A tense and fragile peace

Print edition : August 03, 2002

The United States-dominated Karzai government in Afghanistan is unable to muster political coherence or credibility; but it is very efficient when it comes to transferring control of precious resources to a small coterie.

TWO events - both occurring less than a month after the Loya Jirga which "elected" the Islamic Transitional Government of Afghanistan (ITGA) - underscore the profound instability and disorder which prevail in Afghanistan in the debris of the war waged by the United States against the Taliban. The first was the July 1 U.S. Air Force bombing of a wedding party in Uruzgan province, which killed 45 civilians, and injured more than a hundred.

To this day, there is no satisfactory explanation as to how the pilot concerned could mistake the celebratory fire from small guns for an anti-aircraft artillery attack. The event has provoked strong protest and anti-U.S. resentment in Afghanistan amidst charges that U.S. soldiers stormed the villagers' homes and prevented people from treating their wounded relatives, while tying the hands of men and women. According to an AFP account: "Many of the injured with broken arms and broken legs died due to loss of blood. Until seven or eight o'clock in the morning the Americans did not allow anyone to help the injured and to cover the bodies. Most of their clothes had been burnt off (in the attack). They kept filming and photographing the naked women."

The second event was the gunning down in broad daylight of Haji Abdul Qadir, one of Afghanistan's three Vice-Presidents, and one of the few major Pashtun figures in the Karzai regime. Qadir was the brother of Abdul Haq, a former commander of Kabul, who was hanged by the Taliban in October last when he sneaked back into the country at the behest of U.S. intelligence agencies.

More pertinently, Qadir was the only major Eastern Pashtun belonging to the Ghilzai tribal group to be included in the ITGA. (Karzai, like King Zahir Shah and Interior Minister Taj Mohammed Wardak, belongs to the Durrani group of Pashtuns who live in the South and in Kandahar.) Qadir's representation was more important on this count than his status as one of the few Pashtuns who joined the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance. Qadir was also a wealthy warlord. His killing is related by many to conflicts over drug-running and other business interests. But it is likely to alienate further the Ghilzais who predominate in Kabul and eastern provinces such as Paktia, Paktika and Khost.

Going by the accounts of two well-informed observers, one German and the other Indian, the situation in Afghanistan is extremely unstable and volatile. It took a turn for the worse with the Loya Jirga, which, ironically, was meant to stabilise and improve matters. Both observers were witness to the many manipulations and devious manoeuvres that took place in Kabul. Both request anonymity.

THE Loya Jirga, composed of 1,500 delegates (themselves handpicked), was the greatest event in post-Taliban Afghanistan after the Bonn conference, which put together the first government, under Hamid Karzai. The difference was that a variety of powers were represented at Bonn, including the U.S., Russia, Iran, Germany and India. But the Loya Jirga was dominated almost exclusively by the U.S. Its formal inaugural session had to be postponed by a day so that America's special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalizdad (a U.S. citizen of Afghan origin) could manipulate the key delegates.

His purpose was to ensure that Hamid Karzai - long close to the U.S. and bound by business and family relations to it - would be made President, rather than King Mohammed Zahir Shah. Shah is of course not hostile to the U.S., but he is his own man. "Karzai is another cup of tea," my source commented. "He is America's man, even puppet."

Khalizdad did not carry his political clout lightly. His interference with the Loya Jirga was visible. He delivered the main address on June 10, and then made the first speech on June 11 too. His presence was heavy in the decision-makers' tents at the Jirga.

The U.S. interest was reflected in the accommodation of the Panjshiri Tajik group in key positions in the government, and in the allotment of critical portfolios to other trusted loyalists who would safeguard U.S. interests. The Panjshiris have emerged as militarily the most important component of the Kazari regime, and as its non-Pashtun mainstay.

Contrary to what many Indians believe, the Panjshiri troika formed by General Mohammed Qasim Fahim, Abdullah Abdullah and Yunus Qanooni, is not an independent-minded formation which is willing to keep a distance from the U.S. Ahmad Shah Masood may have had such an independent trait. But his acolytes and epigones in the troika have already made their peace with the U.S. Indeed, the U.S. is said to be plying them with money and arms.

The Panjshiris have emerged as potentially the main guardians of any assets, such as a pipeline, that might pass through northern or central Afghanistan southwards into Pakistan. They are also the best-organised armed militia in Afghanistan. The government has failed to build - and the international community failed to finance - a unified professional Afghan army or a well-trained police force. Even the International Security Assistance Force, currently manned by the Turks, after the withdrawal of the British, is minuscule in size, temporary in character, and confined to Kabul and its neighborhood.

The U.S. accommodation of the Panjshiris is duly reflected in the Karzai Cabinet. Karzai has retained Fahim as Defence Minister and Abdullah (former Northern Alliance spokesperson) as Foreign Minister. He also made Fahim a Vice-President, along with Qadir and Karim Khalili, a Hazara. But former Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni was only given the Education portfolio. However, after he publicly voiced his unhappiness, Qanooni was appointed (Internal) Security Adviser to the President.

This is a major promotion, which virtually puts him on a par with the 80-year-old Interior Minister Taj Wardak. Qanooni is also related to Wardak through the latter's wife, and is expected to play a far more energetic and decisive role than him. The troika's power, derived from its military control of a large area, remains undiluted.

The Karzai Cabinet is heavily dominated by military rather than civilian representatives. Professionals have been generally excluded. There are just three women in the 29-member team. But they continue to be told by assorted clerics, the reactionary Chief Justice and the Law Minister how to behave. The Cabinet is far from representative of different ethnic and interest groups. It is basically unbalanced and lacks legitimacy.

However, eclipsing even these imbalances is the appointment of Ashraf Ghani as Karzai's Finance Minister. Ghani, who has started adding his tribal identity (Ahmedzai) to his name, has been on the staff of the World Bank, besides being an Associate Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore (Maryland). Ghani was educated in Beirut and New York and joined the World Bank in 1991. He has lived in Afghanistan only briefly, during the period from 1977 to 79.

Ghani is in charge of both economic reconstruction and its natural resources. The Bank will naturally have an interest in these. There is speculation that substantial oil and gas reserves exist close to Kabul. If oil exploration here bears fruit, that might obviate the need to lay a pipeline all the way from Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan. However, as a second line of defence, Karzai and Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf in February signed an agreement confirming plans to build a pipeline along the very route that the American oil company, Unocal, had drawn up in the mid-1990s.

One only needs to take a cursory look at Ahmed Rashid's Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia (IB Tauris, London, 2001), to recall the importance of Afghanistan's potential as a key transportation node for Central Asia's oil and gas. Logically, the best route out for oil in the Caspian Basin and in the other Central Asian states lies through Russia. Iran is the next best candidate.

But precisely because the Western powers, especially the U.S., do not wish to give Russia and Iran that important role, they have been keen on a southern route through Afghanistan. Unocal and other U.S. oil companies lobbied powerfully for such pipelines with the Taliban regime in 1995-98 by using high-powered "consultants" and advisers such as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Richard Armitage, Lawrence Eagleburger, Howard Baker, John Sununu and former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Robert Oakley.

Internally, Afghanistan remains largely in the grip of local warlords and tribal chiefs. Even cities such as Kandahar have witnessed conflicts between warlords and centrally appointed Governors. As for the Uzbek-controlled areas in the North, Abdul Rashid Dostum, the notorious warlord, remains in command of Mazar-i-Sharif and collects customs duty on goods crossing the border. Ismail Khan holds a similar position in Herat. It will take a lot of effort to integrate these territories, as well as personalities, into a unified government.

It is by no means clear that this will happen. Karzai's transitional government has just 17 months to go and Afghanistan is still far away from putting together a national administrative system, a judicial system and even establishing proper political parties. As of now, there are only militias and individual warlord-centred Hizbs and Millis.

MEANWHILE, there are few signs that commitments made at the Bonn and Tokyo conferences on reconstruction assistance will materialise. Here too, the U.S. controls the purse-strings. Its interests are far too narrow for it to want to promote a generous package of reconstruction aid. Indeed, the U.S., influenced by the earlier British-Imperial and the more recent Soviet experience, does not want to maintain a large number of ground troops in Afghanistan, through which to control territory directly and closely. (It sees that as a potential quagmire.)

Rather, the U.S. is keen to invest resources in a huge, well-protected, fortress-like air base, which it is now building at Bagram, the principal airport near Kabul. This base will give the U.S. vantage over a strategically crucial vast command area stretching from Iran to China and from Central Asia to South Asia. Such direct, heavy U.S. presence does not bode well for South-west Asia's and South Asia's future.

As a footnote, it should be added that the Indian government risks marginalisation within Afghanistan. India enjoys much goodwill there. It maintained close relations with the Northern Alliance through medical, military and other assistance during the Taliban period. It has since also tried to establish contact with the Pashtuns and other tribal groups. It has announced a $100-million aid package, of which amount a third has already been spent. Some of the aid will take the shape of physical objects such as aircraft (being donated by Air-India) and buses (25 of which were handed over in August).

However, rather than cultivate independent contacts and advocate autonomous policies, New Delhi appears to be playing second fiddle to Washington. This is partly explained by its preoccupation with countering possible Pakistani influence in Afghanistan, which is likely to be exercised through Pashtun groups - there are more ethnic Pashtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. There is also the fear that Pakistan's secret agencies could mobilise pro-Taliban Islamists and use them in Kashmir. But the biggest reason is the overwhelming importance New Delhi attaches to its "strategic partnership" with the U.S., even at the cost of facilitating Washington's entry as a major military power in the region, with a base of its own.

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