Karzai's burden

Print edition : January 05, 2002

Peace has had a promising start in Afghanistan, but how long it will last depends on the actions of the various players involved.

PEACE in Afghanistan. To many observers it was an impossible prospect until recently, and in the perception of a number of them it still remains elusive. However, in relative terms, peace has taken off in the war-ravaged country on a more promising note than expected.

It is not that the road ahead is straight and smooth for Afghanistan, but the need for peace is overpowering. But is the overwhelming desire on the part of people for peace enough to conquer all odds? The designs and actions of the various players within and outside Afghanistan will decide it. The effort in Afghanistan today is to help the pluses outdo the minuses on the ground.

Interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai, who took over the reins on December 22, has inherited a country that is pulverised by war and inundated by famine, and where a generation of people have grown up amid religious oppression of the Taliban version of Islam. He has been given a mere six months to set the ball rolling, and he has a 30-strong Executive Council comprising Ministers of different, and often mutually suspicious, ethnicities and allegiances.

Afghanistan's interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai.-WEDA/AFP

Karzai hails from the powerful Popalzai tribe of the Kandahar region. He was seen as the United States' point man in post-war Afghan politics. His job hence includes both running the new establishment and gaining legitimacy for himself. Pashtuns, who comprise 40 per cent of the Afghan population, have been perceivably ignored in the new set-up. Those who are in the Council have been given minor portfolios and are not considered to be representative of the tribe. Pashtuns are paying the price for supporting the Taliban, but without their support there is little chance for lasting peace.

Nevertheless, the semblance of a government in Kabul is an achievement in itself. The defeat of the Taliban and the implementation of the Bonn accord offer hope for peace and reconstruction if Karzai can successfully iron out the ethnic imbalances. More important, the head of the interim set-up has to ensure that the international community remains committed to the goal of reconstruction of Afghanistan, and not for strategic gains alone.

Questions continue to be asked about the real intentions of the U.S.-led coalition in the region. Doubts are beginning to be raised as to how the two main targets of the coalition - Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar - have managed to escape the dragnet despite the relentless bombing campaign that lasted over three months. Some observers at least cannot help but compare it with the war waged by the U.S. on Iraq in 1990.

The U.S. humbled Saddam Hussein and his military might in no time. But 11 years later Saddam Hussein continues to rule the roost. There has been a great deal of debate whether the real aim of the U.S. in the war against Iraq was to gain a foothold in West Asia. It is ironical but true that Osama turned against the U.S. in protest against the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, his homeland.

Observers wonder if the real aim of the U.S. in launching a war against Afghanistan was to establish its military presence in the region with an eye on the vast mineral and oil resources in the Central Asian Republics. The noises emanating from Washington and the Pentagon on the need for the U.S.-led military troops to be present in the region as long as necessary only add to the suspicions.

For the Karzai administration the mysterious escape of Osama and Mullah Omar has turned out to be a double-edged weapon. On the one hand his administration cannot breathe easy as long as they, along with their band of faithful men, remain elusive. On the other, it provides a valid excuse for the U.S.-led coalition to prolong its presence in Afghanistan. Incidentally, the bombing campaign and the duration of stay of the U.S.-led coalition have constituted the first bone of contention between the Karzai set-up and the U.S.

Karzai has welcomed the presence of the force, as have several commanders, tribal elders and ordinary Afghans who are eager to see the peacekeepers prevent a return to the anarchy of the 1990s. But the powerful Defence Minister, Mohammad Fahim, said the world's most wanted man had probably left Afghanistan for the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. Significantly, he urged a speedy end to the U.S. bombing raids which are blamed for hundreds of civilians killed since October 7. His call came after an aerial raid on an eastern province killed 65 people who were in a convoy of vehicles carrying guests to his own inauguration.

The presence of the U.S.-led forces in the region for an indefinite period is a matter of concern not only to the Afghans but also to some of their important neighbours. China, for instance, is uneasy at the prospect of a long-term stay of U.S.-led forces. Independent observers see motives other than Osama and Al Qaeda in the entry of U.S. forces into the region.

The impression of a relative calm in Afghanistan is actually deceptive. Reports from different parts of the country suggest that the law and order situation has deteriorated rapidly. A Dutch journalist who returned to Islamabad after spending two weeks in Afghanistan told Frontline that he had to hire half a dozen guards armed with Kalashnikovs for his safety.

"It was a frightening experience despite having guards. Travelling by road in Afghanistan is not advisable. The warlords of the pre-Taliban days are back in business and you have to pay them hefty sums for safe passage," said Harald Doornbos, South Asia correspondent of the National Dutch Radio.

Karzai is also confronted with the problem of reckless and irresponsible statements by some of his ministerial colleagues. The way the Defence, Interior and Foreign Ministers, a powerful trio, have gone about targeting Pakistan in the last few days has proved to be an embarrassment for him.

While Karzai is trying his best to send across a signal of friendship, the trio has not missed an opportunity to hit out at Islamabad and the Musharraf regime. They may have valid reasons to be angry with the military government, particularly for the manner in which it went out of its way to promote the Taliban, but it has its implications for peace and stability in Afghanistan.

Karzai appears to be conscious of his limitations. One of the first few decisions taken by his government was to adopt the Shariah (the Islamic law). It is an acknowledgement of the fact that though the Taliban militia may be a thing of the past, the fervour whipped up by it in the name of Islam is very much alive. There is every danger of the Taliban phenomenon resurfacing if the new set-up gets carried away by the wah-wahs from the Western media on the evidence of a new-found zeal among the people for all that the Taliban detested.

One of the biggest challenges came from Gen. Rashid Dostum, who was upset at being kept out of the mainstream of the new government. Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek who controls the largest northern city, Mazar-e-Sharif, with his own private army, was angry because the key Ministries of Defence, Foreign Affairs and the Interior went to an ethnic Tajik group from the Panjshir valley. Karzai appointed him Deputy Defence Minister, aiming to defuse a potentially disruptive force.

Another commitment that the U.S. has made after pulverising Afghanistan is that of economic aid. An estimated $20 billion in aid is required for rehabilitation and reconstruction. This aid flow, however, will commence only after an internationally acceptable level of peace is established. And without monetary backing, the peace plan may remain just on paper.

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