Testing times

Print edition : December 22, 2002

Hamid Karzai, leader of the interim government in Afghanistan.-REUTERS TELEVISION

The Bonn accord can be a master plan for peace as it offers Afghans three chances to establish a working government.

 

AFGHANISTAN and anarchy. Will this association be broken this time round? Five power-sharing agreements in the past 14 years have failed to bring order to the land of warring tribes and ethnic groups that are suspicious of one another forever. Is the interim government of Hamid Karzai, which assumes office on December 22, any better equipped to achieve the goal? The odds are one too many but there is a big plus point: the need for peace. However, in Afghanistan peace has depended not so much on those who participate in the peace process as on those who do not.

 

On December 5, after nine days of hard bargaining, a new blueprint for peace was born in Bonn. That itself was a virtual miracle, for voices of dissent and dissatisfaction had risen sharply during the dialogue.

Back in Afghanistan, the Taliban is almost vanquished. Kandahar fell rather meekly, just as Kabul did, but the two key targets, Mullah Mohammad Omar and Osama bin Laden, have vanished without a trace. Merciless strafing goes on over the cave complexes, already pulverised cities and even prisons full of prisoners of war (PoWs), even as key Taliban figures move out of the country reportedly to the border areas in Pakistan. Foreign troops continue to land in order to guard key places, amid resentment from the local people waiting for food and aid.

In this situation, the United Nations-sponsored blueprint for peace and democracy has the daunting task of replacing decades of administrative vacuum. And successful implementation is its real test. When the four Afghan delegations began the negotiations, the expectations were not really high. However, the realisation that a failure of the talks would result in civil war in their homeland and the lure of an aid of approximately $10 billion, led them to an agreement. Besides, there was immense international pressure to enable U.N. Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi to pull off a diplomatic coup.

The agreement sought to be as balanced and practical as possible. The participants decided to go in for a consensus chairman and five deputy chairpersons leading a 30-strong Cabinet for six months, until a Loya Jirga, or grand tribal council, could be convened and a transitional government established. This transitional set-up has been mandated to hold elections at the end of two years and thus deliver the country into democracy and peace. Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun tribal leader, was chosen for the top job. His name was announced from Bonn while he was fighting against the Taliban in Kandahar.

Karzai is the head of the influential Kandahar-based Popalzai tribe of Pashtuns. A strong supporter of former King Zahir Shah, he has served as Deputy Foreign Minister in the Mujahideen government in early 1990s. Once briefly allied with the Taliban, he could not agree with its extremist interpretation of Islam. The Taliban is suspected of killing his father in 1999. He has spent most of his time in exile and is considered the chosen candidate of the United States. He returned to Afghanistan in October to rouse the Pashtuns against the Taliban and narrowly escaped the fate of Abdul Haq, another U.S.-supported Pashtun leader who was captured and executed by the Taliban.

But then, what are his odds? Though Karzai's role and the agreement were welcomed by the international community and most Afghans, voices of dissent were heard within hours of the signing of the agreement. Karzai has the crucial U.S. vote in his favour. but deciding on him was not easy. After all, the Northern Alliance is a non-Pashtun set-up and the most powerful Afghan group. It has 18 seats in the 30-member Cabinet and will control three key Ministries. Its leader Mohammad Fahim got Defence, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Foreign Affairs and Yunus Qanooni, Interior. The Rome process or the second largest delegation in Bonn, which represented Zahir Shah, managed eight Ministries, including the crucial Finance and Reconstruction.

In Afghanistan, Pashtuns constitute nearly 40 per cent of the population. They live in the drought-hit south. The minority Tajik and Uzbek areas up north hold the oil and gas wealth of the nation. With 11 Pashtuns, eight Tajiks, five Hazaras, three Uzbeks and three members from smaller minorities, the new Cabinet strives for ethnic balancing. However, many people feel that the domination by Tajiks, who hold key posts, has further sharpened the ethnic divide. Pashtun leaders like Ismail Khan, who controls the Herat region, Peshawar-based Pashtun spiritual leader Pir Ahmed Gailani and former Mujahideen commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar have already criticised the arrangement as 'unbalanced'. They believe that the Pashtuns are under-represented; most of them are either exiles or have been given minor portfolios.

The two women members express the desire to break from Taliban traditions, but the task of uplifting half the population is daunting and without any immediate agenda.

These are subtle disagreements. But the bitterness expressed by the ferocious Uzbek warlord General Abdurrashid Dostum, head of the Jumbish-i-milli and 20,000 fighters, who controls the strategic town of Mazar-e-Sharif, is of immediate concern. His faction has been given Mining, Agriculture and Industry, whereas he had an eye on Foreign Affairs. He feels cheated by the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance. "We will not go to Kabul until a proper government is in place," he has said. The suggestion, perhaps, is that he might be ready to wait for the Loya Jirga where the imbalances will get another chance to be ironed out.

Captured Afghans who belong to Al Qaeda in Tora Bora on December 17.-ROMEO GACAD/ AFP

A key figure of the Northern Alliance who is absent in the arrangement is Ismail Khan. His Iran-backed Shia group, Hizb-i-Wahadat, controls the Herat region and has a strong presence in the central Bamiyan area and Kabul. Also missing is Abdul Qadir, a Pashtun leader from the eastern Nangarhar province. The Taliban, too, has just merged with the crowd and its chief commander, Mullah Mohammad Omar, is untraceable. With their brand of Islam still finding strong advocates in the adjoining areas of Pakistan, one cannot rule out guerilla trouble from these areas.

The accord, if implemented properly, can prove to be a master plan for peace as it offers not one but three chances to the Afghans to settle their problems and establish a working government. The nine days in Bonn were like being in a hothouse. The negotiations revealed that none of the power centres was ready to let go. Agreement was tough, yet possible. The Karzai Cabinet provides a breathing space before the Loya Jirga. The six months can be used to iron out further differences and to include those who have stayed away. The grand council then offers another chance for a more satisfying arrangement, which can help hold general elections and give wider representation to the people. But this can fructify only in an atmosphere of peace and mutual trust.

Apart from the composition of the interim government, the Bonn accord stresses the need for an international peace-keeping force - another point of possible dissent in the near future. Though such a neutral force might be essential for the proper functioning of the Karzai-led set-up, it will be tough asking the Northern Alliance forces to vacate the places they have captured. It will also not be easy to persuade other warlords to relinquish control. As it is, Afghans do not relish the presence of foreign troops on their soil. This was evident in the resentment shown by the Northern Alliance when the British landed at Kabul airport to take charge of that lifeline to Afghanistan.

The Western powers see a possibility of tapping the oil and gas resources of Afghanistan as well as to use the country as a transit route to the Caspian oil basin, and hence the accent on peace and an international peace-keeping force. According to analysts, the Soviets came and went and the Taliban was installed and ousted for the same purpose. The calculation is that world powers will keep a close watch on the goings-on in Afghanistan, and for the sake of self-interest, the U.S.-led coalition will not let things deteriorate into civil war and anarchy once again.

The story of Afghanistan in the last three decades is dictated not so much by Afghans and their leaders but by a variety of outside forces. Superpowers and distant and not-so-distant neighbours have all developed stakes in the power equations in the country. It is only natural that the aftermath of September 11 has once again brought the outside factor into full force. Some neighbours have gained and some have lost - not just lost, but lost badly.

Pakistan is struggling to adjust to the new realities in the neighbourhood. Though the Musharraf regime has made all the right noises about how happy it was to see the collapse of the Taliban, it is not happy about those who have replaced it. Would Islamabad sit back and watch the unfolding scenario in Afghanistan? This would be an important question to determine the shape of things to come in the war-ravaged country.

One of the issues disturbing Afghanistan's neighbours is the prospect of long-term presence of U.S.-led forces in the region. Iran and China are two countries that are feeling uneasy. The U.S. has made it clear that it will be a long-drawn-out war and it might stay on for a considerable time. Only time will tell how all these factors will play out.

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