EYE Hand it to the
warlords By Pepe Escobar
May 2003, Taliban guerrillas were ripping in south and
southeast Afghanistan, al-Qaeda was alive and kicking
along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and President
Hamid Karzai could barely enforce his writ outside of
US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
flew to Kabul and declared "victory". It was a bluff.
Just like it was in Iraq.
In October 2004,
Taliban guerrillas are still ripping in the south and
southeast, al-Qaeda, albeit with reduced numbers, is
present along the border, and Karzai is still confined to
Kabul - he even had to abort an election rally in Gardez
for fear of attack, despite massive US security backup.
Yet Karzai is already the virtual winner of Saturday's
US President George W
Bush told the United Nations General Assembly last month
that "the Afghan people are on the path to democracy and
freedom". It was a bluff. Just like it was in Iraq.
The popularity contest
August Hanning, chief of German
intelligence, said this Thursday in Berlin that Osama bin Laden
is alive and hiding on the
Pakistan-Afghanistan border. European counter-terrorism experts in Brussels
tell Asia Times Online that bin Laden is almost
certainly inside Afghan territory, because of extremely intense US
surveillance of the Pakistani tribal areas.
The United States bombed Afghanistan in 2001 to destroy
al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts. Al-Qaeda leaders are still
in Afghanistan. The Taliban are a widespread
guerrilla operation active in approximately 40% of the
country. There's hardly any security and stability, not
to mention economic prosperity (apart from some real-estate
speculation in Kabul) or the rule of law. Pledged
reconstruction funds (US$4.5 billion) are not flowing in
- only $700 million so far.
So much for
nation-building. Afghanistan, in a nutshell, remains a
collection of warlords in search of their best cut of
the opium economy ($2.3 billion in 2003, an expected
100% increase in 2004).
The 9,000 North
Atlantic Treaty Organization troops "stabilizing" the
country hardly venture outside of Kabul - so nothing
is "stabilized": more Afghan officials and aid workers
died this year than in 2002 and 2003. Doctors Without
Borders pulled out - blaming the Bush administration. As for
the 18,000 US troops (now with another 1,000 providing
"election security"), they are helpless to prevent a
daily barrage of Taliban attacks and are obviously
incapable of "smoking out" bin Laden from his fabled
The Bush administration's mistakes in
Afghanistan were repeated in Iraq: the carelessness in
establishing a minimum of security, and then the
reluctance to turn over political control to a
legitimate government. Karzai's "popularity" is attested
by the plethora of DynCorp bodyguards protecting him
from repeated death threats and assassination attempts -
or from staging an election rally.
may no longer be in power, imposing their dreadful
edicts. Girls may be back to school (although women
continue to be harassed). The Kabul-Kandahar road may
have been repaved (but that's about it). Heroic aid
workers may be working with their Afghan colleagues (at
maximum risk). But the US could have done so much better
to help Afghanistan. It didn't. For a stark reason: from
the Pentagon's point of view, Afghanistan has lost,
again, its strategic importance.
factor This is quite an election
(already delayed twice). Of the 10.5 million registered
voters (many registered at least twice), a substantial
number are illiterate, have never seen a TV in their lives,
and don't even know most of the 16 candidates. Excitement
at tasting democracy is palpable in many quarters.
There may be a widespread feeling that the US invasion
has brought a measure of peace. But definitely not
security: in the Pashtun south, for instance, posters
from warlord and now guerrilla leader on America's most
wanted list Gulbuddin Hekmatyar warn anyone not even to
think about voting. Panjshiris in Kabul tell Asia Times
Online even people in the Panjshir Valley are
complaining that the Taliban and the Americans are the
Ahmad Shah Masoud, the "Lion of the
Panjshir", is still the key to the Afghan equation.
Masoud was assassinated on September 9, 2001, as a
"gift" from al-Qaeda to Taliban supremo Mullah Omar, and
as the go-ahead sign for September 11. Masoud died as a
true mujahideen - fighting the Taliban after fighting
the Soviets and other warlords. The US profited
handsomely: Masoud was calibrating his transition from
warrior to statesman, and in normal circumstances, in a
presidential election, no one could possibly match his
credentials as a true Afghan nationalist leader. With
Masoud alive there would be no US-manipulated Karzai.
No wonder, then, that Masoud is
the political weapon of choice of all the
presidential candidates. Karzai profited from Masoud's cult status by
picking one of Masoud's brothers, Ahmad Zia, as his
running mate. Ahmad Zia escaped an assassination attempt
this week. Karzai hopes that Ahmad Zia may secure
him essential votes in the Panjshir Valley against his main
rival in the race, former education minister Yunus Qanooni.
Qanooni has even better reasons to play Masoud because
he was a prominent member of the Northern Alliance
(Masoud is the star of his election posters). Qanooni
runs for a Tajik party, Nahzat-e-Melli, whose head is
another Masoud brother, Ahmad Wali. The Tajik creme
de la creme
of the Northern Alliance is backing
Qanooni: former defense minister and vice president
Mohammad Fahim (spurned by Karzai) and former foreign
minister and public face of the Northern Alliance in
2001, Abdullah Abdullah.
This is the clique
Afghans call "the Panjshiris" - the political heirs to
Masoud. And military heirs as well: Fahim controls an
armed-to-the-teeth 20,000 private militia. Qanooni's
party is against disarming and demobilizing militias.
Karzai may have bagged a Masoud, but in the process may
have lost most of the Tajik vote because he got rid of
powerful "Marshal" Fahim.
There's no tradition of strong
central government in Afghanistan. Karzai may have stripped
ultra-powerful Ismail Khan from his post as governor
of the eastern province of Herat, but he had to admit
this week on the British Broadcasting Corp that, if elected, he may bring
Ismail Khan back to government. Mohammed Mohaqiq, the
Shi'ite Hazara candidate, is a warlord. Not to mention
sinister Uzbek General Abdel Rashid Dostum - who
massacred hundreds of Taliban prisoners in 2001.
According to a Human Rights Watch report, warlords are
dictating the regional vote. Any average Afghan, from
any ethnic group, says he/she will vote for whomever
their tribal leader indicates: which means they will
vote for their former mujahideen-turned-warlord leader.
And then there's former president
Burhanuddin Rabbani, who wields enormous power in the shadows and
is also the father-in-law of Ahmad Zia Masoud. Because
in large part of his family ties, Rabbani now
supports Karzai. Karzai may be a Pashtun, but his government,
so far, has been dominated by the Tajiks of the
former Northern Alliance. Pashtuns may vote en masse for
Karzai because they see one of them occupying the
presidential chair. But they want more power in the cabinet.
To complicate matters, the non-voting Taliban are
also Pashtun. But what they see in Karzai is just a US
Candidate Abdul Satar Sirat has
repeatedly denounced the absence of security: for him,
there was no possible campaign trail. Sirat supported
former Afghan king Zahir Shah, and was supposed to be
the leader of the interim government after the fall of
the Taliban in late 2001. But in the 2001 Bonn
conference the Americans imposed "their" man, former
Unocal consultant Karzai.
The Taliban are very
active in the southeast - in the provinces of Paktia,
Paktika and Khost, which is the Afghan territory
directly opposite to North and South Waziristan tribal
agencies in Pakistan, where the US and the Pakistani army
are trying to smoke out al-Qaeda. As for the south - the
provinces of Uruzgan, Zabol, Helmand and Kandahar - this
is Taliban land.
Karzai may not be restricted to
Kabul because he is making all sorts of deals with the
warlords, with US backing: a UN source in Kabul
confirmed to Asia Times Online that oilman Zalmay
Khalilzad, the US ambassador, has personally
"encouraged" several warlords to clear the way for
Karzai. Deal-making of the suitcase-full-of-dollars kind
is what Washington used to win the Afghan war in 2001
(usually the deals were with the wrong warlords, as in
Speaking of Tora Bora ... Democratic
US Senator John Kerry has repeatedly charged that the Bush
administration's tactic of outsourcing the battle of
Tora Bora to locals, in December 2001, is the main
reason bin Laden was not captured. Bush did not even try
to answer the charge, either during the first presidential
debate or in the campaign trail. This correspondent
was in Tora Bora ( Taking a spin in Tora Bora
, December 7, 2001). The battle was indeed outsourced, for the
benefit of warlord Hazrat Ali. The B-52s were bombing
the wrong mountains. And bin Laden was long gone, at
least by four days, when the bombings intensified.
Retired General Tommy Franks, then responsible for the
Afghan war, still insists "he didn't know" whether bin
Laden was in Tora Bora.
The main theme of this
election won't be reported: it's called voter
intimidation. Both the European Union and the
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe even
said they could not monitor the election for fear they
would be constrained to denounce it as not being free
and fair. In the end, they sent some 125 monitors - but
they are confined to Kabul - for fear of Taliban
attacks. In the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan,
"security" in the polls will be provided by local
militias controlled by - who else - regional warlords,
who themselves will be controlling voter intimidation.
Bush needs Afghanistan as a "success" for only
one reason: his own re-election campaign. In the real world,
what will happen is that Dostum gets the Uzbek vote,
Mohaqiq the Hazara vote and Qanooni the Tajik vote.
Karzai will be their hostage - again. As for Taliban
leader Mullah Omar, he is also voting. With guns.
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