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    South Asia
     Aug 20, 2009
Powers line up to stir Afghanistan's pot
By M K Bhadrakumar

In his distinguished diplomatic career spanning four decades, there is not a trace of record to show that Richard Holbrooke, United States special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, dabbled in energy security issues. His current visit to Pakistan - en route to Afghanistan - has been officially projected as aimed at helping his host country find a way to overcome its electricity shortage.

Holbrooke admitted to Pakistani journalists on Monday in Islamabad that the energy crisis in their country had been building up over a quarter century and he could not be expected to solve it in a few weeks. But nonetheless he came as the US wanted to send a message that it was concerned about the Pakistani people's genuine problems and would do all it could to be of help.

Meanwhile, he delayed his departure for Kabul. And he took more meetings - with Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) chief Maulana Fazlur Rahman and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) leader Qazi Hussein Ahmad. But that's intriguing, as neither the Maulana nor the Qazi can be an interlocutor on energy security. Their forte lies elsewhere - militant Islam, cross-border terrorism and jihad in Afghanistan.

 
As Holbrooke kept himself busy in Islamabad, the commander of the US forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, also arrived in nearby Rawalpindi - the twin city of Islamabad - for a meeting with Pakistani army chief General Pervez Ashraf Kiani.

Holbrooke's "cover" has been blown and his real brief is exposed - evolving a joint approach with Pakistan apropos the next moves to be made on the Afghan political chessboard. Indeed, regional capitals are watching the next US-Pakistani move.

Neighboring India refused to receive Holbooke. Delhi has its reasons. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh warned the country in a major speech on Monday that "there is credible information of ongoing plans of terrorist groups in Pakistan to carry out fresh attacks" on India similar to the fedayeen-style terrorist strike on Mumbai last November that claimed the lives of nearly 200 people. He also spoke of a "surge" in Pakistan-aided militant activities in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Evidently, Delhi disagrees with Holbrooke's mission - courting Islamabad in the search for regional security and stability.

Tehran, too, harbors misgivings. Holbrooke inter alia remarked just before his trip to Pakistan that Tehran had a "legitimate role to play in the resolution of the Afghan issue". He said, "They [Iranians] are a factor, and to pretend that they aren't, as was often done in the past, doesn't make sense." But, he quickly added, "We don't have any direct contacts with them on this."

Holbrooke seemed to indulge in some kite-flying. It serves both the US and Pakistani interests to project that their axis enjoys "regional consensus". But Tehran ignored Holbrooke's charm offensive. Tehran has taken note of the robust campaign by the US and Pakistan with a view to somehow getting the Afghan presidential election postponed on the plea that the security situation didn't allow a free and fair poll. The polls are scheduled for Thursday.

Tehran saw through the US ploy. A postponed election may not get held for a very long time. Credit goes to Tehran in discouraging any postponement. Tehran is now keeping its fingers crossed about the possibility that the US might now engineer an "Iran-like situation" to muddy waters and install a surrogate power structure in Kabul. The Iranian ambassador to Afghanistan, Fadd Hossein Maleki, publicly warned on Monday about post-election manipulation by outside powers.

He said: "We are concerned about the events after the elections. We have seen signals that there might be problems. In this regard, we have begun serious consultations with the UN officials and a number of European ambassadors in Afghanistan as well as the Afghan authorities."

Maleki would have spoken publicly on such a sensitive issue only with clearance from Tehran. Obviously, Tehran estimates it is best to warn the US and Pakistan, two countries with the capacity to enact an "Iran-like" situation, that any such attempt would complicate the Afghan situation.

Again, Kayhan newspaper, which is identified with the religious establishment, commented: "[Afghan President] Hamid Karzai is truly in a bit of a corner ... Challenges are mounting from every side ... Presidential hopeful Abdullah Abdullah's camp has been acting most peculiarly." The commentary then came out with strong endorsement of Karzai's alliance with the so-called warlords as embodying an approach "to keep the country from falling apart", which recognizes that "Afghanistan is and has been a federation of provinces ruled over by strongmen".

It concluded: "Afghanistan can only be governed via federal rule and Mr Karzai understands the latter fact very well but he can't come out and say it to his Western patrons. His balancing act sometimes falls short of Western expectations and at other times gets right up Afghan warlords' nose. And criticisms immediately follow from either party. The West has sought to 'clear, hold and build' a functioning Afghan state on the Western model in which citizens' assent to a social contract that imposes social and political discipline in exchange for allowing a relatively wide berth in the personal realm. This places the Americans, right from the start, in total opposition to the last thousand or so years of Afghan history, just as it did the Soviets."

Tehran has every reason to be pleased with Karzai's close alliance with erstwhile mujahideen leaders such as Ismail Khan, Mohammed Fahim, Karim Khalili, Mohammed Mohaqiq and Rashid Dostum. Tehran obviously had a hand in persuading Dostum to return from Turkey - defying US warnings - and galvanizing the Jumbish party just in time to boost Karzai's electoral prospects in the Amu Darya region. The Uzbekis and Hazara Shi'ites account for well over a quarter of the Afghan population.

Besides, Ismail Khan, who is close to Tehran, is allied to Burhanuddin Rabbani. Khan's support for Karzai at this juncture undercuts the entire US-Pakistani strategy behind fielding Abdullah, which was based on the premise that he would garner Tajik votes. Thus, if Karzai's prospects have distinctly improved on the eve of the elections, Tehran has a hand in it.

Washington is aghast that its entire stratagem to prevent a first-round victory by Karzai is in serious jeopardy. (Karzai, the front-runner, would need to win 51% of the total votes cast to avoid a run-off with the second-placed candidate.)

In an extraordinary public vent of choler, the US State Department said in Washington: "We have made clear to the government of Afghanistan our serious concern regarding the return of Mr Dostum and any prospective role in today's Afghanistan." President Barack Obama has already asked his national security team to give further information on Dostum's "background", including concerns that he might have been involved in the deaths of a significant number of Taliban prisoners of war in 2001 during the US invasion.

Holbrooke faces a huge challenge. If Karzai secures a clear-cut victory in the first round on Thursday, it will bring into power a coalition that the US will find extremely hard to control as there will be multiple power centers.

This is where need may arise to create an "Iran-like situation". Significantly, noted Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid, who is wired to the Pentagon and Holbrooke's entourage, underscored on Monday that a "serious credibility gap haunts" the Afghan election.

Rashid anticipated the election would be marred by controversy over low turnout and allegations of rigging. "If there is a low turnout - under 30% - there is every chance that a lot of the candidates will say that we do not accept these elections and we want a new election."

However, Iranians will ask: "Since when is it that Afghans became such serious practitioners of Western-style democracy?" As Kayhan newspaper pointed out, "Fornication, bare flesh and a descent into Western decadence - these Afghan definitions of democracy expose how little the foreign concept has permeated the Afghan psyche ... As long as they [Afghans] are allowed to fornicate freely, Westerners will also believe that that they have embraced freedom and won't so much mind being slaves ... In Afghan society - where clan, tribe, hierarchy and tradition trump all - the equation of democratic values with those of an irresponsible hedonism and even nihilism have tangled up."

But Rashid, who knows Afghanistan like the palm of his hand, is definitive: "Now, I think after this election, no matter which way it goes, there are going to be huge charges and counter-charges of rigging." He estimates that if a runoff becomes necessary, "it will be a very dangerous moment for Afghanistan ... Now, that will create a gap of two months, there will be chaos and political confusion."

This is where the "operational role" of the Pakistani intelligence (ISI - Inter-Services Intelligence) will assume critical importance. The Pakistani intelligence disfavors Karzai's victory. It has scores to settle with almost all the "warlords" who rally behind Karzai - Fahim, Khalili, Mohaqiq, Dostum, Ismail Khan - and they happen to be in the rogues' gallery in the Western world, too. Besides, these "warlords" will upset the US-British-Saudi-Pakistani game plan to co-opt the Taliban into the Afghan power structure, as they know Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his followers will go after them one day or another.

Equally, the Pakistani security establishment and the Obama administration will consider it hard to stomach that a democratically elected government dominated by the Northern Alliance "warlords", who used to enjoy the support of Russia, Iran and India, may come to power in Kabul. The agenda of introducing Islamism for the remaking of Central Asia, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's expansion, the long-term military presence in Afghanistan - all these get disrupted.

Surely, no one needs to tell Holbrooke and his interlocutors in the Pakistani security establishment that when the destiny of the Afghan war and Obama's AfPak strategy hangs by a thread, they have a congruence of interests. Indeed, if ever there was a "do-or-die" situation, this is it.

The big question is: how do Holbrooke and the ISI tackle this common challenge? Rashid may have provided the clue.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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