Canada and the World

A TURNING POINT

Afghan factions agree to a new governing council. Now comes the hard part.

ARTHUR KENT December 17 2001
Canada and the World

A TURNING POINT

Afghan factions agree to a new governing council. Now comes the hard part.

ARTHUR KENT December 17 2001

A TURNING POINT

Canada and the World

Afghan factions agree to a new governing council. Now comes the hard part.

ARTHUR KENT

After 23 years of intractable conflict, perhaps the only thing as perplexing as the prospect of further fighting in Afghanistan is the appearrfl anee of a rather instant solution: a government of peace and national reconciliation. And, coincidentally, talk of the final and complete surrender by the hardest of the Taliban’s hardliners, who have resisted, for nine full weeks in their stronghold of Kandahar, the worst that the U.S. navy and air force can throw at them.

Few Afghans perceive these developments to be anything like what they appear to be, because theirs is a country where appearances are almost always deceiving. Even a quick examination of the new, interim governing council patched together in Bonn produces a checklist of matching pluses and minuses. True, the agreement reached among the four parties to the talks marks the first time in

Afghanistan’s history that power has been transferred peacefully. And the choice of prime minister is an enlightened and encouraging one: Flamid Karzai is a respected leader from the country’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, and a man, remarkably, with no blood on his hands from the gruesome years of civil war.

But although Karzai has taken the throne for at least the council’s initial sixmonth tenure, another group has made off with the crown jewels. The defence, foreign and interior ministries have been scooped up by leaders of the Panjshir Valley element of the Northern Alliance. Mohammed Fahim, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and Younas Qanooni might be capable and honest men—the trio have maintained a surprising calm in Kabul since the Taliban’s retreat last month—but most of the other ethnic, political and military groups in Afghanistan resent the Panjshiris’ dominance of the council.

Not surprisingly, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the warlord of Mazar-i-Sharif,

was first to voice his intention to shun the new government. Dostum’s many critics dismiss him as totally unfit for the foreign ministry post he craved; some describe him as a drunk, an inveterate turncoat and a homicidal megalomaniac. So feared and hated is the Uzbek general in Kabul that it’s unlikely he could enter without a small army to protect him. Even his Northern Alliance colleagues have ruled out that kind of entourage coming to town.

It’s the arrival of a much different armed force that is now the basis of continuing negotiation, and very tense and difficult talks at that: an international contingent of troops, a so-called stabilization force, that would consolidate security in Kabul as the interim government begins its work later this month. Troops from the 3rd Battalion of Princess Patricias Canadian Light Infantry could be part of that force. (Members of the elite JTF-2, or Joint Task Force Two, have already moved into the region on another mission—although where and what remains a secret.) That the terms and timing of a stabilization forces arrival were left undecided in Bonn is evidence of the new council’s imperfect nature, and the huge distance yet to be covered until it can relieve civilian suffering.

Humanitarian aid is still only trickling into the country. The flow of food, clothing and equipment for reconstruction will have to be rapidly increased if towns and cities are to be stabilized—the first stage of bringing them completely under the new government’s umbrella. And the most urgent imperative, disarmament, is a challenge that hasn’t even been addressed, and won’t be until a national security force can be assembled and deployed.

Still, the interim council is seen as a positive first step. “It’s not the kind of government many people expected,” says Zahir Tanin, the influential broadcaster with the BBC’s Dari language service. “But all of us are very proud and excited by what has been achieved in Bonn, because the council represents a bridge leading to the future, a future of peace.”

Tanin was more than a mere observer at the Bonn talks. Behind the scenes, delegates from all four groups sought his advice on sticking points, well aware that his is one of the best-known voices of fact and

reason, heard over millions of radio sets in and around Afghanistan. When the agreement was finally announced, it was Tanin who relayed the historic sounds: he walked his mobile phone around the conference chamber and let all the key signatories speak directly to the Afghan people. Thousands of miles away, the country’s warriors—and many millions of war-weary civilians—tried to comprehend the prospect of an end to the fighting. “I tell you, my hands were shaking,” Tanin told Macleans. “Everyone could sense this was a turning point in our history.”

A turning point, he and all Afghans agree, that signals the start of another long journey. Significantly, that process begins with prime minister-designate Karzai not in Kabul, but near the Taliban heartland of Kandahar. Until tribes and communities in regions such as this endorse Karzai’s administration, the rebuilding of the nation can’t really get underway. Kandahar is notorious as perhaps the country’s most medieval region, a place where, historically, all Afghan leaders have had to cope with the most byzantine of the local networks of tribal, religious and criminal elements.

“Yes, there are dangers,” admits a close associate of Karzai. “We’re aware that cer-

tain Pakistani individuals have been active in some of the tribal negotiations with the Taliban in Kandahar.” These individuals, he says, are some of the rogue colonels of Pakistan’s military intelligence community, who, for nearly a decade, have been profiting from the lucrative black market in southwest Afghanistan. They were key to the Taliban’s rise to power in the mid-’90s, and are clearly not letting go without trying to retain position and influence for their Kandahari confederates. “We can expect that some of yesterday’s middle-ranking Taliban will emerge tomorrow as nationalists or traditionalists or by just calling themselves tribal leaders,” Karzai’s aide explains. “But, in time, because the great mass of our people desire real change, we can stabilize Kandahar and the region.”

Meanwhile, for the Bush administration, its generals and particularly for the CIA, the balance now shifts even more from the military campaign to detective work: tracking down Osama bin Laden and the thousands of Al-Qaeda and Taliban soldiers who are quickly melting into the rural populations on either side of the Afghan-Pakistan border. (Last week, there were reports that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor who is bin Laden’s mentor, had been injured—perhaps even killed—in a U.S. airstrike near Tora Bora). CIA director George Tenet, aware that segments of Pakistan’s military community remain supportive of the Taliban, has pressed President Pervez Musharraf to ensure that his borders are closely watched to prevent withdrawing militants slipping through the Americans’ net.

The director’s appeal is almost certainly too late. In late November, for instance, large numbers of Taliban troops fleeing Jalalabad made their way through the Kunar Valley and crossed into Pakistan’s Bajaur agency, a tribal area largely beyond the control of Musharraf’s army. Elsewhere, on the terror trail inside Afghanistan, the scandalously high civilian death toll in the area of Tora Bora—Médecins sans frontières says at least 80 Afghan civilians have been killed and 50 wounded in U.S. bombing raids against surrounding villages—speaks of the human costs of the American quest for the supposed resident of the region’s caves, Osama bin Laden. As week 10 of Washington’s campaign begins, the prime target remains as elusive as a definitive solution to the era of war and warlords in Afghanistan. GH