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    South Asia
     Jun 3, 2006
The day that changed Afghanistan
By M K Bhadrakumar

The eruption of anti-government, anti-American rioting on Monday in Kabul has inevitably led to post-mortems about what happened. This in turn has led to the drawing up of checklists of failures on the part of the "international community" (read the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization - NATO) and the Afghan government in their inability to provide troops, security and funds for reconstruction and nation-building to the Pashtun tribes in southern Afghanistan.

A few additional details have also been thrown in as regards Afghanistan's drug economy, the nexus between drug traffickers, "warlords" and corrupt bureaucrats, the pompous lifestyle of the

expatriate community singularly unmindful of the extreme poverty surrounding their sequestered life, and of course the venality that comes in the wake of any invading army.

The story is complete. It is utterly familiar. This was how Saigon used to be in the 1960s.

But these accounts meticulously count the trees - leaving one to wonder how dark and deep the woods might be. Therefore, when Tim Albone, correspondent for The Times of London in Kabul, wrote that he believed the riots could mark a turning point in the Afghan situation, it caught attention as a unique description. Albone wrote:
I've been in Kabul for nine months and there has never been anything like this before. There is a real feeling in the air that today Kabul changed. There has been a lot of fighting in the south but this has been mainly between the militias and the American forces ... I've spoken to friends who work in Iraq and they say that there was one day when it all changed. That could be the case here ... They [Afghans] have realized that they can take on the police and take on the Americans - they could easily do it again.
What distinguishes Monday's rioting is that Kabul is a largely Tajik city. It seems the agitators carried posters of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary "Lion of Panjshir" who led the Northern Alliance during the anti-Taliban resistance and was assassinated by al-Qaeda on the eve of the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US and eliminated from the political equations with clinical precision, just as Afghanistan's need of his leadership would have become most pressing.

The agitators in Kabul burned banners of President Hamid Karzai. The violent incidents had heavy anti-Karzai and anti-American overtones. It is a very bad sign indeed that the Tajiks, who constitute about 30% of Afghanistan's population, are openly turning against Karzai, caricaturing him as an American puppet.

Yet the groundswell of Tajik alienation should not have come as a surprise. Anger was building up at the systematic neglect that the Afghan government meted out to Panjshir (Massoud's power base) over the recent period.

Any serious observer of the Afghan scene would have noted as far back as March that something fundamental was changing in Afghan political alignments. Former president Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, the politically astute Tajik leader who founded Jamiat-i-Islami as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1960s, and played a key role in the Afghan jihad, refused point-blank to put blame on Pakistan for the growing instability in Afghanistan.

Instead, he went on to exonerate Pakistani officials - this at the end of March, when Karzai was mounting a virulent campaign that Pakistan was supportive of the Taliban's resurgence.

More important, Rabbani did this in the course of an interview with the Pakistani media. He was evidently carrying his message across to the Pakistani audience - conveying in subtle terms his antipathy toward the dispensation in Kabul and at the same time renewing his old links with Peshawar and Islamabad.

It takes time and effort to comprehend the quicksands of Afghan politics. Not many would even know that Rabbani, who headed the mujahideen government in Kabul (which was overthrown by the Taliban in 1996), also had covertly funded the Taliban militia in the late-1994-early-1995 period. In Rabbani's estimation at that time, the Taliban were capable of vanquishing Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was the principal adversary of the Rabbani government.

The twin pillars of Jamiat-i-Islami ideology - Islam and Afghan nationalism - are also, curiously, the driving force behind today's Afghan resistance spearheaded by the Taliban. Herein lies the "terrible beauty" (to borrow the words of W B Yeats) of what happened in Kabul on Monday.

Rabbani recently spelled out his political platform in some detail during an interview with a publication from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. Some extracts from the interview hold the key to the shape of things to come in the Afghan political landscape. Rabbani said:
Westerners, because of their corrupted culture, want to prevent things that are beneficial to the Muslims. Besides, they entice us toward things that are harmful to our [Muslim] society. For example, why shouldn't an Islamic country such as Iran use nuclear technology? It does not want to make any nuclear bomb, but wants to use nuclear technology. The goal of Westerners is that an Islamic country should not develop. Thus, all these cries of conspiracy and uproar are because Islamic countries should be denied the fruits of development, they should rather serve as markets for those countries so that they get raw materials, produce goods and sell them back to Islamic countries.

Now, Americans have shown their attitude to human rights in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. It is surprising that they disallow girls from going to schools wearing a headscarf. But they will not get away with this in Afghanistan ... We consider this a conspiracy against our religion, our freedom and security. They talk about women's issues, while thousands of women die, and nobody cares for them. But that does not stop them from talking about "moral corruption". They haven't come here for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, but they have come here to corrupt us ...

The regime that rules our country stands against the wishes of the entire nation ... In Afghanistan, our policies should be defined by our nation, not by any foreign country. The current Afghan government's policies are not acceptable to the Afghan people. We must protect our freedom. If a foreign country gives aid, that should be without any strings attached. If the donors put conditions, we should not accept such aid.
It does not require much ingenuity to see that Rabbani's platform can easily converge with that of the Taliban-led Afghan resistance - or of Hekmatyar. In fact, the Canadian daily Toronto Star reported recently that clerics in Kabul mosques had been urging worshippers to join the resistance against Karzai's government and the occupation troops.

The report said, "Some imams here [Kabul] believe the time is ripe to call for holy war [jihad]." There have been reports of weapons from the northern regions in the possession of erstwhile Northern Alliance elements finding their way to the Taliban in the south. Political divides are getting blurred.

Much of the Tajik alienation has arisen out of the easing out of two important Tajik leaders, Mohammed Fahim and Yunus Qanooni, from Karzai's government. These leaders enjoy grassroots support among Tajiks. The summary fashion in which Karzai removed them from office humiliated the "Panjshiris" as a whole.

In fact, it was in the most bizarre way conceivable that Karzai chose to sack the charismatic former foreign minister, Abdullah (another close aide of Massoud), from his post in March. According to Abdullah, he was intimated about his removal by telephone while he was on an official visit to Washington. Abdullah said he had met with Karzai just before leaving Kabul for Washington but the latter assured him that his portfolio wouldn't be affected in any cabinet changes.

"It [removal from cabinet] did come out of the blue because no one had talked to me or consulted me about it beforehand," Abdullah claimed.

Yet another factor of disaffection among the Tajiks is the deliberate attempt by the Karzai government to limit the Tajik presence in the Afghan National Army. To add to Tajik resentment, Karzai has subjected Panjshir to "benign neglect" by not allocating any substantial development funds for the region's reconstruction. Karzai's political intention would have been to bring the cradle of Tajik nationalism to its knees, while at the same time pandering to Pashtun chauvinism with a view to consolidating a power base in the Pashtun regions in the south and southwest.

But the tactic has not worked, as the Taliban's resurgence shows. Meanwhile, Karzai's ties with the Tajiks (who were his erstwhile allies and supporters in the 2002-05 period) soured. Karzai may be unwittingly preparing the ground for a consolidation of pan-Afghan nationalism.

The indications are that Karzai has also alienated other Northern Alliance groups. It is intriguing as to where exactly Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek leader from the northern Amu Darya region, currently stands in political equations.

Karzai appointed Dostum as chief of staff in March in a smart move aimed at removing him from his power base in the north and bringing him to live and work in Kabul. It soon began to dawn on Dostum that his job carried more rank than responsibility. Feeling belittled, he stormed out of Kabul and returned to his native Shibirghan. The relatively placid northern provinces have since become volatile.

The paradox is that Karzai is winning all the petty political skirmishes. He choreographed the entire spectacle in April leading to the resounding endorsement of his cabinet appointees by parliament. He deftly manipulated the internal divisions in the newly elected parliament and capitalized on its inexperience. The Brussels-based think-tank International Crisis Group, which was supportive of Karzai, criticized him for preventing the Afghan parliament from becoming a viable working body.

No matter the post-mortem reports regarding the eruption of violence in Kabul on Monday, the shift in political templates is the central issue. It seems a critical mass is developing around which an Afghan resistance transcending ethnic divides may take shape. Against this background, NATO is not helping matters by posing as a lone ranger.

Almost all Afghan ethnic groups enjoy kinship with neighboring countries. Therefore, in any enduring Afghan settlement, Afghanistan's neighbors must be made stakeholders. NATO, on the other hand, is wasting precious time, lost in the thought of making 2006 a "pivotal year" in its history.

True, NATO has come into physical possession of a country far away from Europe, where it is at liberty to act without the prying eyes of international law. NATO is understandably keen to prove its grit in safeguarding Western interests in tough conditions - and indeed to claim a raison d'etre for itself.

But the riots in Kabul are a reminder that Afghanistan is a country that is deceptively easy to invade but almost impossible to occupy. The unseemly haste with which all fair-skinned Westerners had to run for cover on Monday showed that discretion would be the better part of valor.

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 (1998-2001).

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Al-Qaeda's long march to war (May 31, '06)

The battle spreads in Afghanistan (May 26, '06)

Taliban's new commander ready for a fight (May 20, '06)


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