The Northern Alliance's sudden victories in Afghanistan may be good news for the West but the bad news is not far behind. The Uzbek, Tadjik and Hazara gunmen who make up this rag-tag army have a bloody reputation for torturing and executing prisoners which – if resumed in the coming days – will plunge America and Britain into a moral abyss.
Chilling stories of more than 100 pro-Taliban Pakistani fighters shot dead after their surrender in Mazar-i-Sharif – and of Alliance gunmen "roaming the streets'' of the abandoned city – will not come as a surprise to those who are aware of the atrocities committed by America's new allies during the 1992-96 fighting in Kabul.
For the Americans – and for the minuscule British component of the West's military forces inside Afghanistan – the behaviour of the Northern Alliance presents a grave problem. As our "foot-soldiers" are in Afghanistan, we cannot disclaim responsibility for human rights abuses by the Alliance's gunmen; yet neither the Americans nor the British appear to have tried to control the army they are now helping. Indeed, it seems they may not even be able to prevent the Alliance from entering Kabul.
The massacres committed by malicious fighting in the name of outside powers have regularly brought shame upon their more powerful allies. The Contras in Nicaragua and the Phalangist militiamen in Lebanon contaminated their respective American and Israeli masters – the latter in the notorious Palestinian camp massacres of Sabra and Chatila in 1982. A glance at the Alliance's track record of rape, pillage and street executions in Kabul between 1992 and 1996 suggests that the so-called Allies – America, Britain and just about anyone else who wants to join in – have good reason to exert their influence over the newly victorious militiamen from the north of Afghanistan.
In Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat there are comparatively few Pashtun communities, which traditionally favour the Taliban.
A bit further south the Alliance will find itself among its ethnic enemies. In 1997, Mazar's Hazara defenders killed more than 600 Taliban militiamen who had taken over the city and then massacred dozens of Pakistani students who had accompanied the Taliban into the region. In later bloodbaths, thousands of Taliban prisoners were shot into mass graves, with dozens more Pakistanis. A Northern Alliance turncoat, General Pahlawan Malik, subsequently executed 2,000 Taliban prisoners of war who had been tortured and starved before being put to death.
Many were drowned in wells. Others met a more carefully planned death. One of General Malik's generals recalled: "At night when it was quiet and dark we took about 150 Taliban prisoners, blindfolded them, tied their hands behind their backs and drove them in truck containers out to the desert. We lined them up 10 at a time, in front of holes in the ground, and opened fire. It took about six nights.''
On other occasions Taliban prisoners were locked inside containers in mid-summer; 1,250 were deliberately asphyxiated in this way, their corpses dragged from the containers, blackened by the heat.
Could it happen again? There is no reason to believe the Alliance has been taking lessons in human rights. It has been receiving ammunition from Russia and logistics from the United States. Photographs in yesterday's Pakistani papers showed Alliance gunmen leading a small party of Western troops through the terrain of northern Afghan-istan. But our soldiers are highly unlikely to have been distributing copies of the Geneva Convention to their new friends.