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    South Asia
     Nov 8, 2007
Afghanistan rocked by northern bombing
By M K Bhadrakumar

The killing of Sayed Mustafa Kazimi, the 45-year-old Hazara Shi'ite leader from Parwan province of Afghanistan, to the northwest of Kabul, bears all the hallmark of a political assassination.

The blame for the suicide bomb attack on Tuesday in the town of Pul-i-Khumri in the northern Baghlan province, some 150 kilometers from Kabul, will almost inevitably be placed at the doorstep of the Taliban. This is only natural. The denial of

involvement by the main Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed, is unlikely to be taken seriously.

But the incident once again draws attention to the problem that under the guise of the Taliban insurgency, many forces are operating.

The incident also catches attention as the deadliest suicide attack since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001. According to initial reports, close to 50 people were killed, including five members of Parliament, including Kazimi. An 18-member delegation of lawmakers was visiting a sugar factory in Baghlan when the attack took place.

Kazimi appears to have been the main target. He was the rising star of the Afghan political scene. Foreigners who knew him in the heyday of the anti-Taliban resistance in the 1990s would vouchsafe that he was destined to rise high in the political arena. His mujahideen pedigree was impeccable. He was relatively young and had a modern outlook.

Along with "Ustad" Abdul Ali Mazari and Karim Khalili, he was one of the founders of the Hizb-e-Wahdat Islami Afghanistan, the main Hazara Shi'ite mujahideen group, which was supported by Iran in the Afghan jihad of the 1980s against the Soviet Union.

Kazimi was a rare combination of brilliant organizer and suave spokesman. For his community, which was traditionally bereft of such talented leaders, he was a great asset. It came as no surprise that when the so-called National United Front, Jabhe-ye-Motahed-e-Milli, an assorted coalition of erstwhile mujahideen leaders (and former communists) in political opposition to the government of President Hamid Karzai took shape in March, Kazimi was appointed its main spokesman.

Kazimi's role in the National United Front was tacit recognition of his consistent stance that Afghan politics must cross ethnic and regional boundaries. In the exasperating internecine tensions within the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in the late 1990s, Kazimi often played a key role, bridging ethnic, personal rivalries among various groups.

But for Kazimi's tireless role, it is doubtful if rapprochement between the Tajik groups led by the late Ahmad Shah Massoud and the Hezb-e-Wahdat would have been possible within the framework of the Northern Alliance. The mutual antipathies of the two sides were well-founded as Tajik forces had killed about 1,000 Hazara women and children in a massacre in the west Kabul district of Afshar, a predominantly Hazara area, during the mujahideen rule in 1993.

Kazimi had an easy way of working with political adversaries, which is uncommon in Afghanistan.

Evidently, those who plotted his assassination had a grand design. The Taliban lack the political sophistication to work with such foresight and planning. Of course, the Taliban have an old feud with the Hazara Shi'ites dating to the murder of Mazari in March 1995, when the Taliban, already approaching Kabul, entrapped him after inviting him for peace talks. He was tortured and murdered before his body was thrown out of a helicopter somewhere near Ghazni.

Observers of the Afghan scene may have forgotten the incident, but what comes readily to mind is that the suspicion still lingers that Mazari's murder was the handiwork of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

The finger of suspicion must once again turn to the ISI over Kazimi's killing, which raises the issue of what would be gained by removing him from the political landscape.

First, he comes from a region of Afghanistan which is very sensitive. Those who know the Afghan chessboard would acknowledge the supreme importance of controlling the provinces of Baghlan and Parwan. They form the gateway to the northern Amu Darya region, the Panjshir Valley to the east and the central Hazarajat region respectively.

Control of the mountain passes to the west of Baghlan was bitterly contested between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. The hub was extremely important strategically. In political terms, it is possible to say that without exercising control of the hub, there can be no effective unity between the non-Pashtun ethnic groups of Tajiks and Hazaras (and even the Uzbekis).

Baghlan connects the predominantly Tajik areas with the Hazarajat region and is also on the main communication line between Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif in the Amu Darya region. Baghlan itself is a mosaic where Pushtuns, Tajiks and Hazaras have traditionally vied for influence and control.

Kazimi hailed from Parwan and did much of his political work in his early years in Baghlan province, where he was quite popular. There is no better way of creating volatility, if not mayhem, in that sensitive region than through a political assassination. The ISI has used targeted political assassinations with devastating effect in Afghanistan many a time at critical junctures on the battlefield.

Kazimi's killing is a tell-tale sign that a master plan to destabilize the northern regions of Afghanistan is in the works. It could only mean that we are about to witness the calibrated extension of the insurgency to the northern regions, which have remained relatively tranquil, apart from a few sporadic incidents.

The implications could be very serious for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) contingents located thinly on the ground in the northern regions.

Kazimi's killing throws the National United Front into confusion. This is unfortunate since it was a coalition of non-Taliban opposition elements. In any future "intra-Afghan dialogue", the coalition would have optimized its bargaining strength simply by being a collective body. Kazimi would have been vital glue for the disparate elements of the front to be able to collectively bargain for political space in any future set-up in Kabul that strove to accommodate the Taliban.

There are already signs that elements within the National United Front have begun seeking accommodation at the individual level. The weakening of the front at this stage, just as there are signs of talks with the Taliban gaining a formal shape, works entirely to the advantage of the Taliban.

The ISI has always worked against the forging of any unity by the non-Pashtun ethnic groups in the central and northern regions.

And the Hezb-e-Wahdat takes a devastating blow with Kazimi's death. His absence will be keenly felt in protecting Hazara interests. Tehran, too, has lost a good Afghan friend.

The probability is that Tuesday's attack was staged by the Hezb-i-Islami under Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, which has close ties with the ISI. Hekmatyar has pockets of influence in the Baghlan area. His field commanders were active in the area even after he fled Afghanistan in 1996 following the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.

The ISI game plan could be to create an operational base for Hekmatyar in the northern region. There could be no better turf than Baghlan, from where he could expand his political activities.

NATO forces in Afghanistan face the specter of multiple fronts. There are disquieting signs already. So far the insurgency has been concentrated in the southern region.

On Tuesday, in what could be a harbinger of events to come, a few dozen Taliban riding motorcycles and pick-up trucks overran the district center of Kajran in central Daikundi province, which borders the volatile provinces of Uruzgan and Helmand, the scene of heavy fighting this year. The attack was preceded by artillery firing into the town from a mountain overlook for the past five days.
This is the third district overrun by the Taliban outside of the southern region in the past week. On Monday, the Taliban seized control of Gilistan and Bakwa provinces in western Farah province near the Iranian border.

The developments once again bear testimony to the harsh ground reality as to how next to impossible it will be for the United States and Britain to tighten the screws on Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf simply because the general wants to rule his country on his own terms.

It is not only that some 90% of NATO's supplies in Afghanistan go through Pakistan, but also that the ISI controls many strings within Afghanistan. NATO has become hostage to the goodwill of Pakistani security agencies.

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 to Turkey (1998-2001).

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

The north goes its own way in Afghanistan (Nov 7, '07)

1. Besieged Musharraf plays for time

2. Bush's Turkey shoot

3. Imperial opportunities for US builders

4. Pakistan shakes off US shackles

5. Musharraf plays his last ace

6. Pakistan's radical Red Mosque returns

7. Level 3 storm about to hit Wall Street

8. Inside story of the Western mind

9. Air strikes first, questions later

10. Interpol's decision time on 'Iranian' bombing

11. Road to ruin

(24 hours to 11:59 pm ET, Nov 6, 2007)


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