The Taliban may be collapsing, but who will fill the vacuum in Afghanistan?
THE POWER GAME
The Taliban may be collapsing, but who will fill the vacuum in Afghanistan?
Canada and the World
Forget the Taliban, the luckless has-beens of Afghanistan's Great Game. It's only a matter of time before remnants of the regime in cities lilce Kunduz and Kandahar
defect, surrender or succumb to U.S. bombing or the ruthless attentions of their homegrown Afghan enemies.
The real fighting over the future of Afghanistan is being waged by satellite phone and fax, or by face-to-face meetings, many of them frosty affairs between old rivals of previous bloody phases of the Afghan war. This is the battle of words— promises, cajoling and tribal networking. Essentially, it’s a quest for dominance in whatever stopgap body succeeds the Taliban regime, a scramble for turf and influence by warlords, tribal chieftains and prominent Afghan civilians who are fed up with the men of war.
The present time offers at once an unprecedented opportunity to achieve lasting peace—and a dangerously undefined, tension-filled tangle of exchanges that could easily touch off further violence. Of most pressing concern is the predicament in the capital, Kabul. The failure of the U.S. and Britain to match their military onslaught with effective politesse has resulted in two of the Afghan groups that fought most fiercely in the disastrous period of 1992 to 1996—when discord among the former anti-Soviet mujahedeen parties reduced Kabul to rubble—charging headlong back to the city. There they glare at each other across the western outskirts—reportedly, in at least one incident, exchanging fire.
True, both these parties, the Panjshiri element of the Northern Alliance on one hand, and the Shiite Muslim Hezb-i-Wahdat on the other, seem anxious to secure
peace for their people and the nation as a whole. Speaking for the Alliance, Abdullah Abdullah, the Panjshiri-born foreign minister, announced just after his troops entered Kabul: “We invite all Afghan groups at this stage to come to Kabul and to start negotiations about the future of Afghanistan.” He also urged the former king, 87-year-old Zahir Shah, to end his 28 years in exile.
But Abdullah sounded a sour note, in the view of his U.S. and British allies, on the issue of an international security force for the capital. “The Taliban were the obstacle to achieving peace in Afghanistan,” Abdullah told Macleans. “Now that the Taliban are gone, there’s no need for international peacekeeping forces.”
Trouble is, for groups like Hezb-i-Wahdat, who as Shiites suffered the worst of the extremist-Sunni Taliban’s repression, now approach a capital that is occupied, as in 1992, only by the mainly Tajik Panjshiris, followers of the assassinated former defence minister, Ahmed Shah Massoud. As well-intentioned as Abdullah’s invitation seems, the fact is that the men with guns now controlling Kabul are from only his own faction.
Kabul’s new police chief is Fazel Udin Iyri, until now top cop in the town of Charikar, the nearest Northern Alliance town to the north. When Afghans from other regions and parties look at men like Fazel Udin, or Abdullah, or Gen. Mohammed Fahim, the Alliance military chief now controlling Kabul, they see Massoud’s ghost. It’s a spectre that could easily ignite old enmities: while Massoud was a legend and hero to many Afghans, particularly in the northeast, to others, especially
ethnic Pashtuns, he was a maddeningly effective Tajik competitor.
That Massoud’s Panjshiris alone should occupy the capital could provoke even moderate former mujahedeen commanders from other factions to go gunning for position on the ground. Men like Haji Din Mohammed. He’s a respected commander from Nangahar province, and the elder brother of Abdul Haq, who was executed by the Taliban for trying to incite, with the help of the Pakistani and U.S. intelligence agencies, rebellion against the regime. En route to the city of Jalalabad, captured from the Taliban by local tribal leaders last week, Din Mohammed told journalists: “We deserve a share of control. We will fight for it if it is not offered to us.”
That’s a sentiment echoed elsewhere in the country. In the Taliban heartland of Kandahar, Arif Khan, a rival tribal warlord, has swooped in on the city’s airport. The city of Gardez, too, capital of Paktia province, has been seized by local strongmen. If left unchecked, this trend will restore the map of Afghanistan to the same crazy patchwork of feuding chieftains that enabled the Taliban, with their mantra of order and conformity, to sweep to power in 1996.
In all of this, it’s fair to ask: where are the Pentagon’s war planners, and the strategists at Britain’s ministry of defence, and coalition partners such as Canada? Admittedly, the speed of the Taliban’s collapse took even the Northern Alliance by surprise, but when B-52s began pounding the regime’s troops north of Kabul in deadly earnest on the morning of Oct. 31, the tide of the campaign turned, and at the very least the possibility of a rout should have been
among the scenarios considered by the coalitions generals and political leaders.
Yet the need to quickly insert some kind of international peacekeeping force clearly ranked far down the list of priorities, even though Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke of the need to make Kabul “an open city.” Four days elapsed from Northern Alliance troops entering the capital until the first small force of British troops arrived at Bagram airport to begin securing the runways for larger coalition troop deployments. Even if the Northern Alliance can be persuaded to accept peacekeepers sent by the coalition or the United Nations, it could take until the last week of Novem-
ber to fly them in. Meanwhile, the potential land rush of competing armed groups could spark open warfare, conditions that would make the deployment of foreign troops very risky.
The situation is not without hope, however. The dismal performance by the U.S.led coalition on the political front could well be offset by, of all institutions, the United Nations. Usually the whipping boy of American political and military leaders, the UN has now been called on for a quick solution. The world body’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, is swiftly making up ground in the quest for a governing council to take charge in Kabul.
The straight-talking former Algerian foreign minister has a proven track record in bringing disparate warring factions together; it is Brahimi who is credited with bringing to Lebanon the degree of peace experienced there today. “If he can’t secure a way ahead for Afghanistan,” says Ahmed Fawzi, the UN’s information chief in London, “nobody can.” Though Brahimi is off to a delayed start, mainly because the Bush administration effectively sidelined the UN in the early stages of its bombing campaign, he packs a punch with the dozens of frequently intractable Afghan groups who want a place at the negotiating table.
“In 1999,” Fawzi says of an earlier attempt
to reach peace in Afghanistan, “Lakhdar walked out on the Afghans when they refused to agree. He resigned his post, and now that he’s returned, they remember that this man means business. He’ll tell them directly and firmly: negotiate in good faith for a stable government, and do it now.”
Because the war on terrorism has caused a seismic shift in everyone’s attitude towards Afghanistan, Fawzi claims, the UN has never enjoyed such strong prospects for success. Respected Afghan commentators such as Zahir Tanin agree. A doctor by profession but currendy broadcasting with the BBC’s Afghan-language services, Tanin says: “The world community has never had such an important ally in the search for peace in my country, which is the sheer desperation of the Afghan people for an end to war and suffering. Many good people are coming forward to work with Brahimi. Anyone standing in the way of putting together a peaceful governing council will be completely discredited in the view of the Afghan population.”
Brahimi’s plan meshes well with ideas put forward by the former king and other advocates of a broad-based government for the country. A provisional council will meet, likely in Qatar early this week, composed of up to 200 representatives of various Afghan parties, regions and ethnic groups. This council will choose a smaller transitional administration, to serve no longer than two years. Its officials will travel immediately to Kabul. Next, a Loya Jirga, or grand council, would approve the program and authorize the drafting of a constitution. Finally, within one to two years, a second Loya Jirga would sign on to the constitution and establish Afghanistan’s first postwar government of national reconciliation and reconstruction.
There are treacherous obstacles, especially to the initial stages of Brahimi’s plan. Keeping Kabul’s air free of bullets is the first challenge, and efforts to secure this goal have revealed some startling tensions—even within the core of the Northern Alliance. The movement’s titular chief, President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who is still officially recognized by the UN as Afghan leader due to the world community’s rejection of the Taliban, was to have followed his foreign and defence ministers
into Kabul two days after the city’s capture. A third day went by, then a fourth: insiders tell Macleans that the Alliance recognizes it is time for Rabbani to step aside. Though a gracious and highly literate man, Rabbani is seen by too many Afghans as a symbol of the failed mujahedeen government of the early ’90s. “He should remain in the north,” one senior commander said. “His presence in Kabul would make finding a peaceful settlement very difficult, if not impossible.”
Significantly, the Alliance leadership is appointing non-Panjshiris, and non-Tajiks, to posts in Kabul’s interim security commission. Yunus Qanuni, the Alliance’s head of the commission, has placed mainly Pashtun and Shiite Hazara figures on the eight-member body. His challenge now is to show that this is more than mere window dressing; the proof will come in the commission’s ability to defuse potentially explosive confrontations among armed groups filtering into the city.
A darker cloud on the political horizon is cast by the regional foreign powers that have poured gasoline on the fires of the Afghan conflict for years. Pakistan, more than Iran to the west and the former Soviet republics to the north, is the most contentious party to current negotiations. Figures close to former King Zahir Shah say they’re concerned that the UN’s Brahimi plans too high-profile a role for
regional powers in the new council.
“Instead of empowering the Afghans,” one adviser to Zahir Shah told Macleans, “the whole project will be compromised by imposing the usual regional formula that Pakistan has always insisted it must have. What’s crucial now is to recognize that any government or council that tries to take control of the country without the Afghans—and the Afghans alone—expressing their will, cannot hope to last. Regional powers have always played a zero-
sum game in Afghanistan. They promise the UN to go out the door, but they always come back through the window. Their presence on the council, especially Pakistan’s, should be extremely limited.”
UN sources ascribe complaints from the king’s entourage to Brahimi’s insistence that he, rather than Zahir Shah and his advisers, must have the ultimate say on assembling the list of delegates to the first council meeting. However, objections to Pakistan’s role are shared by many other Afghans, not least by the Northern Alliance forces who have only now vanquished the Taliban, a regime whose rise to power came largely by way of Pakistani support. The UN, as ever, will have a tricky balancing act to perform, assuaging royal and Alliance concerns while keeping Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf on side. In this it will have the assistance of Washington s envoy, James Dobbins, who has so far managed to walk the tightrope between the king’s people in Rome and the Musharraf camp in Islamabad.
But Dobbins, like the interim governing council or an international peacekeeping force, has yet to reach Kabul. With the U.S.led coalition evidently bereft of ideas on how to maintain order until he and Afghanistan’s would-be governors arrive, the world is reduced to doing what ordinary Afghans have resorted to since civil war first erupted in April, 1978—hope and pray for the miracle of peace. EE]
A QUICKENING PACE
The pace of a war that appeared to be drifting towards stalemate quickened dramatically last week, with a series of decisive military victories by the Northern Alliance and the apparent implosion of Taliban forces. Among other key developments:
Canada put about 1,000 soldiers on 48-hour notice to leave for peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance duties in Afghanistan. The troops, mostly members of the Edmonton-based Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, will be equipped to defend themselves, said Defence Minister Art Eggleton, but will be withdrawn if the situation becomes too dangerous. They will join the five Canadian ships, six planes and 2,000 service personnel already in or en route to the region. ■The Taliban, in full retreat, abandoned eight aid workers they had held in jail since early August on
charges of spreading Christianity. The hostagestwo Americans, two Australians and four Germans-were plucked to safety by U.S. Special Forces helicopters.
■ The U.S. government claimed to have captured or killed several top members of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network. Among those believed to be dead: Mohammed Atef, a former policeman from Egypt and bin Laden’s top military adviser.
■ Northern Alliance soldiers and journalists in Kabul discovered hundreds of documents, relating to chemical, nuclear and biological weapons, in abandoned Al-Qaeda “safe houses.” Along with the papers was the business card for a dormant British Columbia company that made flight simulators.
■ A defiant Mullah Mohammed Omar, leader of the Taliban, vowed to continue the war, telling the BBC that “the extinction of America” is coming.
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