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    South Asia
     Apr 5, 2011

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Pastor Jones and a dreaded ghost
By M K Bhadrakumar

Broadly speaking, successful United Nations diplomats rise up the greasy pole at headquarters in Turtle Bay either by playing safe and allowing the good life to remain unruffled or alternatively, living dangerously. Staffan de Mistura, the Swedish-Italian who represents the UN secretary general in Afghanistan, belongs to the second category. His previous assignments included Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Lebanon and Iraq.

De Mistura's main qualification for the assignment in Kabul, however, was that he was very unlike the brilliant Norwegian diplomat whom he replaced, Kai Eide, who turned out to be "a disappointment" (to borrow the description from a New York

editorial) as far as Washington was concerned.

De Mistura - appointed just over a year ago - lacked a stellar international stature, but Washington wanted him in Kabul, given his previous working experience with both General David Petraeus, US commander in Afghanistan, and Karl Eikenberry, American ambassador in Kabul.

The late US special representative for AfPak, Richard Holbrooke, confided with The Cable, "I [Holbrooke] had a very good talk with him [De Mistura], quite a long talk, we went over every aspect of the relationship. He wanted to discuss how he could relate to us ... I assured him that the US government and the US Embassy look forward to working with him ... De Mistura has the unanimous support of the US government."

The above long-winded introduction becomes necessary for comprehending the alchemy of the explosive violence that shook the northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-i-Sharif last Friday afternoon that led to the killing of five Nepalese guards and three UN employees at the UN compound.

Accounts vary as to what happened. Following the Friday Prayer, a crowd that was leaving the famous Blue Mosque found another set of religious leaders in a Toyota Corolla fitted out with loudspeakers urging people to join them at the burning of the effigy of a militant fundamentalist Christian pastor in the US by name of Terry Jones who oversaw the burning of a copy of the Koran at his church in Gainesville, Florida, on March 20.

The crowd then turned and started walking the one-kilometer journey toward the UN compound. The Gurkhas who provided security for the UN were somehow overwhelmed and killed while a larger group apparently broke into the compound. In the violence that followed, all Afghan national staff and the Russian head of the UN office were spared, while the crowd went for Westerners, namely, three workers from Norway, Romania and Sweden.

What stands out is that the victims were deliberately murdered rather than killed by an out-of-control mob. Meanwhile, agitation against Jones has spread to Kandahar and the violence in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar has somehow become coalesced, as if originating from one vast reservoir.

Afghan authorities and De Mistura have instinctively blamed the Taliban for the violence in Mazar-i-Sharif. The Taliban flatly rejected the imputation. Indeed, there are intriguing questions as to what really happened.

As the London Observer noted:
If the glimmer of popular sympathy for violence in Mazar is disturbing, so too is the fact that such a terrible attack on Western civilians should have happened there at all. Mazar is a highly secure city of ordered streets, where cars are regulated by traffic lights, which, almost uniquely in Afghanistan, not only work but are obeyed. When Liam Fox, the [British] defense secretary, toured Afghanistan [in January], he made a point of adding Mazar to the usual British itinerary of Kabul and Helmand. "It was a totally unthreatening environment]," he said at the time. "It's a city the size of Bristol and it felt just like any safe city in Central Asia." ... The newly opened US consulate, which has taken over an old hotel, does not even have a razor wire along its not particularly high walls.
Indeed, anyone familiar with the Amu Darya region would know that the walk from the Blue Mosque to the UN compound itself is as eternal a walk as the footsteps that Neil Armstrong, the American astronaut, took on July 20, 1969, under the close monitoring of the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. Not a bird can fly across that one kilometer without the three lords of the northern Afghan manor noticing it (or permitting it to happen) - Rashid Dostum, Uzbek strongman; Mohammed Mohaqiq, Hazara Shi'ite leader; and Atta Mohammad Noor, currently governor of Balkh province and an erstwhile Northern Alliance leader.

Dostum, Mohaqiq and Atta might have had ups and downs in their mutual often-acrimonious equations, but one thing that unites them for a lifetime is their visceral hatred toward the Taliban and their existential fear of a return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan. They do not need to be told that the Taliban and them simply cannot co-exist within one Afghan political entity.

In sum, De Mistura has completely misjudged the signal from Friday's bloody violence in Mazar-i-Sharif. The city simply cannot have any Taliban presence. The weekend's violence in Mazar and Kandahar is of different kinds, although they are joined at the hip insofar as they are an explosive manifestation of a dangerous threshold of Afghan alienation with Westerners.

A ghost steps out from shadows
The fact is that not only Dostum, Mohaqiq and Atta but the entire city of Mazar-i-Sharif - nay, the entire northern and western regions of Afghanistan - have taken stock that under a shroud of great secrecy, something of momentous consequence for their lives and that of their families and friends and ethnic compatriots may have commenced on March 28 at a faraway place - the Federal District Court on Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC - and they have no say in the matter.

The hearing has finally begun on a case concerning a former high-ranking Taliban official who has been held at the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for the past eight years. His name happens to be Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa.

The very mention of that name curdles the blood of any citizen of Mazar. There is a 14-year history behind it when mere anarchy was loosed upon the world, and indignant desert birds searched for carcasses to feed on in the ransacked city streets.

What Khairkhwa's name evokes is within living memory, a happening of 1997-1998. Briefly, to cut a horrendous story short, Khairkhwa was the chief of intelligence under Taliban leader Mullah Omar who headed the operations to capture Mazar in May 1997 through treachery in a trade-off (masterminded by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence - the ISI) with some of Dostum's renegade commanders. The attempt backfired and in the resistance that followed by the Hazara Shi'ites and Uzbeks, who form the bulk of the city's population, thousands of Taliban soldiers were butchered and the rout almost finished off the Taliban and Khairullah's future.

But then, the ISI didn't let misfortune overtake their favorite Taliban official and Khairkhwa regrouped and returned to first lay siege to Mazar and then bombard it for several months and thereafter storm it in August 1998. This time, Khairkhwa and the ISI took no chances. The Hazara Shi'ites were massacred in their thousands in revenge and for the next six days after entering Mazar, Khairkhwa ordered his men to go from door to door looking for male Hazara Shi'ites and summarily executed them.

Thousands of Uzbek prisoners were packed into transport truck containers to be suffocated or to die of heat stroke so that Khairkhwa could spare ammunition. Among those who managed to flee the city were Dostum, Mohaqiq and Atta. Mohaqiq was evacuated in the nick of time from Khairkhwa's clutches by a helicopter.

An Amnesty International report of September 3, 1998, chronicled unemotionally: "Taliban guards deliberately and systematically killed thousands of Hazara civilians ... in their homes, in the streets where the bodies were left for several days, or in locations between Mazar-i-Sharif and Hairatan [on the Oxus River]. Many of those killed were civilians, including women, children and the elderly who were shot trying to flee the city."

Every little child in Mazar knows the epic story of that bloodbath, which reached an historic scale the city had not seen since Genghis Khan and his Mongol army passed through in the 13th century. That is to say, nothing has been forgotten, nothing forgiven. And there is fury, anger, fear and frustration building up among the Uzbeks, Hazaras and Tajiks of northern Afghanistan that a Pashtun conspiracy is afoot in Kabul with the covert blessings of the "international community" to rehabilitate Khairkhwa. 

Continued 1 2  

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