Back to The Past


According to US Defence Secretary Rumsfeld, Mullah Umar, who is making a last stand in Kandahar, will probably go down fighting as he is “not the surrendering type”. Osama Bin Laden on the other hand, scurried away to find cover in some hole, leaving in his wake dead and dying strewn across the Afghan countryside, the consequences of his many deeds, viz (1) distorting the Talibaan interpretation of Islam and (2) leading them into collective suicide in militarily opposing the mightiest nation on earth. For the sake of his own hide, this man sacrificed not only his trusting hosts but those from foreign lands who believed his spiel, a latter day “Pied Piper” leading a naive and gullible people down the one-way road to death and destruction. Meantime about 1500 US Marines near Kandahar are carrying out high-visibility exercises around their desert forward base, meant to keep the defenders of Kandahar on edge expecting imminent attack. The idea is to bomb and bluff the Talibaan out of their stronghold and avoid casualties. Unfortunately some of the US casualties have been self-inflicted due to misdirected or stray bombs (“friendly fire”).

Nothing is more descriptive of the division of Afghanistan than the recently concluded “historic and successful” UN-Sponsored talks in Bonn. Though Haji Qadeer’s walk-out at an early stage was more for his own selfish reasons in not being considered for the top post on the proposed Interim Council (as the brother of late Abdul Haq he took it as his right), it brought into stark relief the fact that the majority ethnic group, the Pashtuns, are not really represented by those who matter on the ground within Afghanistan. Most council members are drawing room leaders without credibility with the masses. Consider the four parties who took part in the Conference, the United Front (the political name of the Northern Alliance), the Rome Group representing ex-King Zahir Shah, the Peshawar Group representing the Afghans-in-exile in Pakistan and the Cyprus Group representing the Afghans-in-exile in the world, mainly Iran. Three of the groups, Rome, Peshawar and Cyprus were actually Royalist. In theory in a 29 member council, each group should have had 7 to 8 nominees but what happened? The United Front dangled the carrot of a proforma role for the ex-King in Afghanistan as well as leadership of the Council to a King-appointee (Hamid Karzai, the US-backed head of Populzai Tribe was an acceptable face) in return for 67% of the Council members (17 of 29) to be nominated by them, also retaining the crucial posts of Defence, Interior, Foreign Affairs, etc. What else is there for effective control of governance in third world countries? It is deja vu, Tajik rule circa 1992 all over again. It didn’t work before, even with all the western support it will not work again!

The Tajiks are also badly divided amongst themselves, between the old guard headed by former President Burhanuddin (now sidelined) on the one hand and the young Turks, Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, Interior Minister Qanooni and Defence Minister Gen Fahim (all proteges of late Ahmed Shah Masood) on the other. Among the other post-war complications are the emerging feuds between the partners, Mazar-i-Sharif best personifying the nature and state of the Alliance. Except for a couple of thousand or so of late Ahmed Shah Masood’s Tajik “Panjsheeris”, now inside Kabul as the core of the Northern Alliance troops policing the city, Uzbek Rashid Dostum, Tajik Ustad Atta Mohammad and Shia Wahdat leader Ustad Mohaqiq (now a member of the Council) command the only combat capable Northern Alliance troops in the field. Rashid Dostum, who is a law unto himself in his Uzbek home-base of Mazar-i-Sharif, sees the other two as interlopers. The foreign fighters in Konduz who were tricked into surrendering to Rashid Dostum were dead men walking, given his track record there was no way they would ever walk out of Qila-i-Janghi alive. However one cannot for a moment believe or accept that civilized nations like the USA and UK will countenance such a massacre of more than 600 prisoners in cold blood, whatever the circumstances. Like in Mazar, will Ismail Khan, the ruler of Herat, allow any of the Northern Alliance hard-core near Herat? Ever the politician, he has had a Pashtun elected as Mayor of Herat. Like Dostum in Mazar-i-Sharif he is a popular in his own region has never really wanted a voice in Kabul, he simply wants to be left alone in Herat as the warlord-in-place. With the lifeline of the Shia Wahdat to their Bamiyan stronghold passing through Herat, they have to be allied to Ismail Khan.

Without genuine give and take on the rough basis of population, Afghanistan will always remain divided because of the divisive ethnic composition. The population, an educated guess at best, has gone up from about 15 million in 1963 to about 28 million in 2001. Pashtuns make up about 16-17 million, divided into tribes and sub-tribes populating the east, south and southeast. Tajiks (who like the Uzbeks don’t have tribes and sub-tribes) are concentrated in the northern Badakishan Province, making up quite a percentage of the population of Kabul, they extend in small pockets in a wide swath across the northwest to Herat in the southwest. Their 6-7 million strength makes up about 25% of the Afghan population. There are about 2.5 million Uzbeks in the northwest approximating 9% of the population, Shia Wahdat are concentrated virtually in the center of Afghanistan in Bamiyan Province, about the same percentage as the Uzbeks. There are about 400000 Turkmen, mainly in the northwest bordering the Uzbek area.

The many changes over the last three decades started with the overthrow of King Zahir Shah in 1973 by his cousin Daoud. The new ruler continued the modernization of Afghanistan. Alarmed at his overtures to Pakistan and Iran, and his blunt refusal of Brezhnev’s warning to evict the growing number of western foreign consultants, he was executed by the communists (the Khalq Faction) in a coup in 1978 led by Col Aslam Watanjar. Hafizullah Amin later overthrew and murdered fellow Khalqi Nur Mohammad Taraki in early 1979 but he himself met a bloody end in December 1979 when the Soviets decided he was becoming too independent and replaced Amin with Parcham faction’s Babrak Karmal. In 1985, Najibullah the Afghan intelligence Chief replaced Karmal as Head of State. Najibullah ruled even after the Soviet withdrawal till April 1992 when Dostum turned against him. In the space of less than one decade in the 70s muslim Afghanistan went from absolute monarchy to a socialist democracy, in December 1979 the bloody Soviet takeover made communism the state ideology. For the next decade the Soviet brand of communism was dominant till 1992 when an Interim Islamic Government, headed by Prof Sibghatullah Mujaddedi as President, came into power in Kabul. When after 2 months Mujaddedi (Hamid Karzai started political life as his Secretary) stepped down as stipulated, Burhanuddin Rabbani took over as President and it was Tajik rule thereafter. The Talibaan ousted Rabbani in 1996 and brought in an extreme interpretation of Islam, further radicalized by Osama Bin Laden since 1998. No country has traversed such a broad spectrum of extreme ideological change in less than 3 decades and in such a vast and diverse ethnic cauldron. All this in the absence of basic education for over 90% of the population.

The UN is certainly to be commended for convening the Bonn talks, but in practical terms what is it worth when the broad mass of the population will not accept the paper it is written on? Very few of the royalist group have any recent experience of prevalent conditions within Afghanistan, they will be putty in the hands of the Tajiks who wield the real power. What will happen is exactly what happened, this time with royalist participation, between 1992 and 1994, a central government without authority over the Provinces, each ruled by a local warlord. King Zahir Shah does command respect but he is very old and while his men have good English and excellent drawing room manners but are way out of touch with ground reality in Afghanistan today. The Pashtun leaders in the government will have to be an amalgam of Royalist loyalists and former Mujhahideen commanders, but will have to include those former Talibaan leaders whose reputation and credibility stand the test of civilized society. Since the US is calling the shots, it has a responsibility to ensure a peaceful, prosperous future for Afghanistan by pragmatic understanding of the situation on the ground and accommodation with former enemies if necessary. The Coalition has been decisive in the war, while it is understandable why they supported the Northern Alliance, they will lose the peace if they fail to differentiate between wheat and chaff.

Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).