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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 15

Intrigue takes Afghanistan to the Brink

Saturday 29 March 2008, by M K Bhadrakumar


The people in the Amu Darya region in northern Afghanistan would vouchsafe that General Rashid Dostum’s behaviour can be depended on as an unfailing barometer of their country’s political climate. The tough Uzbek leader from Shibirghan keenly reacts when tensions begin to mount in his country. The brief three-year spell between 1998 and 2001 was an exception when the Taliban regime forced him into exile in Ankara, Turkey. But no sooner had the September 11, 2001 attacks taken place, Dostum found his way back to Afghanistan.

On a recent Sunday night, Dostum appeared on the roof of his villa in the upmarket Kabul district of Wazir Akbar Khan and showered invectives at a detachment of 100 Afghan police officers who surrounded his compound with assault rifles and machine guns mounted on pick-up trucks. (The police later lifted the siege after receiving orders “to hand the case over to the judiciary for investigation”.)

The “case” involved an incident earlier in the evening when Dostum, accompanied by 50 heavily armed men, entered the house of his estranged former political aide, Akbar Bay, and allegedly assaulted and kidnapped him. The police later rescued Bay and had him hospitalised. Two of Bay’s bodyguards were shot. Dostum’s associates later alleged that the Afghan Government was plotting against their leader. They warned: “If General Dostum is surrounded and anyone touches even one hair on Dostum’s head, they must know that seven or eight northern provinces will turn against the [Kabul] government.”

They feigned indignation: “Certainly, we were not expecting that from the security forces— particularly from the Interior Ministry—to surround the house of General Dostum in Kabul, [he] holds a higher position than the Interior Minister.” Dostum, who leads the political party Junbish-i-Milli and holds the symbolic post of chief of staff to the commander-in-chief, has an uncanny knack for appearing on the centre-stage whenever Afghan politics is at a crossroads. Of course, the most famous instance was in 1990.

That was also in Kabul in another extraordinary tension-filled time when the blame game had already begun, the Soviet Union was on the wane as a superpower, Mohammad Najibullah’s regime was on its last legs and the Afghan mujahideen forces were stealthily advancing on their capital city—like the Taliban today. In the summer of that fateful year, Dostum, who was the Praetorian Guard of Najibullah’s regime, began negotiating with Ahmad Shah Massoud, blurring enemy lines, possibly with Soviet encouragement, and paved the way for the mujahideen takeover in Kabul. The rest, as they say, is history.

Vying to Succeed Karzai

THAT is why such incidents as Sunday night’s can be pregnant with possibilities. It happened in the prestigious residential district of Kabul where the Afghan elite and foreigners live, far away from the Uzbek heartland on the Amu Darya, which is Dostum’s power base, and such incidents often tend to have strong undercurrents that may simply refuse to go away. At any rate, as Radio Liberty pointed out, Dostum “consistently chafed at central authority out of Kabul” and caused “embarrassment” to President Hamid Karzai’s government and highlighted a “smouldering debate over the influence of current and former warlords whose actions undermine the rule of law and public confidence in central authorities”.

But what remains unclear from the Radio Liberty report is whether Dostum acted on his own, which is improbable, or whether he felt encouraged to enact a drama, which is not unlikely. Dostum can be theatrical—in fact, he mostly is. No doubt, as the Western media highlighted, Sunday’s incident underscored that even in the capital city of Kabul, Karzai’s authority has weakened.

The incident comes soon after another Northern Alliance leader, Abdullah Abdullah (whom Karzai unceremoniously removed from office as the Foreign Minister) , suddenly showed up in the US out of nowhere after a gap of nearly three years, meeting influential think-tankers and American officials and levelling devastating criticism against Karzai’s leadership qualities as the President.

The protagonists of the erstwhile Northern Alliance are coming out of the woodwork. But are they being encouraged to do so? Even though the presidential election is due only in end-2009, an element of uncertainty has gradually come to envelop the Afghan political landscape—the sort of haze that one associates with long sunsets. Former Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali, who fell out with Karzai, is also being lionised in Western capitals as a potential candidate in the presidential race.

The friends of Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to the United Nations and an ethnic Pashtun, have launched an altogether independent campaign sponsoring his candidacy to the post of the President. From all appearances, the search has begun for a worthy successor to Karzai.

Britain’s Covert Operations

THEREFORE, the latest “leak” by the Karzai Government about Britain’s controversial role in the “war on terror” has hidden meanings. If the calculation of the Western intelligence is to threaten Karzai by reviving the political profile of his detractors, that doesn’t seem to work. Karzai is certainly not impressed. He is retaliating. Over the last weekend, the intelligence apparatus in Kabul has almost dealt a fatal blow to Britain’s reputation in the “war on terror”. Such a thing couldn’t have happened without political clearance at the highest level in Kabul.

The Independent newspaper of London reported some days ago that according to Afghan intelligence sources, Britain has been talking to the Taliban without the knowledge of the Karzai Government and working on a top-secret plan to train renegade Taliban fighters in a special camp and set them against Mullah Omar’s militia. The training camp is to be set up outside Musa Qala in Helmand province. The Independent claims unnamed British diplomats, the UN and other Western officials have confirmed the outline of Britain’s clandestine project. Apparently, British agents have been paying the Taliban out of slush funds.

Indeed, we may be seeing only the tip of the iceberg. But the sensational leak leads us to reassess many recent happenings—the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s much-touted operation to capture Musa Qala on December 11; the Afghan Government’s expulsion of the acting head of the European Union mission in Kabul, Michael Semple, a Briton, and the third-ranking United Nations diplomat in Afghanistan, Mervyn Patterson, an Irishman, on December 25; Mullah Omar’s sacking of senior Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah on December 29.

The big question is: was Britain acting alone? Most certainly, not. US forces played a big role in the Musa Qala operations in December. In fact, B-52 bombers attacked Musa Qala before the Americans and British entered what was left of the town. After Musa Qala’s “liberation” on January 13, American ambassador in Kabul William Wood visited the town and met renegade Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Salaam in charge of the area.

Wood told the Taliban commander: “You can count on the support of the United States ... The eyes of the world will be on Musa Qala ... We want to see the voice of the people of Musa Qala represented in the government of Lashkar Gah and the government of Kabul through [Mullah Salaam’s] voice. And we want to see the government of Kabul and the government of Lashkar Gah represented in Musa Qala through [Mullah Salaam’s] voice.”

Karzai Strikes Back

EXACTLY a week after Wood’s meeting with Mullah Salaam in Musa Qala, Karzai struck. While on a visit to Davos, Switzerland, in a series of high-profile press interviews with the Western media, he displayed an uncharacteristic defiance. He told the Times newspaper of London: “We [Afghans] suffered after the arrival of the British forces. Before that, we were fully in charge in Helmand. When our Governor was there, we were fully in charge. They came and said, ‘Your Governor is no good.’ I said, ‘All right, do we have a replacement for this Governor, do you have enough forces?’ Both the American and the British forces guaranteed to me they knew what they were doing and I made the mistake of listening to them. And when they came in, the Taliban came.”

He then told the BBC that Paddy Ashdown couldn’t become the UN’s super envoy to Afghanistan. Thereafter, Karzai went on to comment in his interview with Die Welt: “I’m not sure sending more [NATO] forces is the answer.” In yet another interview with CNN, Karzai pointed the finger at the “misguided policy objectives” of certain countries and organisations, which he refused to name, as contributing to the violence in Afghanistan. Talking to The Washington Post, Karzai said: “It [war] will make a difference when the Americans are clear and straightforward about this fight”, adding that the US should “mean what they say ... [and] do what they say”.

Significantly, in the Washington Post interview, Karzai went out of the way to underline that his problem was not with Islamabad or Tehran. He said he found Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf “more cognisant of the problems of extremism and terrorism. And that’s a good sign, and I hope we will continue in that direction ... we do see eye-to-eye more than before on this question ... Oh, he [Musharraf] absolutely agrees that there is a problem and that we have to fix it.”

On Afghan-Iranian relations, Karzai point-blank said: “We have had a particularly good relationship with Iran the past six years. It’s a relationship that I hope will continue. The United States very wisely understood that it was our neighbour and encouraged that relationship ... the United States has been very understanding and supportive that Afghanistan should have a relationship with Iran.”

Karzai was hitting back at Washington and London. Make no mistake about it. He was retaliating against a systematic Western attempt to undercut his political stature and his authority. How much of the Western game-plan stems from a well-thought out strategy aimed at replacing Karzai is difficult to tell at the moment. But, without doubt, there is an attempt to browbeat him and discredit Karzai’s own endeavour in the recent period to distance himself from his Western backers.

Karzai’s refusal to allow the hare-brained American plan to eradicate opium poppies by crop spraying; his warming up to Musharraf; his refusal to review the decision to expel the two EU and UN diplomats, despite heavy diplomatic pressure from London; his insistence on friendly feelings toward Tehran; his spats with Britain; his pouring cold water on the candidacy of Ashdown (knowing full well it was a joint Anglo-American decision at the highest level)—surely, a pattern has emerged.

Afghan Sense of Independence

MAYBE, as the Independent newspaper sarcastically noted, Karzai is simply overworked. “He [Karzai] has not had a holiday since September 11, 2001, and he is showing signs of fatigue, contributing to the whispering campaign against him and talk of his ‘misjudgment’ in taking on the powerful donor countries. Maybe he should consider a— short—vacation soon,” the daily concluded a highly critical commentary.

But what the Western capitals don’t want to concede easily is that Karzai would have his reasons—including some genuine ones—for putting the powerful donor countries in their place. First, he is as proud an Afghan as any in the Hindu Kush, no matter the circumstances of his elevation as the President of Afghanistan six years ago.

Today, he is in an unenviable position. On the one hand, he is denounced in the Afghan bazaar as a “US puppet”, and on the other hand the powerful donor countries constantly trample on his authority and conduct themselves as if Afghanistan is NATO’s colonial outpost.

Karzai seems to have decided that he won’t allow himself to be taken for granted any longer. A limit is certainly reached when a powerful donor country begins its own clandestine “war on terror” on Afghan soil directed against Afghan people without even informing him or anyone in his government—and Afghan intelligence operatives learn about it accidentally from the memory stick of a laptop. The sensational leak by Afghan intelligence about Britain’s covert war in Afghanistan must be seen in perspective. If Anglo-Afghan relations have sunk to such a low point, is Karzai to be blamed?

Given the backlog of history in the region, Britain should never have cast itself in a lead role in an Afghan war, howsoever compelling the geopolitical compulsions of containing Russia or China might be. Afghans still take pride in the Anglo-Afghan wars. Equally, it is a gross error of judgement on Washington’s part to have overlooked this fact.

Besides, NATO’s war isn’t going too well, to say the least. Karzai cannot be faulted if he visualises that it is an uphill task for the lame duck administration in Washington to bring about an historic course correction to the war at this stage.

He would be sensing that the blame game is poised to escalate and it is prudent to distance himself. Again, Karzai is savvy enough to read the political message when powerful donor countries begin to destabilise him by openly or surreptitiously sponsoring his detractors, like Abdullah or Jalali or Dostum. He feels bitter that he has been used by Western powers and is now being summarily dumped.

It shouldn’t come entirely as a surprise, therefore, if Karzai too—somewhat like his counterpart in neighboring Pakistan—chooses to drape himself in the Afghan flag and declare unilateral independence. Beyond the call of self-respect or good old-fashioned nationalism, it is also a shrewd survival instinct in challenging Afghan conditions.

Washington could consult the Soviet archives and still learn a few things about Afghanistan— how the comrades in Kabul in the 1980s and 1990s, who veteran Polit-Bureau members in Moscow considered to be their helpless surrogates in an impoverished Third World country, often dictated how proletarian internationalism should operate under pristine Marxist-Leninist principles.

(Courtesy : Asia Times)

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).

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