Members of a delegation
accompanying US Vice President Dick Cheney to
Kabul for the inaugural ceremony of the newly
constituted parliament last month would have been
the first Americans to report back to Washington
that something odd was going on in Afghanistan,
that things were not quite like what they had read
in their briefs and position papers.
Afghan sentries guarding the presidential palace
of Hamid Karzai simply shrugged their shoulders
and roughly shepherded the protesting Americans to
a corner, and proceeded to subject them, women and
men alike, to a thorough body search before
letting them into the premises
where Karzai was waiting. These were Afghan guards
who were trained and equipped by the US.
Afghans have their own ways, devised through
trials and tribulations of life in a harsh
terrain, to let the world know when they are
annoyed. More so, if they lose respect for
Surely, the people surrounding Karzai are
hopping mad that the Americans are announcing
"victory" in the "war on terror" in Afghanistan,
and moving on.
An air of unease prevails
in Kabul. The Taliban's exclusion from the peace
process in Bonn in December 2001 indeed lies at
the root of the Afghan problem today. The
victorious regional powers wanted to wreak
vengeance on the Taliban (and Pakistan) for all
the ignominies they suffered during the Taliban
era from 1996 to 2001.
for the US, it needed
an enemy after September 11, 2001, and the
Taliban ("Afghan Nazis") presented themselves. As
for Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which should have
held the Taliban's case file at Bonn, they ducked
either for reasons of political expediency or in
consideration of their supreme national interests.
In the four years since then, it has
become abundantly clear that except through a
genuine intra-Afghan dialogue involving the
Taliban, peace will remain elusive. The Taliban
feel cheated out of power. Karzai has failed to
engineer any significant defections from the
Taliban, and he has not been able to consolidate
Pashtun support either.
international conference in London this month may
end up as another inconsequential marking on the
margins of the Afghan tragedy unless the core
issue of a durable Afghan political reconciliation
is first addressed. Conceivably, the window of
opportunity still remains open for an intra-Afghan
From the US perspective,
this may look a moot point since maximum political
mileage has been already squeezed out of the "war
on terror" in Afghanistan. To an appreciable
extent, President George W Bush owes his second term
in office to the Afghan war. Karzai's hastily
arranged victory in the presidential election, on
the eve of the US election, was trumpeted in front
of a naive electorate in the US as a foreign
policy triumph that made America more secure from
From Washington's point of
view, therefore, it may seem that the law of
diminishing returns is at work for the Bush
administration. The most prudent thing for the US
is, understandably, to claim "victory" and to
disengage from active military duty in the Hindu
Kush. The ground situation in Afghanistan is
worsening. The Taliban are undoubtedly spreading
their presence. There is no point quibbling over
the Taliban's "strength".
The Taliban may
not be able to capture power in Kabul, but they
are increasingly in a position to create mayhem,
and that makes the governance of the country
simply impossible. The huge income from drug
trafficking has made Afghan resistance
"self-financing". The Taliban's tactics are
But fortunately for the
US, unlike in Iraq, an exit strategy is at hand.
The baton is simply being passed on to the
North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The US is
counting on the "New Europeans" who are eager to
prove their "Europeanness", and NATO's Anglo-Saxon
contingents to come forward for a tour of duty in
New Europeans in their
enthusiasm tend to view the upcoming assignment in
Afghanistan in terms comparable to peacekeeping in
Bosnia. Some offered to Karzai heavy armor from
their Warsaw Pact inventories as "military aid"
for combating the Taliban guerrillas.
is indeed facing an existential dilemma. Old
Europe is intensely cautious that if NATO leads
the "war on terror" in Afghanistan, it either
brilliantly succeeds or gets fatally wounded.
The regional powers will be closely
watching. Among the countries bordering
Afghanistan, none except Tajikistan has any type
of formal relations with NATO. Iran and Uzbekistan
do not harbor friendly feelings toward NATO.
Public opinion in Pakistan is hostile toward any
form of Western presence. The Pakistan government
virtually eased out NATO from the relief and
rehabilitation work in the earthquake-stricken
regions of Kashmir, despite its undisguised
interest to continue. The Taliban view NATO as an
With the scaling down of
the US role, regional powers may feel
constrained to step up their own involvement in
Afghanistan, unless NATO member countries agree to
a substantial troop presence in Afghanistan - at a
force level three or four times the present level.
In December, NATO authorized a plan to expand its
peacekeeping force by 6,000 more troops, bringing
its total troop number up to 15,000. At the same
time, the US announced it would scale back its
presence by about 2,500 troops from the current
19,000 troop deployment.
In the past,
whenever a power vacuum developed (or if it were
seen that some external power was striving to gain
unilateral advantage), regional powers sponsored
surrogate Afghan groups for safeguarding their
interests. If that were to happen again, it would
only be a matter of time before the NATO
contingents found themselves caught in the
crossfire between antagonistic Afghan groups
enjoying outside support. Bosnia had no parallels.
Besides, NATO depends on the goodwill of
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan for
maintaining supply lines for its contingents in
Afghanistan. This dependence is predicated not
only on Washington abandoning its agenda of regime
change in the former Soviet republics of Central
Asia but also on the overall climate of
Russian-American relations, as well as the
three-way equations involving Washington, Moscow
and Beijing. Simply put, everything revolves
around "multilateralism" prevailing in inter-state
relations in the world order.
NATO-Taliban tangle has an Afghan side to it. The
cold peace that was worked out at the Bonn
conference inevitably excluded many non-Taliban
forces, too, from the Afghan political stage. Some
have since been accommodated, but many feel
cheated out of their share of the peace dividend.
The leader of the erstwhile Northern
Alliance, Burhanuddin Rabbani, initially reacted
to the US presence in Afghanistan in harsh terms.
While being forced out of office as president and
making way for Karzai, he hoped that never again
would the proud Afghan nation have to undergo the
humiliation of being dictated to by foreigners.
The subsequent "softening up" of Rabbani
by the American viceroys stationed in Kabul in the
run-up to the presidential elections in October
2004 would be a case study in political chicanery.
Rabbani was brought kicking and screaming into a
political truce with Karzai. That was the high
point in the manipulative politics aimed at
ensuring that somehow Karzai won the election.
But Rabbani played a crucial role last
month in the upset victory of Younus Qanooni as
the speaker of the Afghan parliament. He has
emerged as the power broker between Karzai and
Qanooni. How Rabbani intends to employ his
leverage will be a key factor.
several options. He could be the arbiter between
the contending centers of power around Karzai and
Qanooni. Or he could increasingly regard himself
to be the monarch of all he surveys. In either
case, Karzai is being called on to share power -
something he is notoriously averse to.
Rabbani is the senior-most
conservative Islamist leader in Afghanistan today. He
enjoys wide networking. He is on cordial terms with
both Pakistan and Iran. Clearly, Pakistan and Iran
are big-time players in Afghanistan. Without
their cooperation, the US intervention in
Afghanistan would have been unthinkable. Yet,
ironically, these two countries have reason to
feel embittered. They have paid a heavy price for
the US presence in the region.
a result of the Afghan war, Pakistan's
internal stability has seriously suffered -
perhaps irretrievably. Washington is on a warpath
with Tehran today. Iranians have alleged that
their soldiers on the border with Pakistan
were kidnapped 10 days ago in a covert US
operation. Is the US stoking the flames of Balochi
sub-nationalism in Pakistan with the objective of
setting Iran's adjacent Balochistan region on
Above all, in the overall climate of
violence and anarchy, it is becoming increasingly
futile to draw dividing lines in terms of
political affiliations or ideologies - or in terms
of Taliban and non-Taliban. In the mayhem of the
sort that the Taliban seem to be getting ready to
trigger, prevailing equations can change
overnight. Things may look calm on the surface,
but the undercurrents can be vicious.
power calculus in Kabul that Washington thought it
had astutely worked out was far too contrived and
out of tune with Afghan ground realities to
survive unless backed by an assertive US
military presence for years to come. That is how
the Afghan bazaar views the spectrum. The security
guards in the presidential palace in Kabul let
that be known when Cheney came calling.
M K Bhadrakumar served
as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service for more than 29 years, with postings including
ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey