The International Herald Tribune, November 13, 2001

Fall of Kabul Could Lead to a Bloodbath, Officials Warn

Pamela Constable and Molly Moore Washington Post Service

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan As opposition forces took control of key cities in Afghanistan and swept closer to the capital, Kabul, Pakistani officials and international observers warned Monday that an ethnic bloodbath could result if the Western coalition and the United Nations did not move speedily to impose security and establish an interim government.

United Nations officials in Islamabad said that they had received unconfirmed reports of looting, civilian abductions, gun battles and possible summary executions in Mazar-i-Sharif, a city of 250,000 that was seized by the Northern Alliance, the Afghan opposition militia, over the weekend. They also said that an international aid warehouse there had been attacked and looted.

UN and Pakistani officials said that the unexpected swiftness of the Northern Alliance advance had left a dangerous political void in Afghanistan, 90 percent of which has been ruled by the Taliban militia since 1996. Some warned that the country could collapse in a volatile, north-south geographic split between ethnic groups.

If opposition forces enter Kabul, and the international community does not bring in armed reinforcements or announce concrete plans to form a broad-based interim government within the next several days, the officials said, Afghanistan could erupt in a chaotic reprise of the 1990s civil conflict among Afghan warlords that left many thousands dead and the nation in ruins.

"The United Nations must move with alacrity," said one Pakistani official. "If a political dispensation is not put in place quickly, they will all be at each other's throats."

With the military sweep moving far more swiftly than foreign efforts to prepare a broad-based interim government in Kabul, Pakistani and foreign observers said that they feared warlords with long-standing grudges would now control major areas of the country before police forces or a temporary government could be put in place.

"There is not much more than a 48- to 72-hour window of opportunity left, and then it's gone," said one Afghan observer. "The Northern Alliance now has almost half of Afghanistan, and where the hell is the political process?"

According to a UN Afghan expert, retreating Taliban forces have been telling local Pashtun tribal leaders that "evil forces" are taking control and that Pashtuns must join with the Taliban to "defend their very existence."

Unless the coalition or the UN quickly offer Pashtun groups an alternative, the expert and others said, these groups may have little choice but to join forces with the Taliban for fear of reprisals by advancing Northern Alliance forces.

Monday, sketchy reports reaching UN officials in Pakistan indicated that violence against civilians had already begun to take place in Mazar-i-Sharif, where the alliance seized control over the weekend. The officials said that they had received numerous but unconfirmed reports of looting, kidnappings, gun battles and executions in the city.

"Every time Mazar has changed hands in the past, violent atrocities have occurred,' said Stephanie Bunker, a spokesperson for the UN coordination mission for Afghanistan in Islamabad. Since the weekend, she said, uncomfirmed reports were coming in "of violence and summary executions there."

A spokesperson for the World Food Program, a relief arm of the UN operating in Afghanistan, said that the situation in Mazar-i-Sharif was "volatile," with reports of "looting, civilian abductions and street battles." The spokesperson also said that a food program warehouse there had been looted over the weekend, with 89 tons of food stolen.

"These things get out of control," said one international observer. The alliance has neither disciplined forces nor effective communication, he said. The only remedy is to get UN political officers "on the ground" to manage and protect groups who want to surrender.

During the past five years, Taliban and Northern Alliance forces have waged a see-sawing battle for control of Mazar and the surrounding provinces, and both sides have been accused of committing horrific abuses.

In addition to the danger of anti-Pashtun violence by advancing Northern Alliance forces, some Pakistani and international observers said Monday that they also feared bloodshed among the rival ethnic groups within the alliance.

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