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    Central Asia
     Jun 25, 2005
Smokescreens in Afghanistan
By M K Bhadrakumar

When a high-flier leaves a key diplomatic post, a spat becomes almost inevitable. This is for three reasons. First, it is seldom that yet another high-flier replaces a high-flier. A sort of "fatigue" develops after a spell of breathtaking diplomacy - like a deep trough on a roller coaster ride. Second, a high-flier is a high-flier in his outpost largely because of his networking back home; his success in the mission abroad ultimately depends on his alliance-building back home. But keeping coalitions at home while in an outpost abroad is a rare skill. Third, thanks to a support base back home, a high-flier rams his diplomatic brief through no matter what the odds are. His work usually unravels once he departs. And a spat ensues.

The spat enveloping Zilmay Khalilzad's departure from his assignment as the American ambassador in Kabul, therefore, could have been anticipated. (He now takes over as ambassador to Iraq.)

Khalilzad had many advantages. His formidable record in US diplomacy and in the security establishment, and his profile in academia and the corporate sector followed him in his assignment in Kabul. Thus, every word of his, every move he made was perceived as bearing the George W Bush administration's imprimatur. Afghans were simply overawed. With the added advantage of being a native Afghan, he proved to be a skilful "fixer". How he navigated Hamid Karzai's ascent to presidency; how he took apart the Northern Alliance and picked up the pieces he wanted and cast away what he disliked; the astuteness with which he elbowed out regional powers from the Afghan chessboard - these bear testimony to his mastery over a difficult brief.

But the spat has begun. Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf may have unwittingly initiated a discussion during a visit to Australia last week. Musharraf assessed that in "do-able" terms, from a soldier's point of view, "we should be able to bring a semblance of democracy that is sustainable, ensuring the integrity of Afghanistan" in a matter of 10 years. What has been achieved during the past three-and-a-half years since American troops landed in Afghanistan is that "we've broken [al-Qaeda's] cohesion" and its ability to function as a "homogeneous body able to execute operations in a command and control environment". But it will take 10 years for an "ultimate dismantling, ultimate elimination" of al-Qaeda from Afghanistan.

That was an unkind cut. If even a claim cannot be made that the democracy project has been a resounding success in Afghanistan, what remains to justify triumphalism?

Separately, senior Russian officials have spoken of "irrefutable proof" of extremist elements linked to the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan having instigated last month's events in the city of Andijan in Uzbekistan. An accusing finger was pointed that neither US forces nor the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) were doing anything to curb the "export of terrorism" from Afghanistan. There is renewed talk in the region about the US's "double standards".

Tashkent has also made some serious allegations. The Uzbek Foreign Ministry has hinted that Americans might have precipitated Andijan events as "tit for tat" for Tashkent's decision some months ago to place restrictions on US aircraft operating out of Karshi-Khanabad airfield in Uzbekistan. Uzbek government media also reported some sensational details of clandestine meetings in recent months between American intelligence officials in Afghanistan with Tohir Yoldashev, leader of the Islamic Movement of Afghanistan (IMU), an organization figuring in the US government's list of terrorist organizations.

Washington has not responded to these allegations. However, Khalilzad hit back, but pointedly at Islamabad. He sidestepped the Russian and Central Asian allegations. He insinuated that Pakistan was not doing enough to curb Taliban activities. Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak also joined issue. He made a counter allegation that "regional powers" which were "rattled" by the prospect of a long-term US military presence in Afghanistan were supporting al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Wardak said "more than one country ... including some that did not border Afghanistan directly" was supporting the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Pakistan, predictably, dismissed Khalilzad's accusation, and ignored Wardak's, claiming that the ambassador was out of tune with Washington. The Pakistani spokesman pointed out that Washington had repeatedly stated its appreciation of Islamabad's contributions to the "war on terror".

Many issues have suddenly come into the open. What exactly is the balance sheet of the war on terror in Afghanistan? If 10 more years are needed to eliminate al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, what has been achieved so far? Did the US actually use its military presence in Afghanistan to instigate the IMU to create problems for the Uzbek government? Are the regional powers undercutting the US-led war on terror? Is the war on terror degenerating into geopolitical rivalries?

Some answers are available. On the security front, the war on terror has successfully dispersed various international militant networks thriving in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. In October 2001, as American troops moved in, Taliban militia and its allied cadres gingerly retreated into the tribal agencies in Pakistan. But where did the Taliban go? American military commanders and authorities in Kabul have lately begun to admit that their claim that the Taliban were a spent force was made hastily and that the Taliban have regrouped. A pattern is setting in. A lull prevails during winter months, but with the advent of spring the Taliban reappear and another "fighting season" commences. Every year the hope is that by the next "fighting season" an Afghan force will be equipped to take them on. But with each fighting season the Taliban are becoming more audacious, better coordinated and apply new "techniques".

Wasn't this was the pattern during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s too? The US forces, too, are hitting back. (So did the Soviet army.) Almost every day we come across body counts of how many Taliban fighters have been killed. But the Taliban seem to have no difficulty in getting their ranks replenished. Also, no one can tell whether all those killed are actually Taliban fighters. Indeed, it is getting difficult to tell who is a Taliban member. All sorts of elements seem to share the objective of keeping the Afghan pot boiling. Wanton killings by US forces are certainly fueling anti-American sentiment among Afghan people, and in turn generating sympathy for the Taliban cause.

Meanwhile, the US-sponsored strategy of wooing "moderate" Taliban into the political mainstream is floundering. The strategy was a flawed one to begin with. Its pursuit regardless only exposed that the Taliban were much more cohesive than the Americans had been led to believe. The Taliban thereby scored a big propaganda point. The failure of the US attempt to split the Taliban now leaves a gaping hole in the overall political strategy. How to bring alienated Pashtuns into the political mainstream? Without Pashtun support, Hamid Karzai's leadership cannot consolidate.

Again, militia commanders who fell in line with the American diktat (thanks to Khalilzad's "negotiating skills") remain restive. Without Khalilzad's commanding presence, they may revert to their old ways. They have many scores to settle. Their acceptance of centralized rule by Kabul was never to be taken for granted. Can Karzai inspire in them the awe that Khalilzad could by his sheer presence? Recent incidents in Badghis, Badakhshan and Herat do not bode well.

Unfortunately, the US has shifted the burden of responsibility to curb drug trafficking from Afghanistan toward Central Asia, which is a main source of funding for militants, to the Afghan government - though the government has no effective control of the country. Thus, Afghanistan's opium production remains at a high level; and the militants have easy access to funding sources. The drug trafficking also spawns corruption within Karzai's government.

The bulk of the cadres allied to the Taliban, such as the IMU (numbering 3,000 to 5,000 fighters), Uighur groups and Chechen militants, have shifted to Tajikistan and the Ferghana Valley. A nexus is forming between the militants, drug mafia and criminal elements on both sides of Afghan-Tajik border. Evidently, the war on terror in Afghanistan is spilling into Central Asia. The Bush administration's democracy project can be expected to create more tempests in the region.

The indefinite postponement of the London conference of Afghanistan's donors underscores that security issues occupy center stage, and reconstruction activities remain on hold. If the prospects look gloomy, is Pakistan to be blamed?

There is uneasiness in Kabul whether Khalilzad's as yet unnamed successor will match his clout. The Kabul setup has reason to feel worried - like passengers left behind on a forlorn jetty just as dusk is falling. That the captain is sailing away for an important destination like Baghdad offers little consolation. President George W Bush did well by telephoning Musharraf and Karzai to affirm that Afghanistan was not far from his thoughts.

But will such gestures do? The alignment of forces among Afghans will never be the same in the period ahead. In the post-Khalilzad phase, the buck stops with Karzai. Afghans are waiting and watching. But, will the US forces (or NATO tomorrow) allow Karzai to be the monarch of all he surveys in his domain? If Karzai can carry his baton successfully through the parliamentary elections of September 16, his leadership will gain traction. And authentic politics could be deemed to have commenced.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and Turkey (1998-2001).

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