Afghanistan power politics threaten Western plans for the region

Developing Just Leadership

Zia Sarhadi

Sha'ban 25, 1423 2002-03-01


by Zia Sarhadi (World, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 1, Sha'ban, 1423)

Deep divisions in the interim Afghan government, papered over and ignored under American pressure, erupted last month when Abdul Rahman, the minister of aviation and tourism, was beaten to death on the tarmac of Kabul airport on February 14. Ruhullah Aman, chief of Ariana Airlines, who was more fortunate: he was rescued by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and is now in hospital recovering from his injuries. The ISAF was unable to save Abdul Rahman, who was reportedly dragged out of a plane leaving for India, stripped naked and then beaten to death.

At first it was alleged that pilgrims, enraged by two days’ delay in their journey to Makkah, were responsible for the killing; an interior ministry spokesman even tried to put the blame on al-Qaeda sympathisers among the hujjaj. But on February 16 Hamid Karzai, the interim leader, announced that Abdul Rahman had been murdered by members of the security and intelligence services, and that three people had been arrested for the killing. Karzai named two senior generals involved in the murder: general Abdullah Jan Tawhidi, head of intelligence, and general Qalandar Beg, a senior defence official. Both, he said, had fled to Saudi Arabia with the pilgrims. He said that the Saudi government had been asked to arrest them and send them back to Afghanistan.

All five are senior figures in the Jami’at-e Islami, the dominant faction of the Northern Alliance, which controls the key ministries of defence, interior, intelligence and foreign affairs. With no Afghan army or police force in place, Karzai, a Qandahari Pashtun, is dependent on the predominantly Tajik Northern Alliance for security and support.

So an interesting question arises: why did Karzai name the people involved, almost certainly risking a showdown with the Northern Alliance if he keeps promise to bring the culprits to justice? With no forces at his command, Karzai hopes to entangle the American and other multinational forces in Afghanistan to cut the Northern Alliance down to size. The Alliance itself is not a united body; the Tajiks and Uzbeks are fighting in the northeast, but while the fighting was confined to Mazaar-e Shareef and Qunduz it did not matter. Now, however, the fighting has exploded in Kabul itself.

On February 15, a day after the minister of aviation was murdered, thousands of Afghans rioted while trying to force their way into Kabul stadium to watch a football (soccer) match between the Afghan and multinational-force teams. The ragtag Afghan police force was no match for the crowd; Norwegian and British contingents from ISAF were called in to “restore order”. They fired into the air and threatened people with vehicle-mounted machine-guns, but calm was restored only with great difficulty, and only after most of the crowd of about 15,000 had forced their way into the dusty stadium without tickets.

It is, however, the minister’s murder that raises the most serious concerns. Karzai claimed that it was a “personal vendetta, not a political murder”, but Amanullah Khan, his minister for frontier affairs, and several members of the Rome Group to which Karzai also belongs, have said that Abdul Rahman’s death was a political murder meant to weaken the growing royalist camp in Afghanistan. Abdul Rahman, himself a Tajik, had a chequered history. He was once a senior member of the Jami’at-e Islami, and served as aviation minister between 1992 and 1996. Thereafter he was sent to Rome as ambassador, where he defected and joined the former king, Zahir Shah. He returned to Kabul in the new interim set-up, again as aviation minister, representing the royalist faction.

Informed observers in Kabul and Pakistan say that the Tajiks, mostly from the Panjsher Valley, are not happy with the present arrangement, although they control the key ministries. Karzai’s mandate is due to expire in May, when the king is expected to return and a Loya Jirga must be convened to appoint a government for the next two years. The Panjsheris want to make sure that none of their people defects to Karzai, who has money at his disposal to buy people’s loyalty. Abdul Rahman’s murder is meant to warn potential defectors that actual defectors will not live long after their defection.

The Americans and the British are also clearly worried that the humpty-dumpty government they cobbled together may unravel even sooner than they had feared. A classified CIA report has warned that Afghanistan could fall into violent chaos if measures are not taken to restrain the power struggle among rival warlords, and to control tensions between tribes and clans (New York Times, February 21). While discounting the imminent outbreak of civil war, the CIA warned that the “seeds of a civil conflict” are still present. It also admits the existence of “tensions between the central and regional authorities and competition for power within the regions.”

The UN and several western governments realise the need for an expanded ISAF, increasing its strength to 20,000, but the allies have not yet been able to muster the 4,500 troops already earmarked for the task. The Americans have refused to contribute any troops at all for ‘peacekeeping’ duty; even their close allies, the British, have become trigger-happy.

On February 16 they shot and killed a 19-year-old Afghan driving his sister-in-law to hospital while she was in labour. Initially the British alleged that their troops had come under fire; later the two offending soldiers were flown out of Kabul when it became clear that they had killed an innocent person and that no shots had been fired at the British position. In the manner of the Americans, the British promised to “investigate” the incident. The killings of unarmed civilians are stoking the Afghans’ resentment of the foreign troops; the British reported another similar incident on February 21.

The Americans, in the mean time, have sent one major general Charles C. Campbell to Kabul to begin to organise and train an Afghan army. Campbell arrived in Kabul on February 18 for an initial assessment; he also met Karzai. But building up a regular army is much more easily said than done. Almost everyone in Afghanistan is armed, most with heavy weapons, and almost all are reluctant to part with them. Fire fights have already occurred in different parts of the country as governors and commanders try to disarm the people. With ‘warlordism’ once more rampant, Afghanistan is sliding back into the kind of anarchy that was almost universal before the Taliban came onto the scene.

If the US attack on Afghanistan only restores that pre-Taliban situation, it will not be long before the guns are turned on the foreigners, especially on the Americans, who are now being regarded increasingly as the new warlords.

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