Originally Published 2005-10-15 06:07:27 Published on Oct 15, 2005
In the past few weeks, Afghanistan has received a stream of important visitors from western capitals that are in a position to preside over its destiny ¿ U.S. National Security Council Advisor Stephen J. Hadley, Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, British Secretary of State for Defence John Reid, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
In search of a settlement in Afghanistan
In the past few weeks, Afghanistan has received a stream of important visitors from western capitals that are in a position to preside over its destiny - U.S. National Security Council Advisor Stephen J. Hadley, Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, British Secretary of State for Defence John Reid, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. 

Afghan President Hamid Karzai also paid a visit to Paris in a related mission to try to persuade French President Jacques Chirac that the 11,000-strong NATO contingent must augment its strength and merge under a single flag with the 18,000-strong American forces deployed in Afghanistan with NATO assuming full responsibility for the counter-insurgency operations. This is something Washington had been seeking but Paris was lukewarm to. 

All this hectic diplomatic activity is aimed at finalising a "post-Bonn compact" for Afghanistan. With the holding of the Afghan parliamentary elections on September 16, the political process initiated at the Bonn Conference in December 2001 under the auspices of the United Nations is deemed to have reached a successful conclusion. Beyond lie uncharted waters. 

The decision-makers in this cogitation are in actuality based in Washington but expediency demands that the process be seen as consensual. The itinerary of consultations is to be seen as including Kabul as the outcome after all concerns the life of the Afghan people. And, the process itself must ultimately be seen as bearing the imprimatur of the "international community." So long as Mr. Karzai acquiesces, arguably, the will of the Afghan people will have legitimised any such "compact." This may sound somewhat surreal but it conforms to the spirit of Afghan realities. 

The focus of the "post-Bonn compact" is on formalising a regime that authorises open-ended stationing of foreign (western) troops on Afghan soil. Nothing illustrates as poignantly the tragedy of Afghanistan - the mismatch of the priorities of the so-called international community, and of the Afghan people at this point in their national history. Rather than focussing on NATO's future role in Afghanistan in the coming decades, the top priority should have been to draw up an economic road map for Afghanistan - a mutually reinforcing parallel track to the political process. 

For the Afghan people, the Bonn process has proved to be a sad, disillusioning experience. As the prominent Opposition leader Yunus Qanooni summed up sardonically, "So, the Bonn accord has come to an end, but it has not brought major change to people's daily lives." The low turnout in the recent parliamentary and local body elections is indicative of the people's rapidly growing disenchantment with what passes for democracy. 

The central objective of the Bonn accord was to stabilise the security situation but this did not happen. Insurgents are still being trained in Pakistan. In fact, with the booming drug trade, and the corruption and venality that accompanies it, the security situation has degenerated including in regions of Afghanistan that used to be relatively stable. 

What is most disconcerting, however, is that there is a huge question today whether a functional political system can evolve at all under American supervision. The political factions opposed to Mr. Karzai remain adamant that the Americans manipulated the presidential election last October. They are concerned that the parliamentary election results too may be manipulated. There is resentment that Mr. Karzai's "English-speaking" Cabinet is unrepresentative, and that in a bid to placate Pakistan, Americans resorted to systematic sidelining of erstwhile Northern Alliance groups and began co-opting "good Taliban." 

Without doubt, it is a mockery of recent Afghan history that notorious figures such as Maulawi Qalamuddin, the head of the Department for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue in the Taliban regime, and Haji Abdul Samat Khaksar, the redoubtable Deputy Interior Minister, are being called "good Taliban." 

The calculation behind co-opting the Taliban (and Mujahideen and even the Khalqi faction of Afghan communists), thereby pandering to Pashtun chauvinism, was that it would create a Pashtun power base for Mr. Karzai. But things have not worked out that way either. 

The parliamentary elections provided a window of opportunity for genuine participatory politics to develop. But, disregarding the opinion given by the United Nations' advisors and most diplomats, Mr. Karzai opted for an electoral system that undermined political parties - most likely on American insistence. The result, anyhow, is that Mr. Karzai may not have to contend with an assertive Opposition in Parliament (especially over contentious issues such as foreign troop presence or the excesses of the "war on terror") and that levers of power may overwhelmingly remain in his hands. But how could such a contrived over-centralised political arrangement be made to work, let alone win the trust and confidence of the people that made effective governance possible? 

No attempt has been made yet to flesh out the details of the legislative powers vested with the new Parliament or the local bodies. Conceivably, Kabul is marking time and waiting to see the composition of the new Parliament before determining whether it can be trusted with legislative power. "Show me the legislator, and we will decide what he may legislate" - this seems to be the cynical approach. In a country of such diversity as Afghanistan, a genuinely representative legislative forum with independent opinion making that remained impervious to foreign manipulation could have provided the underpinning for enduring political stability. 

But, on the contrary, as during the presidential election last year, the orchestrated talk has revived as regards the "menace of warlordism" - a rubric under which politically disagreeable elements could be threatened, blackmailed, bludgeoned into submission or dispatched into oblivion. Are the Afghan "warlords" any more obnoxious than the robber barons who strode long corridors of time in the early (and middle) history of American democracy? 

The prevailing political vacuum and the lack of national leadership are working to the advantage of the Taliban. After retreating into Pakistani territory in 2001 under watchful American and Pakistani eyes, the Taliban is staging a comeback. No questions are being asked about the hibernation. Apparently, jihadis from Chechnya, Uzbekistan, and Arab countries have also reappeared in the Afghan operations! Entire crops of superstitions have sprouted up again regarding the Taliban's obscure sources of support. SAM missiles of Russian and Chinese make are apparently reaching them from Iraq via Iranian territory! 

Recipe for civil war 

Taken together, the growing insurgency, the illicit drug trade, general lawlessness, ineffective governance, political corruption, ethnic factionalism, and the overall destitution and poverty are a recipe for civil war. 

Certainly, the security situation presents itself as an ingenious argument for the U.S. to claim that its continued military presence in Central Asia serves the interests of the "international community." This in turn countervails the groundswell of opinion among Central Asian countries in favour of evicting American troops from their soil at the earliest. Uzbek Foreign Minister Elyor Ganiyev gently drew attention to this paradigm in his speech at the U.N. General Assembly on September 16 when he explained that the agenda of stabilising the situation in Afghanistan is being "unjustifiably delayed." 

Indeed, the testimonies at the on-going trial of the extremist elements involved in the uprising in May in Uzbekistan's Andizhan province have revealed shocking details that militant elements based in Afghanistan, whom the "war on terror" was supposed to be tackling, had masterminded the uprising. Some witnesses at the trial plainly alleged that the Americans financed the militant Islamists behind the Andizhan uprising. 

From the well-planned assassination of a prominent Hazara politician recently in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, it appears that deep-rooted plans are afoot to sow the seeds of Tajik-Hazara disunity in the sensitive northern Amu Darya region bordering Uzbekistan. Mazar-i-Sharif has always been a problematic city where Uzbek, Hazara, and Tajik communities uneasily co-exist. Of course, volatility there could be useful for the U.S. to pressure Uzbekistan. (Tajik-Hazara unity has also been a major plank of Iranian influence within Afghanistan.) Afghanistan's border region with Tajikistan is already unstable. 

The U.S. has remained inexplicably cool to the Russian suggestion (made in June 2004 originally) for coordination between the NATO forces in Afghanistan and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation forces operating in Central Asia. Washington seems to estimate that any tacit "recognition" of CSTO's locus standi (and Moscow's leadership role in it) might foreclose NATO's eventual advance into the strategic Central Asian region bordering China. 

Viewed against the above trends, what are the American intentions in Afghanistan? Are the current hectic diplomatic parleys intrinsic to Afghanistan's priority needs? 

The chancelleries in the region would have taken note of an important speech made by American Ambassador to NATO Victoria Nuland in Brussels on September 22 spelling out the key elements in the U.S. plans for the alliance's future. The Ambassador said the U.S. saw a greater understanding among European allies since "the post-Cold War honeymoon is now over." Afghanistan would remain NATO's "most important mission" for the foreseeable future. "If the divisive debate over Iraq taught us one thing, it is that NATO must be the place where we talk about all issues affecting our future - the Middle East, Iraq, North Korea, China, Iran, to name just a few." 

The author is a former Indian Ambassador with extensive experience in handling India's relations with countries of South West and Central Asia. He is presently Visiting Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Source: The Hindu, Chennai, October 15, 2005.
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