Once-Shunned Northern Alliance Now at Forefront of U.S. Afghan Policy

Three months ago, the State Department saw "no national interest" in supporting Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, a coalition of anti-Taliban forces that controls 10 percent of the country. But now it is considered by some a cornerstone of U.S. military efforts to ferret out terrorist mastermind Usama bin Laden.

The U.S. has increased its contacts with representatives of the alliance in recent days in an attempt to gain a strategic foothold in northern Afghanistan, and Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday that Russia would be stepping up its long-standing support of the alliance.

The military expertise that these troops could offer, experts say, was borne out of the alliance's ties to the Afghan Mujahideen, which drove the Soviets out of the country in 1992, and their help could be essential to any success on the part of U.S. forces there.

"Let's be realistic, Afghans are going to have to find bin Laden in those mountains," says David Wurmser, a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "We need them."

The alliance formed shortly after the United Front, which assumed power after the topple of the Soviet regime in Afghanistan, was ousted from the capital city of Kabul by the Taliban in 1996.

When Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, foreign minister for the United Front, came to the U.S. on at least two occasions this year to ask for help in his country's struggle against the Taliban, his pleas fell mostly on deaf ears.

In an interview with Fox News in July, the foreign minister said he had asked American officials for military and political support for the alliance. Despite the pleas for help, the doors of the Afghan embassy in Washington, D.C., remained closed and the United States refused to recognize any official government in his country.

State Department officials had maintained that there "was no national interest" in helping the Northern Alliance overthrow the Taliban. 

"[The Northern Alliance] does not represent the government or any major city in the country," an official said in July. "The U.S. does not support the Northern Alliance military and would lose our position as peacemakers and be seen as protagonists if we did."

Instead, officials said the primary U.S. objective was to bring bin Laden to justice. It was not to take sides among the various Afghan factions, the official said.

The State Department may have had other reasons to be wary of forging a partnership with the Northern Alliance.

Dr. Frederick Starr, a Central Asian expert at Johns Hopkins School of Strategic and International Studies, said that the United Front has a "deplorable human rights record" despite its lip service paid to democracy and human rights. The alliance has "its own history of drug trafficking" as well, Starr says.

But some argue that the unwillingness of the United States to support the Northern Alliance in recent years may have led directly to the current crisis.

"The U.S. turned its back on Afghanistan and that passive neglect helped the most radical elements seize power in alliance with bin Laden," said Middle East scholar Jim Phillips of the Heritage Foundation.

And now, after assessing the need for allies in the region, officials appear to be warming up to the idea of actively supporting the alliance.

"Now, the Northern Alliance can be an important element in a post-Taliban government for Afghanistan," said Phillips. "They have 15,000 battle-hardened soldiers that would be useful and have important military intelligence on the Taliban."

The alliance has strong ties to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – two former Soviet states now offering logistical support to the U.S. from just north of Afghanistan. Also, it would be a tough military ally if the Americans decided to send troops into the country's wily mountainous region to capture bin Laden.

Heavy fighting between the alliance and the Taliban has intensified in recent days. The escalation began when the alliance's revered military leader, General Ahmed Shad Masood, was assassinated by two suicide bombers connected to the Taliban two days before the attacks on the U.S.