washington, dc -- while theUnited States gears up for a seemingly inevitable military conflict in Afghanistan, the Bush administration speaks with great excitement about the support it expects to receive from an anti-Taliban group called the Northern Alliance. Congress is discussing sending the Alliance money and weapons, and the Pentagon reportedly has tentative plans to train it with the help of Special Forces units. Last Friday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the rebels "know the lay of the land" and "can be a lot of help" in a campaign against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. The press has dutifully followed the lead.
Lost, however, amid the hype around these newfound allies, who ruled Afghanistan from 1992 until 1996, is their own troubling history -- including their shocking human rights record.
"Many of their leaders should be indicted for war crimes," says Patricia Gossman, a consultant on human rights in South Asia who has travelled widely in the region. "Some top commanders have records almost as bad as that of the Taliban."
Summing up the group's four years in power, a Human Rights Watch report issued in July says there "was virtually no rule of law" in any of the areas the Alliance controlled and that its constituent members, constantly warring with each other, were guilty of summary executions, arbitrary arrest, torture and "disappearances."
One terrible outburst took place in 1995, when one faction of the group captured a neighbourhood in Kabul. The "troops went on a rampage, systematically looting whole streets and raping women," according to a State Department account.
The level of ignorance about the anti-Taliban rebels is so great that the government and press don't even call the group by its proper name. The Northern Alliance was the name of a coalition of forces, including some in the current anti-Taliban movement, that existed in the early 90s. The organization about which the government and press now speak so fondly is actually called the United National Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, or United Front.
But it was disgust with the United Front that paved the way for the Taliban, which gained power in 96. Since then, the various United Front factions have been mostly on the run, though they have all continued to be responsible for terror attacks.
In 97, troops systematically slaughtered 3,000 captured Taliban, some of whom were stuffed down wells and blown up with hand grenades, according to accounts cited by Human Rights Watch. The United Nations all but ignored the Taliban's demand that it investigate the massacre. Of course, the Taliban was less interested in promoting human rights when it took back the city and slaughtered 8,000 people in the streets.
In late 1999 and early 2000, people fleeing villages near Sangcharak reported to humanitarian workers that United Front troops had carried out summary executions, burned down houses and conducted wide-scale looting. Some of those executed were killed in front of family members.
Even today, the United Front is less of a front than a very loose coalition united by its hatred of the Taliban. It is torn by factional clashes and personal rivalries, with the various partners so mistrustful of each other that they have no united strategy to confront the Taliban.
The United Front's ugly side can't be a surprise to the press, but most reporters and pundits seem to be patriotically turning a blind eye to our new partner's shortcomings. Last weekend, conservative commentator George Will approvingly cited Churchill, who once said that he'd find something good to say about the devil if Hitler invaded hell.
Indeed, as soon as they toppled the leftist government of Afghanistan left behind by the Soviet Union, the mujahedin began internicine conflicts.
By 1994, the two major Shi'a parties within the United Front, Hizb-I Wahdat and Harakat-I Islami, turned on each other. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands fled for refuge in Pakistan. "The country was carved up among the various factions, with many mujahedin commanders establishing themselves as virtual warlords," according to the Human Rights Watch report. "The southern city of Qandahar was particularly precarious. (It) was divided among different forces, and civilians had little security from murder, rape, looting or extortion."
By 1996, the Taliban had taken firm control of the country, though the ISA/United Front still holds Afghanistan's United Nations seat.
Of course, even some people familiar with the United Front say the Bush administration has no choice but to work with it. "The problem now is forming a stable government that won't be a threat to the world," says Barnett Rubin of New York University. "Then you can try to improve human rights."
It's hard to say what a United Front government would look like because the factions of which it is composed have such diverse beliefs and goals. They are Muslim traditionalists who favour a state in which Islam plays a central role but are generally not militants.
But their current embrace of the United States is in part an opportunistic attempt to win military and financial backing.
Gossman believes the U.S. should back efforts to unite an emerging group of tribal elders, former officials from a number of past governments, a variety of exile groups and those United Front officials who are not tainted by their wartime acts.
This group could link up with the so-called Rome Process, which centres around King Zahir Shah (who was deposed in 1973 and lives in Italy), and aims to write a constitution and establish a true national government.
That's a good thing, since under the Taliban the only state activities that function are the military and religious police.
Meanwhile, the UN should ensure that the old warlords don't return to power by establishing a war crimes tribunal to try suspects from the United Front and the Taliban.
"Blindly backing the Front without regard to the human rights records of some of its commanders will just put Afghanistan back to where it was before," Gossman says.