Trouble Brewing in Afghanistan
July 3, 2002

Maria Tomchick

The Western press has hailed Afghanistan's Loya Jirga council and the new interim government as Afghanistan's first exercise in democracy. They're wrong.

As a democratic assembly, the Loya Jirga was set up to fail. Perhaps God could create the world in seven days, but a multi-ethnic, multi-religious council, drawn from a nation of people emerging from 20 years of civil war that involved episodes of horrific ethnic cleansing, cannot elect a president, approve a cabinet, and set up the basis for a democratic legislature in seven days. Clearly, the Loya Jirga was meant to be a rubber stamp for Karzai's unilateral proposals.

What were Karzai's main goals? First, he needed desperately to become interim president. His two main rivals--though popular--were clearly unfit for the job.

The former king, Zahir Shah, is an aging, wimpy, fence-sitter. Under his rule, nothing would be done to rebuild or unite Afghanistan. Most importantly, the ethnic Panjshir Tajiks who dominated the Northern Alliance army would never support him (he's an ethnic Pashtun). Zahir Shah commanded more votes on the council than any other candidate, gaining the support of the majority Pashtuns and many minority ethnic groups not represented in the Northern Alliance--most particularly the Hazars. Karzai called for help from his US advisors, and they stepped in to pressure Shah to withdraw.

The other candidate, Burhanuddin Rabbani, was president of Afghanistan in the post-Soviet period (the early 1990s). He failed to hold the country together, and it dissolved into regions controlled by various warlords who brutally fought one another for territory and control of resources. The Taliban came to power by suppressing the warlords who ruled--and massacred thousands of civilians--during the Rabbani period.

Again Karzai accepted the help of his US advisors to force Rabbani to step down.

Karzai's next goal was to appoint a multi-ethnic cabinet that the Loya Jirga would approve. At first Karzai resisted this necessity; he showed his true colors by announcing that he would appoint his own cabinet without anyone's approval. It was US pressure that forced him to adhere to the agreement drafted in Bonn and submit his cabinet to approval by the Loya Jirga. Even then, he submitted only half: 14 of an eventual 28 ministers.

The composition of his cabinet was controversial. He re-appointed most of the Tajik Northern Alliance ministers to the key roles they had acquired at the conference in Bonn. Most controversial was the reappointment of Mohammed Fahim to the defense ministry. Fahim, defense minister of the Northern Alliance, has resisted the creation of a multi-ethnic army for Afghanistan--a main requirement for US and UN troop withdrawal.

Only one--Younas Qanooni--stepped down in favor of an 80-year-old Pashtun, Taj Mohammed Wardak, to lead the Interior Ministry, which controls the police and intelligence forces. Wardak is a former California resident who returned to Afghanistan earlier this year to govern and restore order to Paktia province--and largely failed in that job. Qanooni was given a new post created specifically for him: security advisor. Observers agree that Qanooni will be in charge of Wardak and his department.

The other main appointment that has given hope to the Western media is the appointment of a Pashtun, Ashraf Ghani, to lead the finance ministry. Ghani, however, is another westerner--a former professor at Johns Hopkins University and employee of the World Bank. He's a friend of Karzai's family and has been Karzai's main advisor for the last six months. Ghani, like Wardak, has no base of support within the Pashtun community in Afghanistan.

In addition to these appointments, Karzai purged his government of all supporters of former king Zahir Shah. He gave largely symbolic posts to ethnic Hazars and Pashtuns. He opened his arms to warlords that fought with the Northern Alliance and gave important posts to Uzbeks who owe their allegience to the brutal Abdul Rashid Dostum, the butcher of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Clearly Karzai's third goal was to de-fang the warlords by removing them from their bases of support in their home provinces and bring them into Kabul to work for him. In this goal, he succeeded only partially. Two warlords resisted his lure; ominously, they're the two most powerful men in Afghanistan outside of Karzai himself: Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ismail Khan.

Dostum, the Uzbek warlord who controls a swath of Northern Afghanistan that borders three nations (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan) and the trade routes that connect with those countries, is an opportunist who has switched sides many times in the last 20 years. He fought alongside the Soviets throughout the mid-'80s, then against the Soviets in the late '80s. He fought against the Rabbani government for a while, then switched sides and joined the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. His motive has always been to preserve his power base in the North. If Karzai tries to disarm him or disband his 5,000-strong personal army, it could spark another civil war.

It's in Dostum's territory that most human rights violations are occurring today. An alliance of 60 aid organizations have protested to the UN that Dostum's men have harassed their workers, raped and assaulted their employees, stolen their equipment and supplies, and carried out ethnic cleansing against Pashtuns living in the north. Eventually Karzai will be pressured to do something about all this.

Likewise, Ismail Khan controls the city of Herat and portions of four provinces in the west. He also controls commercial traffic on the border with Iran, which brings him an estimated $50 to $60 million per year in duties and taxes. Khan may have the largest and best equipped personal army in Afghanistan. He needs it, because he's widely unpopular in Herat. During the election process for the Loya Jirga, elected delegates in his territory were detained and beaten if they criticized him or his rule. Delegates in his territory were also murdered.

There's much for his people to complain about. Khan has set up his own version of the Taliban's religious police, enforcing sharia on his people and suppressing cultural and political speech. Women in Herat are still restricted in their activities and required to wear the burkha in public. If Hamid Karzai truly wants to modernize Afghanistan, he will eventually butt heads with Ismail Khan.

Currently Karzai has no army of his own. He has a small police force of ethnic Tajiks (former Northern Alliance soldiers) to run the city of Kabul with the help of UN troops. The provinces have been left to local warlords and armed gangs.

The US has refused to help police Afghanistan's provinces, concentrating instead on fighting remnants of the Taliban. In fact, US troops have made the situation worse, by giving money and weapons to local warlords in southeastern Afghanistan to buy their loyalty in the hunt for Al-Qaeda.

In the meantime, the establishment of an Afghan national army is seriously lagging. There are only 600-700 men in training at this moment. Hampered by ethnic hostility--particularly the resistance of the defense minister himself--and the shortage of men between the ages of 19-24 who aren't already part of some warlord's personal army, there's little hope that the ranks will swell. Even the two battalions that are currently being formed are prone to defections; their families need them during the planting season and to help rebuild bomb-scarred villages.

In a year or two, civil war will return to Afghanistan, unless the international community provides more assistance. The needs are clear, but the aid has not been forthcoming.