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Spinning the web in Afghanistan
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

QUETTA, Balochistan - Three years after the US-led invasion on Afghanistan, the country stages presidential elections on October 9 that will be remarkable more for external interference than internal considerations in deciding a winner, with Washington, Islamabad, Moscow, New Delhi and Tehran all muddying the waters.

In this game of manipulation, Pakistan is at the forefront as it attempts to regain the strategic depth it had in Afghanistan prior to the ousting of the Taliban regime in late 2001. And the southwestern city of Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province, is abuzz as Pakistan rallies for a decisive majority of Pashtun votes.

The pre-election situation
Of the 18 presidential candidates, the current interim incumbent, Hamid Karzai, is the strongest. He is Pashtun, the dominant ethnic grouping, and favored by both Islamabad and Washington, the latter having handpicked him in the first place. But in the important Pashtun belt on the border with Pakistan, anti-US sentiment is running high, making Karzai vulnerable to his main rival, Yunus Qanooni.

Qanooni hails from the minority Tajik community, and is backed by Iran, Russia and India. He is a former education minister and a member of the Jamiat-i-Islami led by the influential Professor Buhanuddin Rabbani and is believed to have a strong voter bank in the heartlands - Takhar, Panjsher and Badakshan, apart from approximately 800,000 Afghan refugees in Iran who are eligible to vote. He also has some support in the predominantly Pashtun belt where the Jamiat-i-Islami has footholds, such as in Jalalabad, Kabul and Logar. Qanooni is viewed as an Islamist and anti-US.

Karzai's vulnerability is compounded by the Taliban (defined by the US as "bad" Taliban as opposed to "good" ones ) calling for a boycott of the elections. The Taliban movement still holds massive appeal for the Pashtun population in east and southeastern Afghanistan, especially in Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Kunar, Zabul, Oruzgan and Kandahar.

Initially, the majority of the Afghan adult population refused to register for the polls. The government then issued special cards to those who did register, and these cards are a virtual prerequisite for being a "national". People are stopped at bus stops and check points and forced to produce the registration cards, or else face harassment. Registration figures shot up as a result. However, in places like Zabul and Hilmand, the Taliban often besiege areas and beat up people found with cards.

In addition to approximately 10 million voters in Afghanistan, about 1.5 million in refugee camps in Pakistan can also vote. The Taliban have already distributed warning leaflets in these camps that those found voting will have their homes demolished. Some independent clerics are also preaching to discourage females from voting. This trend also exists in the Pashtun belt.

These developments aside, two powerful candidates, Syed Ishaq Gailani and Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, will also deplete Karzai's vote bank. Ahmadzai hails from the Ittehad-i-Islami Afghanistan led by Professor Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf. He is influential in places such as Laghman and Paktia. Gailani comes from a powerful spiritual family with support in Kabul, beside some pockets in Kandahar and Jalalabad. Gailani is a supporter of former Afghan king Zahir Shah.

Concerned onlookers
Unlike Qanooni's stable support in Tajik areas and the Iranian refugee camps, Karzai cannot count on uniform Pashtun support, which is of some concern to both Islamabad and Washington as they certainly don't want Qanooni as the next president.

Although Islamabad does not particularly like Karzai, it has lost all of its cards, including the Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan and the Taliban, and is trying to make the best of a bad job by getting Karzai and key "henchmen" elected.

Even before the collapse of the Taliban, Pakistan had devised a strategy under which it promoted former jihadi commanders of Pashtun origin to form a council headed by Gailani, a "liberal" and acceptable face for the US, to replace the Taliban in Kabul. However, Western countries shot down the idea as a bid to bring jihadis into power. Nevertheless, after a couple of years three powerful jihadi commanders (from the same council) have managed to work their way into Karzai's cabinet - Qazi Amin, Abdul Waheed Sabaoon and Haji Mengal Hussain, all former Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan members.

The idea of "moderate Taliban" was also devised by Pakistan. Initially it was unpopular in Washington, but as the Afghan resistance continued the US agreed and has given the green light for them to provide Karzai with a strong base in the Pashtun population. Former foreign minister Mullah Abdul Waqil Mutawakil, Mullah Khaksar and Mullah Ghous are three prominent people now on Karzai's side, having changed loyalties from Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

Pakistan has recently conducted countrywide raids to sort out "bad" Taliban, resulting in a team of "good" Taliban being assembled to help Karzai. Organizations such as the Jaishul Muslim have been set up to accommodate them.

Syed Saleem Shahzad, Bureau Chief Pakistan, Asia Times Online. He can be reached at

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Sep 8, 2004

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