WORLD

LIVING ON THE EDGE

With political tensions rising in Afghanistan, some predict a civil war

ADNAN R. KHAN July 9 2007
WORLD

LIVING ON THE EDGE

With political tensions rising in Afghanistan, some predict a civil war

ADNAN R. KHAN July 9 2007

LIVING ON THE EDGE

WORLD

With political tensions rising in Afghanistan, some predict a civil war

ADNAN R. KHAN

Life is still a nightmare in some parts of Afghanistan, a place where anything is possible: children cutting off heads, police torturing prisoners, foreign armies opening fire on civilians. Even now, when other parts of the country are seeing more peace than they have in over a generation, the proximity of that shadow world still casts a cloud over virtually every aspect of Afghan life. Very little remains uncontaminated, least of all politics, an arena in which who you are and where you’ve been over the past three decades determines not only your loyalties but also your hopes and your future.

That future now sits on a knife’s edge. Since the heady days of nearly six years ago, shortly after the fall of the Taliban when the victorious Northern Alliance marched into Kabul uncontested on NATO’s coattails, history’s currents have carved out a factionalized landscape. They have produced a north-and-west/ south-and-east divide between Persian and Pashtun, Afghanistan’s primary linguistic categories, and therefore its ethnic groupings. The dominant ethnic group in the south and east are mostly Pashto-speaking Pashtuns, from whose ranks the Taliban emerged; the Northern Alliance are primarily Tajiks and Hazaras, the majority in Afghanistan’s north and west, whose national tongue is the Persian-based Dari.

The two groups don’t get along all that well. In recent months, tensions between them have hardened. “We’ve seen very little evidence of ethnic-based sectarianism so far in the new government,” says Sam Zarifi, Asia research director for Human Rights Watch, “but the events over the past few months have

been worrying.” The root problem is human rights, and the history of abuse carried out by factional commanders, among them Northern Alliance leaders, during the civil war of the mid-1990s. What to do about these commanders, many of whom sit in parliament while others dominate provincial politics, is something Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun, has struggled with. It’s a tough balancing act: on the one hand meeting the demands of the international community whose investment in Afghanistan has not come free of strings, while on the other recognizing that these commanders still have strong, and in some cases well-armed, followings.

Zarifi places much of the blame for the growing sectarian schism on the international community. “They continue to play at divide and conquer,” he says, “supporting certain warlords over others, playing ethnic groups off each other.” Currently, under the direction of international players (largely the U.S., most observers agree), Northern Alliance commanders have largely been sidelined, removed from ministerial posts and transferred out of governorships. Their replace-

ments, especially in key ministries like Defence and Foreign Affairs, are Pashtuns who fled Afghanistan during its wars, many to the U.S. where they were educated.

The return of these diaspora Afghans and their appointments to powerful positions has angered a number of commanders. “You need strong ministers right now in Afghanistan,” says Siddiq Chakari, a member of the leadership council for the United National Front party, a coalition of mostly Northern Alliance parliamentarians. “People will not listen to these foreigners; they have no credibility.” As for allegations of Northern Alliance war crimes, Chakari says, “The government is setting the stage for another civil war. This is a foreign-backed government. Those foreigners accuse war heroes of war crimes, people who gave their blood for Afghanistan’s freedom. NATO is meddling in Afghanistan’s internal and external affairs. They have become part of the problem.”

The United National Front, which is demanding that all foreign forces leave the country, was formed in March following a bitter battle over amnesty legislation that would have absolved Northern Alliance commanders and others of all war crimes. Under intense international pressure, Karzai toned down the proposed bill before signing it into law, replacing blanket amnesty with a provision that still allows individual citizens to bring cases against commanders, with the proper evidence. That provision has put some very powerful men on the defensive. “There was a civil war in the U.S.,” says Chakari, defending the original legislation. “When that ended, there was a general amnesty. If we go down the road Human Rights Watch and others are suggesting, it will take us back to civil war.”

Zarifi disagrees, arguing instead that the people of Afghanistan themselves are tired of these commanders. “The Northern Alliance leaders are the ones who lack credibility with the people,” he contends. “They’re not good

NATO HAS ‘BECOME PART OF THE PROBLEM,’ SAYS ONE CRITIC

politicians. They spent the last two decades killing each other.” The new coalition, Zarifi adds, is simply another attempt in a long series of attempts to seize as much power as possible in the face of dwindling influence.

The United National Front is proposing an overhaul of Afghan politics, pushing for a parliamentary system similar to Canada’s in place of the American-based presidential system currently in operation. That would lead to a devolution of power, giving provinces and the governors who rule them a firmer grip on their own affairs. The current government, needless to say, is opposed to the overhaul. “It is not the right time for a parliamentary system,” says Shazada Massoud, a member of Karzai’s senior advisory council. Devolution, he says, would give more control to regions susceptible to outside influences. “There are too many foreign powers interfering in Afghan politics. If these powers end up controlling the border provinces, especially Pakistan, what do you think will happen? There will be more war.”

The early signs of open confrontation appeared last April 17 after Afghan Attorney General Abdul Jabbar Sabit, a Pashtun, ordered a raid on one of Afghanistan’s most popular Persian-language television stations, Tolo TV. The raid, Sabit claimed, was in response to a series of derogatory news reports about the central government, culminating in a misrepresentation of a statement he made during a televised speech. But Chakari describes the attorney general, who was hand-picked by Karzai, as “abnormal,” and the actions against Tolo a personal vendetta against Northern Alliance commanders. “Sabit was a Hezb-Islami member,” he points out, referring to the Pashtun faction led by renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. “Hezb and Jamiat-e-Islami [the most powerful mujahedeen faction] have been rivals for years.” Tolo was, and remains, closely allied with Jamiat, a relationship that some government officials claim is a cover for Iranian influence.

The truth of the matter, however, is much more difficult to determine. Tolo’s Iranian connections are no secret, although the extent to which those connections impinge on the politics of Afghanistan remains a matter of debate. What’s undeniable is the volatility of the emotions associated with the issue, and their power to divide Afghan society. Shortly after the raid on Tolo, both sides mobilized protests, Tajiks and Hazaras in support of the station, and Pashtuns in support of Sabit. It was an open manifestation of the simmering hostility between the two groups, one that many observers fear will be repeated—and a far cry from the sort of reconciliation Afghanistan needs to overcome its long nightmare. M