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Afghanistan returning to chaos

Five years after the Taliban?s ouster, the country is again teetering on the brink of collapse, reports Shreevatsa Nevatia.

india Updated: Nov 12, 2006 02:53 IST

Afghanistan is no stranger to harsh winters. However, the gloom that has started to set in this year over the Arg, the Presidential Palace in the Capital, is unprecedented. It threatens not only the Palace’s foremost inhabitant Hamid Karzai, but also the rest of Afghanistan.

Riding a powerful wave of resurgence in the southern and eastern provinces of the country, the Taliban has promised that “there will be no winter pause” in their attempts to regain control of Kabul. Rejecting all possibilities of peace talks, Taliban leader Mullah Omar has stated that he intends to put the President up for trial at an Islamic court for “the massacre of innocent Afghans”.

By many counts, this has been the worst of the five years of Karzai’s presidency.

A recent CIA assessment has reportedly placed him effectively as the mayor of Kabul — as one who is struggling to assert his authority beyond the Capital. The report also concluded that an increasing number of Afghans are viewing his government as weak and corrupt.

Karzai has said he would not contest the next presidential elections, scheduled for 2009. But even his remaining years in office will be quite a challenge. And the implications would go far beyond the contested boundaries of his country. An Indian diplomat in Kabul puts it rather eloquently, “Problems such as corruption and poppy cultivation might be considered social, economic and cultural. But the problem of terrorism in Afghanistan is geopolitical. It has ramifications for us all.”

Growing insurgency: Black turbans fill the vacuum

The Americans took their eye off the ball. This is what some Western liberals and a majority of Afghans consider to be the primary cause for the Taliban’s resurgence. Just after the regime of black turbans fell in 2002, both Karzai and the United Nations had urged the US to expand its troops and secure the whole country. But White House refused to increase the number of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops from 4,500 to the required 25,000.

One effect of this myopia is that even the current 31,000-strong contingent of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is not being able to resist a regrouped Taliban. Moreover, its allegedly high-handed methods are helping add cadres to the insurgency.

Political analyst Hafizullah Gardish believes that the NATO/ISAF operations such as aerial bombing often resulting in civilian losses, house searches in the dead of the night, and frisking of women are all adding mass to the disgruntlement. He argues, “You mainly find Pashtuns in the southern provinces. They are a very proud tribe and strictly adhere to the pre-Islamic religious code of honour, Pashtunwali. They will not bear their women being touched or their houses being searched by foreigners. Once they lose a family member in an air raid, they become even more inclined to join the Taliban, which is also a Pashtun movement.”

However, ISAF spokesman Major Luke Knittig argues that though his forces bear the responsibility for civilian casualties, ISAF’s perceived heavy-handedness is a result of propaganda.

But there are few takers for Knittig’s line of defence. In late October, for instance, Knittig claimed that air strikes in Kandahar had claimed the lives of 38 insurgents and only 12 civilians. Residents of the area, however, said that the civilian toll was closer to 90.

So Taliban’s successful recruitment drive does not surprise taxi driver Mohammad Aslam. He says, “Karzai is not giving us enough employment opportunities.” Some 30 per cent of the population is unemployed, while another 30 per cent is estimated to be underemployed.

On the other hand, Taliban fighters are reportedly paid more than $5 a day, which is twice of what the new Afghan National Army’s 30,000 soldiers receive. Moreover, some Afghan army and police officials are believed to be extracting tolls from local populace in southern Afghanistan. This is the sort of behaviour the Taliban had ended in 1996. The vacuum of lawlessness was filled by Taliban’s draconian strictness.

The same vacuum has started forming again, making some nostalgic of a horrific past. Aziz Rahman, who is in his twelfth year of school, strokes his clean-shaven face and says, “I don’t want the Taliban to come back because then I would have to grow my beard again. But we felt safe when they were in power.”

Major Knittig argues, “They are now following hit-and-run policies and are resorting to measures like suicide attacks, both of which have a high media impact.”

The Pakistan conundrum: Love thy neighbour?

Being a woman under the Taliban regime, it was impossible for Shukria Barak Zai to think of becoming a member of parliament. “Thinking of a parliament itself was unthinkable,” says Barak Zai, now an independent MP. With more at stake than most others, she believes that Pakistan needs to be blamed singularly for a stronger Taliban.

She says, “Pakistani madrasas continuously abuse the feelings, patriotism and sensibilities of ordinary Afghans. Feeding the Taliban has been our neighbour’s policy for long. They have never respected our policies or the constitution.”

It is now widely accepted that after their fall in 2001, Mullah Omar and his men found refuge in Pakistan’s Balochistan and North Western Frontier Provinces (NWFP). While there is no hard evidence of ISI’s or the Pakistani Army’s involvement, here is where Karzai’s accusations at Musharraf finds justification — Taliban’s main political ally in Pakistan, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, is a constituent of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal alliance, which is a part of the ruling coalition in Islamabad along with Musharraf’s Muslim League.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) stated, “The Pakistan military government’s political survival rests upon accommodation with the very Islamist parties who continue to support the Taliban.”

Added to this, Musharraf signed a peace accord with pro-Taliban tribals in NWFP’s North Waziristan on September 5. NATO officials now concede that the ‘signing on the other side’ has resulted in increased cross-border infiltration into Afghanistan.

Joanna Nathan, ICG’s Afghanistan analyst, believes Musharraf can surely do more. She says, “Nothing has been done to reform fundamental madrasas along the Pak-Afghan border, which prove to be a ready recruiting ground for the Taliban.”

Dr Hamidullah Tarzi, advisor to the Afghan vice-president and former Cabinet minister, is of the opinion that ethnic ties across the porous Pak-Afghan border will continue to constrain peace efforts. According to him, the outcome of the recent dinner hosted by George W Bush and attended by both Karzai and Musharraf is an ideal map for the road ahead. At the dinner, the two leaders agreed to hold loya jirgas (grand councils) of Pashtun tribals in their countries.

Sceptics, however, doubt whether the format of tribal councils is effective enough a solution, especially with the Afghan government being seen increasingly as pro-India. Pakistan has for long accused India of using its consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad as bases to spread insurgency in Balochistan.

Countering such claims, Indian Ambassador to Kabul, Rakesh Sood, says, “India enjoys a very friendly relationship with Afghanistan. We also respect Afghanistan’s right to have good relations with all its neighbours. Therefore we would not, in any way, take any action that could undermine the trust.”

Poppy and corruption: Growing in 'the backyard'

Celebrating the fifth anniversary of the start of the Afghan war, former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld wrote a column for The Washington Post in which he described the country’s move to democracy as “hopeful and promising” but acknowledged a “legitimate worry” in the increased poppy production.

What legitimised Rumsfeld’s worry was a record poppy yield — this year, Afghanistan is expected to supply the opium for some 92 per cent of the world’s heroin supply. This has deep implications for Karzai, on whose agenda poppy eradication ranked high.

A big reason for the failure of Karzai’s programme has been his inability to provide alternative livelihoods to poppy farmers. Dr Tarzi, who was finance minister in warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s government (1993-1994), says, “The Taliban only aggravate the drug problem. The entire poppy eradication drive was excessive.” Pointing to the fact that poppies are going to account for more than half of Afghanistan’s GDP this year, he argues, “Some countries have oil, we have opium.”

ICG’s Nathan argues that, contrary to popular belief, though they offer some protection to the poppy farmers, the Taliban is not actively buying the produce. “To solve the problem, you need to tackle the big fish, most of who are in the government. These are druglords who consistently subvert laws, rendering large swathes of land cultivatable,” she says.

Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, former governor of Helmand, was caught with nine tonnes of opium in his office. As international outrage followed, Karzai removed him from office, but then nominated him as a Senator in the National Assembly.

Minister of Counter Narcotics, Lt Gen Daud Daud, is rumoured to be a trafficker himself. More worryingly for the President, his younger brother Ahmad Wali Karzai is also said to be in the ring. “The elder brother is not being able to eradicate cultivation because it is growing in his own backyard,” says driver Aslam.

Azizi Naziri, president of Afghanistan’s Heavy Machinery Association, says while the Taliban government was linked with unprecedented extremism, the Karzai government is now being referred to as the most corrupt. “I am still trying to figure which one is better,” he says.

Public disenchantment: The Centre does not hold

Karzai’s biggest concern is the discontent felt by those who had voted him to power. Even in the rapidly developing Kabul, basic necessities such as electricity are scarce. Depending primarily on dams for power, the Capital is dark and gloomy through much of the winter on account of the freezing water. Conditions at public hospitals remain deplorable and government housing is a distant dream.

Mohammad Akram, unemployed for the last four years, is now desperately trying to find work at Kabul’s Olympic Sports Centre. He says, “Before the Taliban fell, we were at war for over 30 years. But even five years later, nothing has changed. We still don’t have jobs, houses or electricity.”

For some, Akram’s expectations might be ‘too lofty’. But the Public Information Officer for the UN Development Programme, Akmal Dawi, disagrees, “Once democracy was installed, people expected to see tangible changes. With millions of dollars being poured into Afghanistan, wanting basic necessities such as roads, electricity, jobs and health cannot be dubbed as ‘high expectations’.”

Dawi also claims that the reconstruction has been an under-sourced operation. The aid poured in over the last five years amounts to only $61 per Afghan per year. It is negligible when compared to the relief given to the Bosnians ($275) and the East Timorese ($248).

Abdul Jan had fled to Pakistan to escape Taliban brutality. Four years after his return, Jan is still without a house. He says, “I thought democracy meant development. But now I think 50 years of dictatorship would be better than five years of such democracy.” Saying that the conditions are again ripening for the Taliban to assume power, he laments, “I am counting the days till when I have to leave my country again.”

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First Published: Nov 12, 2006 02:53 IST