The Rush of Victory

As the Taliban topples, America is scrambling to foster political stability and bring in the U.N.

With a speed that stunned members of the anti-terror coalition, Northern Alliance rebels in Afghanistan are capturing the country's key cities only a week into a U.S.-backed ground offensive. The decision of the Taliban militia to turn tail has once again shifted the political and military equation in the campaign against terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and his Taliban protectors. Now, with the Taliban fleeing to the mountains, the U.S. and its allies must scramble to fill the political void in Kabul. Job No. 1: putting in place a transitional government that somehow transcends the nation's vicious ethnic and regional rivalries.

Of course, coping with a swifter-than-expected Taliban retreat is a pretty good problem to have. Just a few weeks ago, the White House faced worries that the war was bogging down. But those fears greatly underestimated the toll of heavy bombing by U.S. B-52s, the ability of mobile Northern Alliance rebels to take advantage of U.S. tactical air cover--and, of course, the Taliban's snap decision that a cold winter in the mountains beats suffering heavy casualties in Afghan cities.

Still, an enemy that lurks in mountainous redoubts shouldn't be discounted, which is one reason allied war planners aren't celebrating too loudly. "These tactics of withdrawal are not new," warns Vladimir Solovyov, who was a colonel during Russia's disastrous Afghan war. "Now, a new stage of partisan warfare will begin."

That is undoubtedly true. Yet by abandoning the conventional battlefield to the rebels, Taliban leader Mullah Omar has created a huge opening for his foes, from giving the coalition air fields to ferry in aid to providing new staging areas for the search for al Qaeda's leaders. Now that the Northern Alliance controls much of the country, the U.S. has to make sure that the machinery of war doesn't outpace the painstaking diplomatic drive needed to create a new Kabul government that is stable--or what passes for stable in Afghanistan.

POWER SHUFFLE. The diplomatic challenge for the U.S. will initially focus on attempts to broaden oversight of the country from the largely Tajik and Uzbek Northern Alliance to Pashtun leaders in the South. Although the Bush team has had limited success so far in developing allies in the south, it hopes that key Pashtun commanders, such as Hamid Karzai, will react to the Taliban rout by angling for a spot in a new ruling coalition. Washington also hopes for defections from Taliban fighters in the south, though so far, few have occurred. Says Michael E. O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution analyst: "We have to give them reason to think they'll benefit" from a new regime.

But even if a Pashtun shift occurs, there are other potentially explosive political issues facing the allies. Among them: fears that the Taliban's defeat will destabilize Pakistan and doubts that any post-Taliban regime will be able to stave off infighting, bloody reprisals, and even a government collapse.

The Administration is devoting most of its diplomatic energy to crafting a broad ruling coalition under U.N. auspices--a task that isn't made any easier by the macho pronouncements of rebel leaders. Already, ex-Afghani President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was due to return home on Nov. 15, has declared that there will be no role for Taliban elements in a national reconstruction government.

Meantime, reports of Northern Alliance atrocities are complicating the reconciliation process. Alliance commanders have old scores to settle with the Taliban and a record of human-rights abuses. Fears that bloodletting could spread weren't helped by images of rebel executions of captured Taliban prisoners.

The Northern Alliance is seeking a power-sharing deal under the titular leadership of exiled King Mohammed Zahir Shah. In the U.S. view, the elderly Shah can serve a useful role as the focal point for returning Afghan dissidents. The King will be "a postage-stamp figure," says Stephen P. Cohen, a former State Dept. policy planner now at the Brookings Institution. "But there's a better-than-even chance of creating a government." Why? Because "for the first time in history, everybody agrees on the kind of government Afghanistan should have."

But if that is the outcome outsiders would like to see, getting there won't be simple. The White House thinks it's essential that the U.N. oversee the process in order to counter perceptions that Washington controls the chessboard. "The U.N. is the most credible vehicle," says Deepa M. Ollapally, a South Asia specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace. That's why U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, with the support of Afghanistan's neighbors, hopes to set up a provisional government that includes all ethnic Afghan factions and could draft a new constitution.

Because suspicions about the Northern Alliance run high, the U.N. envisions a multinational force to maintain order. One U.S.-backed idea calls for contingents to be drawn from such Islamic nations as Turkey, Indonesia, and Bangladesh, plus Jordan. But Britain and France also hope to enlist. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is agitating to join as well, but the U.S. demurs, noting that the pro-Taliban Pakistani army would hardly be seen as impartial.

Musharraf's standing at home is already shaky as a result of large numbers of Pakistanis sympathetic to the Taliban. The General is facing fierce fire from army hardliners and Islamic leaders for throwing in his lot with the Americans. Now, he faces a new threat: reports that fleeing Taliban fighters are streaming across Pakistan's border. "That's a nightmare scenario," says Rifaat Hussain, a military expert at Islamabad University. The Taliban "could use the border as a sanctuary to create a mini-Afghanistan in the Pashtun belt."

Since many Pashtuns are clustered in Peshawar and points north, the Taliban's setbacks could stoke calls for Musharraf's ouster. A typical dart comes from Imran Khan, a centrist Islamic political leader: "What is Pakistan going to be left with now? [Musharraf] kept talking about a broad-based government and now look what we've got--the Northern Alliance in Kabul."

As dicey as things look in Islamabad, the rout of the Taliban could produce some immediate payoffs for the U.S. and its allies. Iran, which has been gingerly weighing a thaw with the West, is offering to rescue downed allied pilots in its territory and is permitting food convoys to go through Iran en route to Afghanistan. Ayatollah Ali Khameni, the nation's powerful conservative cleric, has called for a counter-jihad against bin Laden-style terrorists. "I'm more optimistic [about improved relations] than I have been in a long time," says R.K. Ramazani, an Iran expert and former University of Virginia scholar. According to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the anti-terror war has the potential to create "new relationshipsall across the globe."

The early success on the ground also holds out the prospect of reversing the perception, spread by bin Laden and his propagandists, that the West is waging a crusade against Islam itself. The U.S. now has the opportunity to launch a truly effective mission to aid war-battered Afghan civilians. With much of the country under Northern Alliance control, the U.S. can use newly liberated airfields to bring in food, medicine, and fuel. Already, barges are bringing in relief supplies from Uzbekistan. Ground-based aid stations could be far more efficient than the current practice of dropping dried meal packets from C-17 transport planes.

PEACE POLICY. Seizing the moment, President Bush will also attempt to defuse Islamic anger by launching a new Middle East peace initiative. The Administration will soon go public with a renewed push to halt violence in the region and lay the groundwork for the creation of a Palestinian state.

But while much of the action has shifted to political and diplomatic fronts, that doesn't mean the Afghan war is over. Fighting will grind on--and could intensify. Indeed, the sudden change in Taliban tactics may hasten the need for a significant U.S.-British ground assault on suspected bin Laden hideouts--one involving thousands of troops rather than handfuls of Special Forces commandos. London has just put thousands of soldiers on alert and has 238 Royal Marines in the area. The U.S. has two carrier battle groups in the region, 1,000 ship-based commandos, and the 10th Mountain division based in Uzbekistan. Says Rumsfeld: "Our first priority is unquestionably tracking down the leadership [of] al Qaeda and the Taliban."

After absorbing an early bloodying at the hands of the Northern Alliance, the Taliban remains a force to be reckoned with--but one that's weakened and may at some point become more receptive to U.S. appeals to give up bin Laden and put an end to allied pounding.

True, that doesn't look likely today. But then again, who would have anticipated a few weeks ago scenes of newly clean-shaven Afghanis rejoicing in the streets of Kabul? "Events acquire their own momentum," says Eliot A. Cohen, a military strategist at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "It's one of the lessons of all this."

The other, as George W. Bush is wont to remind us, is that today's quick and relatively easy victories are meaningless until the ultimate objective is reached. For America, that still means decapitating entrenched terror networks in Afghanistan and beyond.

Ironically, it also means a prolonged bout of "nation-building" and multilateral coalition-tending for a President who came to power scornful of such pursuits. But that was before September 11, the day that Bush's mind--and his mission--changed forever.

By Lee Walczak, Stan Crock, and Paul Magnusson, with Lorraine Woellert, in Washington, and with Frederik Balfour in Islamabad, Catherine Belton in Moscow, Naween Mangi in New York, and bureau reports

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