WASHINGTON’S decision to renew friendships with the Northern Alliance for its war against al-Qa’ida and the Taliban provides clues as to what George W. Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard mean by “our values”.
The Northern Alliance, described by British journalist Robert Fisk as a “confederacy of warlords, patriots, rapists and torturers”, is essentially the same people who ravaged Afghanistan in the 1990s after the Soviet-backed regime collapsed, paving the way for the seizure of the capital by the Taliban in 1996. That the arrival of the Taliban was widely welcomed by the people of Afghanistan as a relief from the depredations imposed by the Northern Alliance — or mujaheddin, as they were then known — provides some indication of the modus operandi of the West’s new friends.
The citizens of Kabul, especially women, have good reason to regard the prospect of their return with horror. Switch to 1989. In Afghanistan the anti-Soviet mujaheddin fighters are on the verge of driving the Red Army from their country. The strategy of the CIA and Pakistani intelligence to recruit, arm and finance the most cruel and fanatical Afghani warriors they could find was paying dividends. Cheered on by the mujaheddin’s supporters in the West — including aspiring Afghanistan specialist William Maley — Afghanistan’s “freedom fighters” began to visit Western capitals to shore up their support.
A favourite of the Saudi government — and the largest recipient of US aid — was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of Hizb-I-Islami and described by a former US ambassador to Afghanistan as a “nut, an extremist and a very violent man”. Hekmatyar gained notoriety in the ’70s for throwing acid on the faces of Afghan women who refused to wear the veil and later as one of the region’s leading narco-traffickers. He is allegedly a close friend of Osama bin Laden, whom he claims is innocent of the September 11 attacks. Hekmatyar wanted to meet Australia’s foreign minister Gareth Evans, who was under pressure from Washington and Riyadh to give encouragement and legitimacy to people Ronald Reagan described as the “moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers”.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade strongly advised Evans not to meet the Hizb-I-Islami leader, reminding him of Hekmatyar’s record of atrocities and drug running. Evans ignored the advice and gave Hekmatyar the photo opportunity he was seeking. Not since Bob Hawke hosted a dinner for Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu has there been a more embarrassing and discreditable diplomatic moment.
Only a month after liberating Kabul from the Soviet-backed regime in April 1992, the foreign minister’s new friend turned on his fellow mujaheddin because he felt they were not offering him enough power in the new government. For the next two years Hekmatyar’s forces shelled the capital with their US and Saudi-supplied weaponry, killing more than 25,000 civilians and wounding 100,000 others, while more than half of the population fled the city in misery and desperation. The city’s water and electricity supplies were cut off by Hekmatyar, who took the lead in bombing and terrorising civilians. More than 70 per cent of Kabul was reduced to rubble in a conflict between warlords.
Amid these internecine conflicts the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, emerged in 1995 and soon drove the splintered mujaheddin into exile in Iran, Iraq and into a small slither of territory in northern Afghanistan, where they have remained until now.
Today, Hekmatyar remains in exile in Iran, worried that he is being frozen out of efforts to establish a post-Taliban political order in Afghanistan. As a consequence, he has declared war on just about everyone — the US, the Northern Alliance, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, ex-king Zahir Shah and the Taliban — which suggests he is as unstable as he is ungrateful. But we should not be surprised if the US, Russia and Iran agree to bring him back into play in what one senior US official describes as a “loose federation”, which Evans believes should also include some Taliban elements. Perhaps on his return to Afghanistan, Hekmatyar will look up his old friend in the ALP?
Scott Burchill is a lecturer in international relations at Deakin University