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The third element was the Northern Alliance, a resistance movement whose stronghold was in northeast Afghanistan. Most of the Alliance's forces and leaders were, like Massoud, ethnic Tajiks--a minority in Afghanistan. Massoud controlled less than 10% of the country and had been beaten back by the Taliban in 2000. Nonetheless, by dint of his personality and reputation, Massoud was "the only military threat to the Taliban," says Francesc Vendrell, who was then the special representative in Afghanistan of the U.N. Secretary-General.
And then there was al-Qaeda. The group had been born in Afghanistan when Islamic radicals began flocking there in 1979, after the Soviets invaded. Bin Laden and his closest associates had returned in 1996, when they were expelled from Sudan. Al-Qaeda's terrorist training camps were in Afghanistan, and bin Laden's forces and money were vital to sustaining the Taliban's offensives against Massoud.
By last spring, the uneasy equilibrium among the four forces was beginning to break down. "Moderates" in the Taliban--those who tried to keep lines open to intermediaries in the U.N. and the U.S.--were losing ground. In 2000, Mullah Mohammed Rabbani, thought to be the second most powerful member of the Taliban, had reached out clandestinely to Massoud. "He understood that our country had been sold out to al-Qaeda and Pakistan," says Ahmad Jamsheed, Massoud's secretary. But in April 2001, Rabbani died of liver cancer. By that month, says the U.N.'s Vendrell, "it was al-Qaeda that was running the Taliban, not vice versa."
A few weeks before Rabbani's death, Musharraf's government had started to come to the same conclusion: the Pakistanis were no longer able to moderate Taliban behavior. To worldwide condemnation, the Taliban had announced its intention to blow up the 1,700-year-old stone statues of the Buddha in the Bamiyan Valley. Musharraf dispatched his right-hand man, Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider, to plead with Mullah Omar for the Buddhas to be saved. The Taliban's Foreign Minister and its ambassador to Pakistan, says a Pakistani official close to the talks, were in favor of saving the Buddhas. But Mullah Omar, says a member of the Pakistani delegation, listened to what Haider had to say and replied, "If on Judgment Day I stand before Allah, I'll see those two statues floating before me, and I know that Allah will ask me why, when I had the power, I did not destroy them." A few days later, the Buddhas were blown up.
By summer, Pakistan had a deeper grievance. The country had suffered a wave of sectarian assassinations, with gangs throwing grenades into mosques and murdering clerics. The authorities in Islamabad knew that the murderers had fled to Afghanistan (one of them was openly running a store in Kabul) and sent a delegation to ask for their return. "We gave them lists of names, photos and the locations of training camps where these fellows could be found," says Brigadier Javid Iqbal Cheema, director of Pakistan's National Crisis Management Cell, "but not a single individual was ever handed over to us." The Pakistanis were furious.