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IUK: Fisk - Our friends in the North are just as treacherous ...
By Robert Fisk
20/11/2001 2:16 am Tue
'When our Northern Alliance boys go on a
killing spree, we have to take responsibility'
19 November 2001
When the Iranian army massed on the western border of
Afghanistan in 1998 and prepared to storm across the frontier to
avenge the Taliban slaughter of its diplomats - and its Afghan
allies - in Mazar-i-Sharif, it received a message from the Taliban
leadership in Kandahar.
"You will decide the date of your invasion," came the
two-sentence communiqué from Mullah Omar's men. "We will
decide the date of your departure." The Iranians wisely held their
fire. It may have been a reply from the Taliban - but it was a very
Afghan reply. The US and Britain - or the "coalition" as we are
constrained to call them - are now getting similar treatment. The
Northern Alliance watched the American bombers clear the road to
Kabul. They were grateful. Then they drove into Kabul and now
they are asking the British to leave. Poor old Jack Straw had
trouble contacting the Afghan foreign minister to sort things out.
The Afghan satellite phone was not switched on. You bet it wasn't.
The mystery is why we ever expected these people to obey us.
Afghan rules don't work that way. Ethnic groups and tribes and
villagers don't take orders from foreigners. They do deals. The
West wanted to use the Northern Alliance as its foot-soldiers in
Afghanistan. The Alliance wanted to use the American bombers to
help it occupy the capital. For the Tajiks and Uzbeks and Hazaras,
it was all very straightforward. They destroy the Taliban - and then
take over Afghanistan, or as much as they can swallow. And if
they indulge in a little revenge here and there - 500 or 600
Pakistani fighters massacred in a bloodbath at Mazar, a possible
human rights atrocity in the making in Kunduz - what's so
Even now, faced with the bitter fruits of our coalition with the
Northern Alliance, we are reacting with an odd replay of our
Bosnian adventure: calling for restraint while at the same time
reminding the world that the Afghans are a warlike, cruel people.
As the Alliance gunmen prepare to storm into Kandahar, Mr Blair
calls for "restraint". Yet the western media are now set upon
informing their readers and viewers that nothing more than a
massacre could have been expected of our foot-soldiers. An Irish
journalist came on the line to me last week with a familiar
complaint. Wasn't I being a bit finicky, getting upset about a little
slaughter in Mazar? Weren't the Afghans steeped in age-old
traditions of warfare? Wasn't it a bit much to be asking the Afghans
to behave in a civilised way?
I tried to remind my interviewer that Afghanistan's civilisation
predated Ireland's - and indeed much of Europe's - and that the
missiles, tanks, artillery pieces and rocket-propelled grenades with
which the Afghans were destroying each other had been provided
by the civilised outside powers. Hadn't I listened to this same
nonsense about "age old traditions of warfare" peddled by the
British foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind when he was trying to
wash his hands of Bosnia?
The real point, however, is that we cannot adopt someone's army
as our own and then deny responsibility for its behaviour. We
didn't allow the Germans to do that after the Second World War.
And when our Northern Alliance boys go on a killing spree, we
have to take responsibility for the bloodshed that results.
Take the case of Kunduz. More than 50 US planes have been
bombarding the Taliban lines around the area in a deliberate
attempt to break the morale of the defenders and allow the Northern
Alliance gunmen to capture the district.
The Alliance has given the Taliban a deadline. It's pretty clear
what will happen if the Taliban ignore that deadline. They are
going to be killed in cold blood. I hope this is not true. I fear it is.
But are we going to shrug our shoulders when the knives come
out? Are we going to admit we helped the Alliance to gain the
upper hand but then eschew all interest in the results? Isn't there
even a faint, horrible parallel with Osama bin Laden? If he merely
inspired murderers to commit the crimes against humanity of 11
September, surely he was guilty of the death of 5,000 people. But
if we facilitate Alliance murderers, it seems we are innocent of the
Meanwhile, outside Kabul, the familiar Northern Alliance anarchy
is falling into place. The warlords of Jalalabad are feuding over
who rules which part of Nangahar province. The Pashtu tribal
leaders around Kandahar are threatening to fight the Northern
Alliance. Hazara elements of the alliance are threatening their Tajik
and Uzbek comrades if they do not receive a sufficient share of
power in Kabul.
Amid all this, in clops the poor old UN donkey, dragged into the pit
to undertake the most impossible task ever faced by statesmen in
the history of the modern world: to sort out Afghanistan. Would the
Alliance please be kind enough to allow the Pashtuns to have a
proportionate share in the government? Could we have a few
moderate Taliban - perhaps with shorter beards - in a
broad-based administration? I can just see the Afghan delegates
to these talks when they hear the phrase broad-based.
The only broad-based phenomenon the Afghans know about are
ceasefires. And even then, only for Afghans. The most sinister
element of the Kunduz ceasefire offer is that it only applies to
Pashtuns - not to foreign (ie Arab) fighters - trapped in the area.
They, presumably, are to be massacred or - in the chilling words
of a BBC reporter with the Alliance yesterday - "given no quarter".
My own experience of armies that give no quarter is that they
intend to commit war crimes - as has already happened in Mazar
- and that this will only stiffen the resolve of those men who
escape the bloodbath. For it is worth remembering the moral basis
upon which we are prosecuting this war. This is, remember, a war
"for civilisation". It is a war for "democracy". It is a war of "good
against evil". It is a war in which "you are either for us or against
So when we see the pictures of the next massacre, let's ask
ourselves whose side we are on. On the side of the victims or the
murderers? And if the side of good happens to coincide with the
side of the murderers, what does that make us? We're hearing a lot
about the Allied success in the war. But the war has only just