The U.S. failed Afghanistan once before. But has Washington learned from its old mistakes?

ARTHUR KENT October 15 2001


The U.S. failed Afghanistan once before. But has Washington learned from its old mistakes?

ARTHUR KENT October 15 2001


The U.S. failed Afghanistan once before. But has Washington learned from its old mistakes?


Fleets were at sea, warplanes were poised to strike. And they did, over the weekend, bringing the waiting game to an end. Washington had laid the groundwork carefully—advance scouting teams of America’s special ground forces likely sized up the battleground in Afghanistan even as Washington rallied support among its traditional allies. But lost in the preparations, and then the roar of the attacks, was any consensus on what kind of Afghanistan should emerge from the conflict. “We’re confused and divided,” one senior congressional aide explained from Capitol Hill. “The old Pakistan-led approach to Afghanistan dies hard.” That’s a reference to the United States’ reliance on the Pakistani military, from 1979 to the early 1990s, to channel military aide to Afghan warlords, who eventually caused more bloodshed among themselves than against Soviet occupation forces. “You’d think Sept. 11 would have jolted everyone into realizing we need to design a whole new political creed for Afghanistan. Think again.”

Nowhere is this chronic dysfunction more evident than in the lukewarm response of the Bush administration to attempts to focus national reconciliation around Afghanistan’s exiled former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah. From Sept. 29 to Oct. 1, a disparate array of Afghan political and military leaders gathered at the 86-year-old former ruler’s residence in Rome. Among those in attendance: Ahmed Zia, younger brother of antiTaliban commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, assassinated by suicide bombers two days before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Massoud’s Northern Alliance has never before signalled such enthusiasm for the ex-king’s proposed role in a peace setdement. To veteran observers of the Afghanistan conflict, the meeting was a watershed event, an encouraging sign that Zahir Shah’s symbolic intervention could, at last, be the mechanism for the convening of a truly effective Loya Jirga—or traditional grand council —which could create, in time, a government to replace the Taliban.

But the Bush administration at first did little more than signal its approval. Its attention was directed elsewhere—at Pakistan. There, the military, having suffered the ignominy of President Pervez Musharraf ditching their Taliban protégés and siding with the U.S., is engaged in a frantic rearguard action. In order to salvage as much influence as possible in a post-Taliban Afghanistan, the chiefs of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence branch were reportedly promoting two options to Musharraf, and, indirectly, to Washington. The first would involve the use of the ISI’s dubious offices to bring about a coup in Kabul—in effect, a civil war between moderate and hardline Taliban factions. The second would be to install Abdul Haq, an old ally of both the Pakistanis and the Americans from the anti-Soviet mujahedeen campaign of the 1980s.

To newcomers on the Afghan scene— and to a U.S. government scrambling to catch up on everything it has missed since turning its back on the region after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989—Abdul Haq enjoys a reputation as a distinguished former guerrilla commander who lost a leg to a Soviet anti-personnel mine. He is a political aspirant with many qualities that are right for the times. He is of Afghanistan’s ethnic-majority Pashtuns, the southern tribes that must be redirected from their support, since 1996, of the Taliban. He talks supportively of the former king and proposes a broad-based government should the Taliban fall.

But his close and long-standing connections to the ISI, together with his proven inability to work with ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras—the backbone of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces—means that Haq carries a lot of explosive baggage. Significantly, he did not join prominent Northern Alliance commanders at Zahir Shah’s residence last week in Rome. He had previously sought a bilateral link with the former king; in effect, he wanted Zahir Shah to anoint him as the one and only alternative to the Taliban. Zahir Shah received Haq, but declined his request.

But since then, Abdul Haq and his Pakistani supporters have been able to capture Washington’s attention, according to the king’s spokesman on foreign affairs, Daoud Yaqub. This young Afghan-American lawyer, who is also executive director of the

Afghanistan-America Foundation, cautions that the Bush administration urgently needs to refine its policies on the entire region. “The objective should not just be to get rid of the Taliban and install another military figure with a narrow base of support,” he told Macleans from Rome. “We’ve got to make sure there’s a broad political dimension to what we’re doing, a way to ensure that after this regime is gone, the Afghans can form a government of unity. That’s the only way to marginalize the warlords, and make sure that terrorists no longer have a safe haven in Afghanistan.”

Yaqub’s foundation boasts a prestigious membership. Former national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and retired general Brent Scowcroft are honorary chairmen. Peter Tomsen, the last U.S. envoy to the anti-Communist Afghan resistance, is a member, as are respected congressmen like California’s Dana Rohrabacher and New York’s Ben Gilman. And in their efforts to support the ex-king, the foundation’s activists have done their homework. They anticipated the Taliban’s denunciations—that Zahir Shah is a throwback to monarchic secularism. That’s why the group, particularly the ex-king himself, has issued repeated assurances that he has no ambition to re-establish the Afghan crown. Younger generations of his Durrani clan have been purposefully sidelined: the only goal, say Zahir Shah and his supporters, is to form a Loya Jirga. Only this, they say, can win the Afghan people their freedom from warlords—and from foreign interference.

Despite progress, the foundation is underfunded, relegated to the minor leagues of advocacy in the U.S. capital’s power structure. “For years, we’ve walked the beat in Washington,” says Daoud Yaqub, “warning two administrations what might happen with the Taliban.” The result was a $100,000 grant from the state department for the Rome process promoting Zahir Shah. But over the past three weeks, even with anti-Taliban alarm bells sounding and a call to arms against the regime’s favourite foreign son, Osama bin Laden, increased support for the Afghanistan America Foundation was nowhere in sight. Worse, it was not until four days after the gathering of Afghan leaders in Rome that the Bush administration sent a senior figure, Richard Hoss, director of planning at the state department, to meet one-on-one with Zahir Shah.

Meanwhile, the Pakistanis, through Musharraf’s office and that of military intelligence chief Gen. Mahmoud Ahmed, have regular contacts with U.S. officials up to and including Secretary of State Colin Powell. To the despair of ordinary Afghans, the Gulf War hero’s mantra is that the U.S. is not after “nation building,” but rather just the bagging of bin Laden. That translates to many Afghans as an apparent U.S. willingness to compromise over Afghanistan’s long-term future, and to again rely on the Pakistanis to arrange an outcome suitable, in America’s view, for the short to medium term.

The Pakistani leadership is accustomed to playing by these rules. From Gen. Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq in the ’70s and ’80s through to President Musharraf today, the talk is of securing self-determination for the Afghans, while the walk of policy remains the same: keeping a firm Pakistani grip on this unruly neighbour’s future. Realizing that he must appear evenhanded in his approach, Musharraf called for a replacement to the Taliban regime that would safeguard the interests of all Afghans. He also issued an invitation to the ex-king to send a representative to Islamabad for talks. This was a gesture Zahir Shah welcomed—at least publicly. But behind the scenes in Rome, there’s a feeling of bitter irony that an olive branch should be extended by a long-standing competitor in the Great Game of Afghanistan (successive Pakistani governments have bitterly opposed Zahir Shah’s return to influence in his homeland), even while America responds with hesitancy to a man who is arguably the most effective potential peacemaker—at least in the eyes of Afghans.

But as seasoned Afghan hands within Washington’s diplomatic community will testify, the Afghan people have never figured prominently in the Americans’ thinking. A case in point: George W. Bush’s apparent astonishment at discovering that the United States has for many years been the Afghan refugees’ leading donor of food. He reminded the world’s media of this in a news conference this past week, and his voice almost cracked with disbelief: why weren’t the Afghans rising up to applaud his each and every move?

The more pertinent question is this: where are the advisers who could point out to Bush that the Afghan people remember too well the sacrifices they made in the war against the Soviets, and the great victory they secured—only to be abandoned by their American allies and see U.S. interests in Afghanistan virtually handed over in the early ’90s to the Pakistani military?

The answer to that question, and to the mystery of the half-hearted policy on Zahir Shah, has to do with influential insiders like Zahl Khalilzad, an American of Afghan descent who has woven an upwardly mobile career path through U.S. foreign policy since the Reagan years. The holder of a PhD in political science from the University of Chicago, Khalilzad has held several key positions in government and think-tanks and was appointed head of the defence department’s transition team this past year at the start of Bush’s term. A close associate of Vice-President Dick Cheney, he is now a senior assistant to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Khalilzad is of ethnic Pashtun stock. During the 1980s, he strenuously opposed Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was Tajik. Instead, Khalilzad favoured Pashtun leaders in the fight against the Soviets, a policy that saw disruptive, vigorously antiAmerican warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar rise to prominence. Hekmatyar and other pseudo-fundamentalists among the mujahedeen welcomed and nurtured foreign pilgrims to the war—such as Osama bin Laden.

Khalilzad remains an adviser who is crucial to any Afghan seeking support from the U.S. government. Abdul Haq openly boasts of having Khalilzad among his fold, according to sources within the Afghan refugee community in Pakistan, who have spoken to Macleans on condition of anonymity. The same sources report that Haq is being promoted by American oil men seeking to build a gas pipeline from the north of Afghanistan to Pakistan’s coast on the Indian Ocean.

This pipeline project, proposed by the Centgas consortium in the 1990s and backed by Unocal and Delta Oil, was scrapped due to the continuing civil war in Afghanistan, and the Clinton administration’s gradual abandonment of any suggestion that the U.S. might recognize the Taliban regime. However, one voice raised in support of the project—and speaking in favour, at the time, of working with the Taliban authorities to make it happen— was that of Zahl Khalilzad.

Meantime, while intrigue and uncertainty cast shadows over the political front, members of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance are clear on how things should proceed. “I support any option that will bring peace nearer to our people,” Cmdr. Ishmael Khan told Macleans by satellite phone from his battle lines near Herat in northern Afghanistan. “The Taliban must be crushed, but there is no final military solution possible in our country. The Loya Jirga, with the help of the king, is our best chance for the future.”

If there is one Afghan who should inspire American awe, not just support, it is Ishmael Khan. Second only to Ahmed Shah Massoud’s celebrated status during the war against the Soviets, the “Lion of Herat” has been the most painful thorn in the side of the Taliban regime’s forces in the northwest of the country. He even pulled off an Asian version of The Great Escape, one that would make Steve McQueen’s motorcycle-riding character, Hilts, green with envy. Ishmael Khan was captured by the Taliban in 1999, and withstood almost a year of captivity in Kandahar. His cohorts managed to spirit cash to their agents in the city; they, in turn, bought off their commander’s guard. One night in early June, 2000, Ishmael Khan, his deputy and their wayward Talib jailer escaped to the hills and westward to Iran. The commander later returned to Afghanistan, and is now poised to recapture his home town, Herat, from the Taliban.

All he needs, he says, is what Afghanistan and its people are yearning for. “We need to be rid of these extremists, this Taliban, then come together—all of us.” Whether that will happen with or without U.S. support is, sadly, anybody’s guess. E3