by Zafar Bangash (World, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 19, Ramadan, 1422)
The United Nations conference on Afghanistan, scheduled for November 24 in Berlin, has been postponed until November 27 and the venue shifted to Bonn without explanation. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy for Afghanistan, has been making optimistic statements about the prospects of the conference (to be held after Crescent International press time) and how it will bring “peace” to the war-ravaged country. After the US has bombed the country into modernity, apparently, there will be much better prospects for ‘peace’ and a “broad-based” government. Mr Brahimi put it rather interestingly: there will be four “processes” attending the Bonn conference: the Northern Alliance; the Rome process, around the former king, Zahir Shah; last month’s Peshawar Convention; and the Cyprus group, involving refugees and the Afghan Diaspora. “We have convinced them that they should get together and form one single process,” said Brahimi.
The Pashtuns, who comprise the majority of Afghans, will also be represented at the talks, according to a UN official. He did not say who would represent them or how this would be achieved, given that the Taliban have denounced the meeting. Brahimi, a former prime minister of Algeria, emphasised that the UN would assist the Afghans in this process. “I very, very much hope that out of this meeting, we will take some concrete decisions,” he said. “Kabul is now open, and the Northern Alliance themselves are saying that they want a more representative body to govern.” All this sounds good, yet Burhanuddin Rabbani, nominal head of the United Front (otherwise known as the Northern Alliance), who calls himself the president of Afghanistan and returned to Kabul on November 17, stated that the Bonn conference was merely a formality. He can hardly be blamed for behaving this way; after all, he was removed from power in September 1996 when the Taliban swept the country, thereafter cooling his heals in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. But good fortune smiled on him when the US launched its massive strikes on the Taliban, who retreated dramatically from Kabul to their southern stronghold of Qandahar on November 13.
As Rabbani makes himself comfortable under heavy guard in Kabul, chaos has engulfed the rest of the country because of the absence of any central authority. UN agencies as well as the World Food Programme have reported increasing lawlessness in the country. Afghanistan has gone back to the days before the Taliban came to power. Warlords have re-emerged to carve out their fiefdoms, with hoodlums and gangsters taking charge. In Mazar-e Shareef Abdul-Rashid Dostum has let loose his Uzbek militia on the hapless population. After the town fell on November 9, he massacred some 700 Taliban and their Arab and Pakistani supporters by crushing them under tanks. This is a speciality of Dostum’s, but he is not the only one guilty of such barbaric behaviour; his fellow communist-turned-Islamic warrior, general Muhammad Fahim, who is the new security chief of Kabul, is equally ruthless. His men have been attacking homes, abducting women, and robbing and plundering. In the mean time the Hazaras have moved from the northwest of Kabul to carve out their own turf.
Not surprisingly, the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) issued a stern warning against the Northern Alliance, aware of its horrible record in the past. RAWA branded the Alliance a group of “war criminals, rapists, vandals and misogynists.” It demanded that the UN seat for Afghanistan be suspended until the formation of a “legal and representative government.” Their claims are confirmed by an Amnesty International report (1996) on crimes committed by the Northern Alliance when it ruled Afghanistan. “The lives of hundreds of thousands of Afghan women and children have been shattered in the human rights catastrophe that has devastated Afghanistan in the past three years,” the London-based human rights group said five years ago. “Though the [Alliance] has learned how to pose before the West as democratic and even [as] supporters of women’s rights,” said RAWA, “they have not changed at all, as a leopard cannot change its spots.” This is a powerful indictment from an Afghan women’s group, but in the new environment, in which the US is prepared to befriend even the devil to fight the Taliban, such pleas will fall on deaf ears.
The rest of Afghanistan is also becoming a patchwork of fiefdoms. In the eastern city of Jalalabad, maulvi Yunus Khalis’s Hizb-e Islami group seems to hold sway, with the Northern Alliance contesting its authority. Three warlords are carving up the spoils: the newly-appointed governor Haji Qadir, security minister Haji Zaman Ghamshareek, and law-and-order minister Hazrat Ali, a Nooristani who is not acceptable to the Pashtun majority.
In western Afghanistan, Ismail Khan has re-emerged in his former stronghold of Herat. In southern Afghanistan, American-financed mercenaries have been scrambling to take control. The US has reportedly spent hundreds of millions of dollars to bribe southern tribes to abandon the Taliban. There have been some defections, but the Taliban’s hold appears to be fairly strong in areas under their control, confounding predictions about their imminent collapse. They may yet do so, as they did in abandoning Kabul so suddenly, but if Mullah Omar’s spokesman, Syed Tayyab Agha, is to be believed the Taliban will stand and fight. He said so during a press conference outside Qandahar on November 21, where some 200 foreign journalists were permitted to attend. The Taliban, still acting as the official government of Afghanistan, issued visas and allowed them to travel from the Pakistani border town of Chaman. To back up their claims the Taliban launched a massive strike against the Northern Alliance troops in Maidan Shah, south of Kabul, on November 22. This is a remarkable feat by any standards, given that the Taliban have been written off by almost all commentators and analysts.
All this goes to show that the only thing predictable about war is its unpredictability, especially in Afghanistan. Initially, the Taliban surprised the world by their ability to withstand heavy US bombing for more than a month; even the US military was forced to concede that the Taliban are “tough” opponents. But the Taliban’s sudden departure from Kabul on November 13 was equally surprising. As the Northern Alliance continued to sweep across Northern Afghanistan, not without help from their American masters, western commentators began to write the Taliban’s obituaries. These may yet come true, but not as quickly as they hope. Beside, the Northern Alliance is not a united group, despite its official title being the “United Front.” The only thing uniting them is their hatred of the Taliban, whose removal from Kabul is resurrecting old rivalries. One of their members, Abdul-Rasoul Sayyaf, is as ‘fundamentalist’ as the Taliban (in fact he has close links with the Saudis). Similarly the Hazaras are demanding their share of the spoils of war.
Then there is the interesting demand that Afghan women should be represented in a future government. The only women likely to be represented are the ones who are westernized and secular, completely out of touch with reality in Afghanistan and having nothing in common with the overwhelming majority of Afghan women. As one burqa-clad woman told the BBC correspondent in Kabul on November 21, it makes no difference to her whether the Taliban or the Northern Alliance are in power. Very few Afghan women have taken off their burqas, despite the Taliban’s withdrawal from Kabul and the loud western claim that women were discarding their burqas en masse. Although strictly enforced by the Taliban, the burqa is an Afghan custom and not an invention of the Taliban. It is worn by Afghan women in refugee-camps in Pakistan where there is no Taliban influence or control; indeed, the burqa is used by millions of Pakistani women as well.
On the one hand the Americans are proclaiming that they want the Afghans to decide for themselves, and on the other they have introduced legislation in the US congress (November 19) demanding representation for women in the future leadership of Afghanistan. Called the Access for Afghan Women Act 2001, the bill outlines steps the US should take to ensure that women in Afghanistan have a say in the future of their war-torn country. It is preposterous for the US congress to dictate how other people ought to lead their lives; it also confirms that America’s attack on Afghanistan is essentially an imperialist campaign. The bill was promoted by a women’s group called Women’s Edge. “The Afghan people want, and the US government supports, a broad-based representative government, which includes women,” said a US state department report released on November 18. The US’s “broad-based” government, however, does not include the Taliban, nor indeed “fair representation” for the Pashtun majority.
Such a proposal will simply not work, regardless of how much drum-beating the US media indulges in to promote it. In fact, the US has not only peddled massive lies on its own networks but has also attempted to muzzle al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based television-station that has made a name for itself by its coverage of this war. On November 13 US planes attacked al-Jazeera’s offices in Kabul, demolishing them completely. Fortunately its correspondents were not there at the time, but their equipment was destroyed. The US said that the incident was a “mistake” (America only makes mistakes; others commit crimes), but the message was unmistakable: if you do not toe America’s line, you will be crushed.
Although the US can destroy al-Jazeera, and bomb any part of Afghanistan from the air, it cannot bring peace. The Afghans may yet again demonstrate the truth of a proverb of theirs, to the effect that when God wishes to punish a people He sends them to attack Afghanistan. This may explain why the US appears reluctant to commit large numbers of ground troops. It will have to do so if it seriously means to achieve the objectives it has set for itself. This may yet prove its undoing. Few will shed tears should that prospect come to pass.