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The U.N. Security Council met late Tuesday to discuss its response to the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan. The focus of that discussion was how to provide urgent aid to the millions of Afghanis who face starvation, but high on agenda was a request from Afghanistan's exiled king, Zahir Shah, to send peacekeeping troops to Kabul in the event of the Taliban's collapse. King Zahir is the lynchpin of Western hopes for a consensus-based government in Kabul that could begin rebuilding the failed state of Afghanistan with international assistance. Maintaining the security of such a government in the face of multiple dangers is a task that may fall to the international community a prospect that is sure to displease the Pentagon in the event that Washington is asked to shoulder a substantial role in a peacekeeping mission. Early indications, though, are that Turkey, NATO's only Muslim member nation, may be slated to provide the bulk of any peacekeeping force.
No good options
President Bush is reportedly stressing that the U.S. can't afford to withdraw its attention from Afghanistan following its defeat for fear that if the country is plunged back into civil war it will remain a breeding ground of terrorism. But stabilizing a post-Taliban regime in Kabul may prove to be as perilous, if not more so, than the effort to overthrow the fundamentalist militia. The reason is simply that the enmities that have torn apart Afghanistan run far deeper than the excesses of the Taliban, and the West has little to work with by way of established alternative political forces on the ground.
The battle-tested Northern Alliance may be fighting the Taliban and holding some 10 percent of Afghanistan, but Washington has sensed its limitations as a replacement government. The Alliance represents only the minority Tajik, Uzbek and Hazari ethnic groups, and carries the backing of Iran, Russia and Moscow's Central Asian allies. Afghanistan cannot be easily ruled by a government that excludes its largest ethnic group, the Pashtun (from which the Taliban are exclusively drawn). Or, for that matter, without the consent of Pakistan, the other key regional player in Afghanistan which has helped the Taliban fight the Northern Alliance.
The U.S. appears, at least for now, to have persuaded the Northern Alliance not to march on Kabul before agreement is reached on a broad-based unity government. And progress is slow. Pakistan, meanwhile, is working overtime to persuade the Taliban to ditch its leader, Mullah Omar, and his close comrade Osama bin Laden, and to join a broadly-based government. Pakistani officials reportedly held meetings in Islamabad with Taliban foreign minister Mullah Mutawakil even as Secretary of State Colin Powell was visiting the city on Tuesday, and its efforts to salvage an "acceptable" Taliban minus the Al Qaeda connection are likely to intensify. Powell and Musharraf on Tuesday both emphasized a role for moderate Taliban elements in a future government, although the Northern Alliance immediately rejected any Taliban presence in a future political arrangement.
Hostility runs deep between the rival Afghan camps that Washington now seeks to bring together in a unity government, partly because it is based on fierce and often bloody ethnic hatreds. The war between Taliban and Northern Alliance has taken a brutal toll on civilians on both sides, and neither side will easily forgive or forget. Even if a "moderate" Taliban breakaway is achieved, it is to be expected that a significant proportion of that movement may fight on against any new government. The Northern Alliance, for its part, remains united by their hatred of the Taliban rather than by any shared vision, and defeat of the common enemy may reopen old wounds among its various tribal factions. Moreover, while many Alliance leaders are inclined to accept the principle of a unity government formed around King Zahir, the Alliance is still nominally loyal to Barhanuddin Rabbani, the president overthrown by the Taliban but who is still recognized by the United Nations. And matters are complicated by Rabbani's opposition to the king and his own desire to resume office.
Making the Balkans look easy
Also, the U.S. strategy for bringing down the Taliban is premised on the instigating the time-honored Afghan tradition of warlords switching loyalties with the fortunes of war. And while that may help break the Taliban's grip on power, it doesn't necessarily make for a very stable next chapter no matter how much money the West is pumping in.
The Taliban, of course, has not yet fallen, and the U.N. Security Council focused on the issue of relief aid. But there was no consensus among council members on peacekeeping hardly surprising, since most established armies would have no greater enthusiasm than their U.S. counterparts for such a risky deployment, and a post-Taliban Afghanistan remains a geopolitical chessboard on which the interests of Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan, India, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and the U.S. all compete. Even as it balanced all of these competing interests, Secretary General Kofi Annan warned that the U.N. would have to move with uncharacteristic nimbleness to avert a tragedy which, he said, would make the Congo and the Balkans look like child's play.