Things have dramatically changed in the last few days, and not all to Pakistan’s liking. First, the news of the fall of Mazar-e Sharif, a strategically important city, was initially received with disbelief. This victory was followed by Osama bin Laden‘s claim that he possesses nuclear and chemical weapons, and will use them if threatened. Then the news of the fall of the city which, on account of its highly Westernized culture, once boasted of being the Paris of south and central Asia: Kabul, so beautiful and cultured, where now one can only excavate the glory of a vanished past from ruins that remain from more than two decades of civil war.

In both fallen cities, people lined up at barbershops to shave their once-mandatory beards. Women threw off their veils, which had covered them from head to toe for five years. Music filled the air.

The Taliban had captured Kabul in September 1996, forcing President Burhanuddin to retreat to the north, while Mazar-e Sharif has changed hands several times.

These stunning victories of the United Front — or, as it is commonly called, the Northern Alliance — put it in control of all of northern Afghanistan. Taliban leaders call their exodus from these two cities a ”tactical retreat“ and appear to be headed to the mountains to wage a protracted guerilla war. One Taliban source said, ”Sitting on war fronts and being targeted like sitting ducks by U.S. air forces is not a better option.“

Whatever the reason behind the Taliban militia’s retreat from Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif, it must be appreciated that the human and material toll would have been very high indeed if it had not abandoned the cities in the face of advancing Northern Alliance forces.

The fall of Kabul to the Northern Alliance is a setback for Pakistan, which had been lobbying for a broad-based, multi-ethnic government in Afghanistan. Pakistan leaders see its rivals — India, Iran, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan — behind the Northern Alliance‘s victorious march. (The Pakistani press regularly reports the presence of Indian military advisors in Northern Alliance–held areas.)

During Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s visit to New York City, President Bush suggested it would be better for the Northern Alliance to stop short of taking over Kabul. The U.S. and Pakistan agreed that the capture of Kabul should be delayed until a coalition of the region‘s a power brokers and Afghan ethnic groups was established.

I see three possible explanations for the rush to capture Kabul: one, Pakistan’s wishes are simply ignored in any military strategic matter regarding the war on the Taliban; two, no one can issue orders to the Northern Alliance — a very remote possibility given the Afghan resistance movement‘s addiction to foreign support, developed during 20 years of civil war; or three, one or more of the Northern Alliance’s other big-name supporters pushed for the move. Russia, after all, is the Northern Alliance‘s biggest arms provider. Russia, India and Iran, all very bitter about Pakistan’s past policies, are influencing the Northern Alliance‘s moves. The U.S. is not the only major player in Afghanistan.

Although the cities have fallen, their governments remain unstable. After the fall of Mazar-e Sharif, for example, Pakistan’s premier daily newspaper, Dawn, cautioned in an editorial: ”Any attempt by the alliance to occupy Kabul would be resisted by the Pashtun majority people — not necessarily pro-Taliban — and that would mean a continuation of civil war.“

Pakistan had hoped for an Islamabad-friendly government in Kabul. This would have been difficult given the way Pakistan has alienated most other ethnic groups other than the Taliban-loyal Pashtun. It is well-known, at least in Pakistan, that the country‘s intelligence agency funded and otherwise supported the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan.

A few days back, former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto blamed Pakistan‘s intelligence agency for giving continued logistical support to the Taliban. This was made clear in October, when hundreds of influential anti-Taliban ex-commanders and tribal chiefs went to Peshawar to lobby for the return of former monarch Zahir Shah to Afghanistan. At the same time, a legendary former guerrilla commander, Abdul Haq, slipped into Taliban-held territory to organize anti-Taliban revolt, apparently with U.S. consent. Within hours, he was pointed out and executed in his hiding place by Taliban forces. His comrades blamed Pakistan’s intelligence agency for betraying him. (Zahir Shah, now 87 years old, lives in exile in Rome. He had reigned as king of Afghanistan from 1933 until July 1937, when his cousin Sardar Daud seized power and proclaimed the Republic of Afghanistan. Daud was executed by communists after a bloody coup in 1978.)

The future of Afghanistan means different things to different power brokers. Pakistan, for example, as soon as the U.S. started dropping its bombs, had hoped initially for a moderate Taliban. The idea was scoffed at by one Northern Alliance leader, who said, ”There is no such species as moderate Taliban.“ Now Pakistan is putting forward the idea of a Pashtun-dominated takeover. Pakistan is forming a Southern idea of a Pashtun-dominated Alliance, comprised of former Mujahdeen commanders and Pashtuns. Afghanistan is being divided along ethnic lines.

One political newspaper commentator still puts hope for Pakistan playing a role in the future of the region, saying, ”U.S.A. certainly wants oil and gas pipelines passing through south Afghanistan to Pakistani seaport in Arabian Sea, therefore Pakistan again gets central position in future Afghan setup, one way or other way.“

Certainly there are too many cooks in Kabul‘s political kitchen. Everyone is trying to add a flavor. It threatens to get messy. One senior commander who fought against the Soviet army has this solution in mind: ”The Afghans do not want to be ruled by the Pashtuns, and vice-versa is true.“ Leave the Afghans alone, he says, ”and we will work it out.“

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