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What is the Northern Alliance?
Sabrina Saccoccio, CBC News Online
September 2001

The Northern Alliance is an Afghanistan Islamic rebel faction actively and belligerently opposing its country's Taliban regime since taking control in September 1996 under leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

  • INDEPTH: U.S. Striking Back
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Why should the United States care about the faction?

The rebel force and possibly U.S. President George W. Bush's most strategically-placed friend is a band of ragged and ill-assorted warriors who've managed to resist the Taliban's rule for five years now.

Just after the attacks on the World Trade Center, Northern Alliance guards shackled some of their 2,500 Taliban captives. Supporting a faction capable of such direct action within Afghanistan's borders, may be America's best hope for retaliation and a key force in its war against global terrorism. Bush has gathered as much, naming the Alliance as its vanguard against Afghanistan’s Taliban government. And now, experts have gone so far as to speculate that American forces are arming the rebels in support of its plight.

How is the group armed?

Northern Alliance fighters, whose support base is in northern Afghanistan, number in the tens of thousands. And much like the Taliban’s, the group’s weaponry includes antiquated Russian fighter jets and helicopter gunships, mostly left over from Soviet occupation. The number of weapons amassed by the faction is uncertain but The Associated Press reports of various soldiers with Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) and other artillery.

Is the Northern Alliance currently engaged in conflict?

A spokesperson for the group confirmed intense fighting between the rebels and the Taliban. He said several of his soldiers were wounded but that the Alliance captured several villages in the Sangcharak district, killed six Taliban soldiers and took weapons including artillery, tanks, mortars and rocket launchers.

How much territory does it control?

The Northern Alliance claims five per cent Afghanistan, while the Taliban controls between 90 to 95 per cent.

Who does the group hold captive?

A Panjsher Valley prison built by the opposition four months ago is said to hold about 2,500 Taliban captives, including 300 at Doub, 21 of whom are foreigners from Pakistan, China and Arab nations. Besides the episode after the attacks on America, the Alliance says it permits its prisoners a considerable amount of freedom, allowing them to gather firewood and leave the grounds to pray. Although prisoners live in harsh conditions sleeping 30 to a cell, the rebels insist they will not kill POWs hoping one day to exchange them for Taliban-held rebels.

What countries support the faction?

Iran and Russia have already openly offered support to the Northern Alliance, and American officials are praising Russia's pledge to the rebels.

"We very much appreciate the offers of support," says U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow. "I think that Russian support for the leaders of the Northern Alliance is well known and could have an important role in the coming weeks in trying to put maximum pressure on the Taliban to, in the best case, to turn over Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants."

Can the United States trust the Northern Alliance?

Trusting a group with a history of mismatched allegiances and inhumane tendencies could prove to be a risky move for the United States. Figures leading the faction were once those dragging Afghanistan through a period of aggression plagued by plundering, violence and rape. One Alliance member Rashid Dostum abandoned his post as general in Afghanistan's communist army, turned on his President Najibullah and joined the rebels. And it was just a year ago that reports suggested the Alliance was to collapse.

Who else is a part of the group?

The group is lead by Burhanuddin Rabbani who is recognized by most world governments as the country's legitimate ruler. He is a former Kabul University professor of Islamic law and became leader in 1992 after the Mujahadeen ousted Najibullah. Rabbani replaced Ahmed Shah Massood after he was killed by a suicide bomber just two days prior to the attacks on Washington and New York Ethnically, the rebels are diverse. Rabbani is a Tajik, the Shiites are Hazara and Dostum is Uzbek.

U.S. Striking Back
Indepth coverage of the war on terrorism

Key figures: Look for a profile on Northern Alliance leader Burhanuddin Rabbani more>