Originally Published 2004-03-04 05:15:33 Published on Mar 04, 2004
If internecine clashes in the eastern Afghan city of Herat are a sign of the things to come, peaceful political evolution of the country seems to be a messy affair. Around 50 people had been killed in those clashes that continued for eight hours in one of the more stable cities of Afghanistan.
Herat fightings and after
If internecine clashes in the eastern Afghan city of Herat are a sign of the things to come, peaceful political evolution of the country seems to be a messy affair. Around 50 people had been killed in those clashes that continued for eight hours in one of the more stable cities of Afghanistan.

The fighting erupted following the killing of Aviation Minister Mirwais Sadiq, the son of powerful warlord and Herat provincial governor Ismail Khan. Sadiq was killed amidst the military standoff between Ismail Khan and General Abdul Zaher Nayebzadah, the Defense Ministry's Herat Division commander. In retaliation, Ismail Khan's private militia surrounded Nayebzadah's residence and the Herat Division garrison. Both were seized by Khan's fighters, forcing Nayebzadah to flee to the neighbouring Baghdis province.

This episode has once again brought under focus the security situation in Afghanistan, where a majority of the areas are run by warlords presiding over militias and a resurgent Taliban are making a surreptitious comeback attempt. It has done much harm to President Hamid Karzai's credibility in extending his authority into restive provinces, and to the pledge by the US-led forces to ensure the security of the country for holding its first post-Taliban presidential and parliamentary elections. Last week, President Karzai put off the polls, originally scheduled for June in the Bonn Agreement of December 2001, by three months. Lack of progress in voter registration was the ostensible reason for the postponement. Voter registration had been tardy, as according to the UN, only 1.46 million voters were registered by March 15, far short of the target of 10.5 million.

However, it is clear that the postponement is as much an admission of the failure of the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process to civilianise the heavily-militarised country. Under a pilot programme being conducted in major cities like Herat, some 40,000 private soldiers will be disarmed, demobilised and given employment which will integrate them with the society. The programme is supposed to be completed by June. So far a mere 5,400 have enrolled for the scheme that is being run on a shoestring budget under UN sponsorship. It is obvious that people whose political stature and bargaining power depend upon the total area they control and the strength of the militia they command would be the last ones to submit voluntarily to any such plan. For instance, it is alleged that Defence Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who himself controls the Tajik militia of the Panjshir Valley, has done everything to undermine the programme from day one because he wants all other private armies to disarm and demobilise, except, of course, that of his own.

In a nation where so many of its citizens hold weapons, holding peaceful and fair elections without the full implementation of DDR process would be a nonsense. That is to say nothing of how an emergent fictitious democratic polity would work. In the Herat fighting, all kinds of heavy weapons--from AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades to tanks--were freely used, especially by Ismail Khan's army. The intensity of the fighting has left even Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington's pointman in Kabul and a vigorous supporter of building an Afghan National Army and the DDR process, stunned. "The existence of multiple forces under different commands of multiple militias is a problem and when an incident happens, because of these forces under different commands... (there is) the danger of war," he said in his reaction to the violence.

That Herat had been the scene of the fighting was a matter of particular concern. The city returned to a semblance of order more quickly than any other place in Afghanistan once the Taliban were ousted in November 2001. Many credit Ismail Khan for this achievement, who swiftly asserted his authority after the defeat of the Taliban and kept the city largely out of trouble ever since. US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, on his visit to Herat in April 2002, described Ismail Khan as "an appealing person, thoughtful, measured, and self-confident". That marked a remarkable change of fortune for the man who fought the Afghan jehad during the 1980s and ran Herat till 1996 largely with Iranian backing after being sidelined by the Americans and the Pakistani intelligence establishment.

Though the clashes in Herat centred on the power struggle simmering since last year between Ismail Khan and the Afghan central government for the military control of the city, economic interests too had a significant role. Ismail Khan controls the lucrative border trade with Iran which, according to an estimate, yields $1 million a day in revenue. That he doesn't share the revenue with the Central government has been a source of dispute between the two. Tensions came to a head when Gen Nayebzada, who was recently appointed by President Karzai as commander of the small 4th Corps of the Afghan Defence Ministry stationed in Herat, began to take measures to undermine Ismail Khan's authority. The fact that it was an avoidable misunderstanding that led to so much bloodshed on March 21 makes it apparent the horrendous turns turf wars among rival forces may take.

The central government has sent an estimated 1500 troops from the national army to calm things down in Herat. They are understood to have a permanent presence in the city but Ismail Khan's spokesman has said it was an unwelcome step. As of now, Herat has returned to normality but more clashes are likely.

The US, which provides the backbone for the International Security Assistance Force and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, has so long cheered on local strongmen who act outside the Central authority. In Kabul, the US supports Karzai and his government, but elsewhere, it is comfortable with the likes of Ismail Khan. When the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, it was politically expedient to align with anti-Taliban militia forces littered all acorss the nation because they made the invasion a lot easier. Now the American focus has shifted to capturing top Al-Qaeda leaders on the run. Therefore, the thinking in Washington is that it has become imperative for the time being for the US to back the same stock of self-proclaimed provincial governors without whose assistance neither can it mount operations against Al-Qaeda remnants nor keep in check the Taliban offensive.

President George W. Bush is understandably eager to showcase the Afghan elections as a foreign policy success in the US presidential election campaign, for his success in Iraq is now thrown to disorder. So at the Berlin donors conference, his administration orchestrated more pledges for aid, even though most of the earlier pledges still remain unfulfilled. All the while, the ground situation in Afghanistan gets grimmer which rules out, if the UN Secretary-General is to be believed, credible elections and a genuine democratic process.

Evidence is mounting about how simplistic American ideas are on nation building and bringing democracy to those "uncivilised" nations wherever the US has militarily intervened. We have seen this as recently as a little over one month ago, that too in one of America's own backyard, Haiti. As the US goes zealously into what a well-known British columnist called its "incursions of the Muslim world", its commitment to democratic ideals is more suspect than ever. In Afghanistan, holding elections in Septemeber and putting together some sort of a government are still easy. The hardest part will be to make democratic ethos stick in a maze of tribal and ethnic loyalties compounded by intractable warlords and the serious threat of a Taliban comeback, if the prevailing order collapses. This is where the American-led enterprise is most likely to falter.

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