A: I was very sad to hear that. And it differs from what they have said in the past: On one side, they say it's up to the people of Afghanistan to solve their problems, to have a broad-based government.
Of course, they [the Northern Alliance] will take advantage. In one sense, they have become part of coalition with the U.S. and with Pakistan. And because they have been fighting this enemy for many years, it's very difficult not to take advantage. The government of Pakistan [which had supported the Taliban's ascent to power] should [now] have a neutral policy not to make any factions in Afghanistan too angry.
We understand the government of Pakistan wants a government in Afghanistan that is pro-Pakistan, not pro-India. But the policy should be a neutral policy which doesn't favor one part, like it has been doing in the past [favoring the Taliban]. We want to cooperate with Pakistan. We aren't against Pakistan. They're Muslims, and we're Muslims.
The Northern Alliance has had some differences with the government of Pakistan in the past. We thought they have been supporting the Taliban. The Northern Alliance is already very angry because of Taliban, and it is 100% sure it had been supported by this government, so if Pakistan wants a broad-based government, it should issue good statements at this sensitive stage.
Q: Have the U.S. attacks advanced your cause?
A: As far as our struggle is concerned, I think we have gone a little bit forward -- it will help [make] our approach to Kabul and Mazir-E-Sharif easier than a couple of months ago.
Q: How many fighters do you have?
A: Altogether NA has more than 20,000. Taliban has about 50,000.
Q: Would refugees go back to help you fight?
A: Sure, with guns and uniforms and salaries. They're quite ready.
Q: Who's leading you? Who's the leading general?
A: Almost all the factions have their own systems. We have many generals.
At this stage, the people of Afghanistan have become tired of fighting, first against the USSR, then against each other. Poverty, no cultivation [of crops], no rain, no food, almost nothing -- almost [everything is] destroyed.
Q: Do you feel the West and U.S. are deciding Afghanistan's fate?
A: We don't think that the U.S. will try to impose a government against our wish, but a broad-based governement [is what] we're voting for.
Q: For 20 years, you were seen as a shield against communism in the region. Now, do you feel you're being used as a shield against extremists?
A: Yes, it's really obvious. [But] at the same time, we're against Islamic fundamentalists. Islam itself is against Islamic fundamentalism -- we would not accept this fundamentalism in Afghanistan at all.
Q: If the Taliban is toppled, why wouldn't all the factions in Afghanistan start fighting amongst themselves?
A: It's difficult to anticipate, but there's some possibility that this could exist again. But there should be control after Taliban has left -- the U.N. should play a very, very important role to keep control. Peacekeeping troops, that's very important.
Q: Will the attacks by the U.S. make it harder for the coalition to establish a new government to replace the ruling Taliban?
A: I don't think it will make the situation difficult for [the] establishment of a broad-based government. The people of Afghanistan are used to fighting for more than 20 years. First of all, the Taliban government should be removed. [As a] second step, we can talk about [the] establishment of broad-based government.
The [newly] established government should be strong enough to have complete hold of Afghanistan. The Taliban will not be banished from the scene. They could start a guerrilla war again once they're overthrown. In the short run, we need to be militarily strong. In the long run, we need to be politically strong to satisfy the Afghan people, who must be satisfied that this is the ultimate government.
Q: Is there a role for the Taliban in a broad-based government?
A: It depends upon the leadership of the Northern Alliance. I don't think the Taliban will be able to participate in that new government, not the extremist part of the Taliban. Those hardliners won't be accepted.
Q: What do you want for Afghanistan?
A: We want democracy. An election should be held. A constitution should be prepared. We don't go for a dictatorship of the Kingdom in Aghanistan [if exiled monarch Zahir Shah were reinstated]. If he comes back in the same condition he was when he was King, then I don't think he would be acceptable -- maybe acceptable for a time to get rid of Taliban...perhaps as a mediator or somebody who calls for new agenda to establish broad-based government.