Afghanistan’s long-awaited Loya Jirga (council of leaders) finally opened 24 hours late, on June 11. The circumstances make it clear that the traditional Afghan institution is in fact now little more than a front for decisions being made behind the scenes by the country’s established faction leaders, manipulated by the Western powers whose troops are now occupying Afghanistan and ‘observing’ the Loya Jirga. It is perhaps symbolic of the artificiality of the process that it is taking place in a giant tent, provided by the German government, that is usually used for German beer festivals.
Although the process will not be completed until after Crescent goes to press, Hamid Karzai, leader of the interim administration established by an agreement between Western governments meeting in Bonn in December 2001, is expected to emerge as leader of the ‘transitional government’. This regime, which will be presented by the West as having some democratic legitimacy by virtue of the Loya Jirga process, will take over the running of Afghanistan from the interim administration on June 22, and is expected to govern until elections are held in 2004.
Karzai’s election was in effect confirmed in meetings between his supporters and those of former Afghan king Zahir Shah in the run-up to the Loya Jirga, which caused the 24-hour delay; the meetings ended with Zahir Shah renouncing all political ambitions under pressure from Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy to Afghanistan. Unofficial polls among delegates to the Loya Jirga had shown Zahir Shah to be the overwhelming favourite, endangering the West’s plans, which depend on Karzai’s success. Eight hundred of the 2,000 delegates to the jirga reportedly signed a petition calling for Zahir Shah to head the new government.
The US’s response was for Khalilzad and Karzai both to rush to Zahir Shah’s villa on June 10, when the Loya Jirga was supposed to begin, for separate meetings with the ex-king; the idea was to make him announce that he was not a candidate to head the new government and was supporting Karzai instead. The US’s role became public in the afternoon, when Khalilzad called a press conference, before any word had come from Zahir Shah, to announce that the former king would be renouncing his candidature by the evening. Khalilzad said that foreign radio stations had "sowed consternation and confusion" among delegates to the Loya Jirga by suggesting that Zahir Shah was a candidate.
"Since these statements were inconsistent with earlier statements by the king, it was necessary to ascertain the king’s true intentions," he said. "It appears that the broadcast statements were incorrect. The former king is not a candidate for any position. He supports the candidacy of Hamid Karzai."
It was more than two hours before that position was formalized at a press conference attended by Zahir Shah and Karzai in the evening. After one of the king’s aides had read aloud a statement announcing his political "abdication", Karzai responded by thanking the former monarch for his support and saying that "His Majesty was the father of the nation, is the father of the nation and will continue to be the father of the nation and will have the highest state protocol as such."
The formula of "father of the nation" is one that Western officials had begun to promote discreetly a few days earlier, as a way of giving Zahir Shah a title without any official role. The frantic last-minute politicking, to ensure that his popularity would not threaten the West’s programme for Afghanistan’s future, brought the West’s role far more into the public eye than the West would have liked, and it is clear that immense pressure was put on Zahir Shah to persuade him to accept it.
Zahir Shah had initially been the West’s favoured candidate for their man in Kabul, not least because of his reputation for being malleable and indecisive. Once Hamid Karzai had emerged as their representative, however, Zahir Shah became a figurehead for many of the majority of Afghans, who are deeply unhappy with Karzai’s dependence on the country’s occupiers and on the leaders of the Northern Alliance, who are also allied to the West and are now the largest armed force in the country. The Northern Alliance, predominantly Tajik, are hated for their cruelty to and atrocities against the country’s Pashtun majority during the country’s civil war; they are generally compared unfavourably with the Taliban. They are also opposed by Afghanistan’s Hazara community and many Uzbeks.
Any further attempt to upset the West’s plans, however, seems likely to fail, because the advance politicking also included the distribution of senior government positions among the leaders of major Afghan factions who are willing to work with Hamid Karzai. This creates a powerful bloc of supporters to ensure his election despite the wishes of the majority of Afghanistan’s people. This bloc, backed by the West, is likely to be able to defeat any attempt that disgruntled delegates might make to assert their wishes.
However, the West’s hopes that its manipulation of a traditional Afghan institution will legitimise its plans have been severely damaged by the episode, and by the widespread realization that all substantial decisions have been made already, behind closed doors, by power-brokers beholden to the Western powers that are widely perceived as occupying the country.
The importance to the West of establishing a reliable and cooperative regime in Afghanistan was demonstrated by a little-publicised Central Asian deal signed by Karzai, Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf and Turkmen president Saparmurad Niyazov in Islamabad earlier in June. This deal establishes a basis for the construction of a $1.9-billion gas-pipeline from gas-fields in Daulatabad, Turkmenistan, to Gawadar, a port in southwestern Pakistan. A parallel oil-pipeline, road- and rail-connections and facilities at Gawadar to process liquified gas for shipment are also being considered.
Western officials have emphasised the benefits of the deal to Afghanistan, saying that it will earn the country at least $100 million a year in transit fees, and create 10,000 jobs. The World Bank and Asian Development Bank are already supporting the project. However, far greater profits will be made by the Western energy corporations that will control the facilities. The building of pipelines south from the oil- and gas-rich countries of Central Asia by Western companies has long been an ambition of Western governments determined to establish control over those resources and prevent them from falling under the influence of other regional powers, such as Russia and China.
It is notable that Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy to Afghanistan, is not only a key member of the National Security Council but also a senior energy consultant who was engaged by US oil-giants in the mid-1980s to promote the idea of building pipelines through Afghanistan. Writing in 1996, he welcomed the Taliban’s capture of Kabul, saying that the pipeline projects "will only go ahead if Afghanistan has a single authoritative government."
Now, six years later, he and the US are looking to Hamid Karzai to prove as authoritative as the Taliban, and rather more malleable and cooperative. Karzai and other Western allies in Afghanistan must know that the West would be perfectly willing to replace them, too, if necessary, and would find it much easier than replacing the Taliban.