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Afghan warlords may weigh heavily in Iran’s plans against Taliban

September 23, 2001

By Guy Dinmore in Tehran
Published: September 23 2001 1

The fate of Afghanistan has long been at the mercy of outside powers, through direct invasion or as sponsors of shifting alliances. While the US maps its attack against the Taliban regime and alleged terrorist bases, others are also planning their moves.

Iran has a variety of cards to play in the shape of half a dozen or so former or current Afghan warlords it supports. However, in the 22 years since the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, most have fought each other in various permutations, and the make-up of future alliances is in doubt.

On the diplomatic and military front, Iran has been an important ally for the Northern Alliance, which fights the Pakistan-backed Taliban that drove out the United Nations-recognised coalition government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani from Kabul in 1996.

But the Northern Alliance holds less than 10 per cent of Afghan territory and its veteran military commander, Ahmed Shah Masood, was killed by two Arab suicide bombers just days before the suicide strikes on New York and Washington.

Mr Masood’s followers are convinced that the Taliban prevailed upon Osama Bin Laden, the exiled Saudi militant, to remove their most capable enemy before anticipated US retaliation.

Within the fractious Northern Alliance, the main beneficiary of Iranian aid has been Mr Rabbani’s Jamiat-e Islami, and Hezb-e Wahdat, the main Shia Muslim party. They were previously fierce rivals, but have united in their opposition to the Taliban, although analysts question how long the Alliance could last in the absence of a common enemy.

Yusef Vaeizi, a representative of Hezb-e Wahdat in Tehran, says his forces are ready to join an attack on the mainly Sunni Taliban, but US intentions are unclear.

“If the US is serious about toppling the Taliban we could welcome it. But we are confused about the aims of the US – to overthrow the Taliban or just seize bin Laden? And will they support Rabbani?” asked Mr Vaeizi, a cleric trained in Iran’s holy city of Qom.

Mr Rabbani’s anti-Taliban Afghan “embassy” in Tehran says their president is in north-east Afghanistan and boasts that the Northern Alliance could bring down the Taliban within a week, with US help.

According to Mr Vaeizi, Hezb-e Wahdat has 10,000 fighters and its leader, Karim Khalili, is in northern Bamian province. Mr Vaeizi claimed the faction could muster a 100,000-strong army from among the 2m or so Afghan refugees in Iran and attack the Taliban over the border. But Iran had refused permission, he told the FT.

Other leading Northern Alliance members – also former foes now supported by Iran – include Ismail Khan, former ruler of Herat and like the late Mr Masood an ethnic Tajik, and Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek.

Another prominent Afghan fighter based in Tehran, but opposed to the Northern Alliance and any US intervention, is Gulbuddin Hikmatyar. His fundamentalist Hezb-e Islami party was the main Pashtun force supported by Pakistan and the US against the Soviets. Although named prime minister by Mr Rabbani, he later fell out with and fought the coalition mujahideen government, and after the Taliban displaced him as the main Pashtun figure, he sought refuge in Iran in 1996.

From his villa in northern Tehran, Mr Hikmatyar told the FT he would resist any US attack and denounced the Northern Alliance’s response as disgraceful.

“If Afghanistan is attacked we have no choice but to defend our country,” he said. Asked if he would form an alliance with the Taliban, his fellow Pashtuns and former foes, he replied: “It’s not a question of joining the Taliban, we will be among the Afghans defending our country.”

Mr Hikmatyar said he had been in contact with both the Taliban and the US. The Taliban had told him they would not hand over their “guest” and Washington’s prime suspect – Osama bin Laden – denies his involvement. The US had asked in vain for his support, he said.

It is not clear whether Mr Hikmatyar can find or will be given a role by Iran as the Pashtun alternative to a defeated Taliban, although most sides in the conflict agree that any broad-based government in Afghanistan must include members of the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group. The US-based lobby group, Human Rights Watch, said in a recent report on Afghanistan that Mr Hikmatyar controlled few military or political resources. But Mr Hikmatyar and the Shia Hezb-e Wahdat both agree that the former king, 86-year-old Zahir Shah, is not an acceptable figure to head even a temporary government.

Both sides describe the Rome-based former monarch, who is seen by some in the west as a palatable Pashtun leader, as a US puppet. But to add to the confusion, Mr Rabbani’s representative in Tehran suggested that the former king could play a role.

For the moment, Iran, which came close to war with the Taliban in 1998 after 10 of its diplomats were murdered in Afghanistan, seems to be playing its cards close to its chest.

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