QUETTA, Pakistan – Baluchistan this Friday felt like Tibet, and Quetta a sister city to Lhasa – under an occupation army in full regalia. A general strike was called by the Pak-Afghan Defense Council – a coalition of religious parties – against the Musharraf government’s support for Washington. As far as the strike was concerned, it was a total success: virtually all businesses were shut down, the streets deserted – and not because Islamabad had made it a public holiday in honor of the national poet Iqbal.
But street protests were another matter entirely. Roughly 100 protesters, mainly Afghan, gathered in front of Kandahari mosque, in Quetta’s famous Kandahari bazaar after Jumma prayers. There were at least 2,500 fully armed police – but no troops – in the city and its surrounds, according to Dr. Muhamad Shoaib Suddle, inspector-general of police for the whole of Baluchistan. With a rate of more than 25 police for each protester, and with 25 religious leaders in custody, to be released only late in the afternoon – including the vice-president of the Jamaat-I-Islami, Maulana Abdul Haq – Dr. Suddle was country-club-relaxed in his Toyota Hi-Lux. The protest turned into a media parade with a few “Down with Musharraf” cries thrown in for the cameras.
Journalists in Quetta don’t get a security guard as part of their visit: they get an apprentice spy, some with guns, some with bamboo sticks, generally gentle, shy souls who earn 2,000 rupees a month (little more than US$30) and can barely fire a gun. The spy is the media’s American Express: don’t leave home (the New Mexico-style Serena Hotel ) without it. This is a glimpse of Musharraf’s democracy in action. The official line invokes the usual suspect – “security reasons.” But the real picture reveals an Islamabad extremely alarmed with foreign press snooping around American-controlled bases in strategic Baluchistan.
Mohin Khan Baluch, head of the Baluchistan National Party, which he defines as a “nationalist Baluch and secular party,” confirms America is using four landing strips in Baluchistan – Pasni, Omara, Gowader and Jiwni – and fully controlling four airports – Pasni, Panjgur, Shansi and Dalbandin: “And they tried to get Quetta airport as well,” he adds. All the roads leading to these bases are blocked.
Mohin Khan says that “angry people already fired at Panjgur, a crowd tried to get hold of Dalbandin,” and according to a report in a Baluch local paper, “fired at US personnel in Pasni, killing two Americans.” He does not measure his words: “Pakistan has made Baluchistan a US cantonment, which has affected a lot the relationship between the Afghan and the Baluch peoples.” In Ghousabad bazaar – an extended Afghan village and a center for around 25,000 people, most living in the place for the last 10 or even 20 years – most semi-destitute locals agree with Mohin Khan’s assessment.
In a more sedate part of this desert frontier town, Ahmad Wali Karzai – Hamid Karzai’s younger brother – juggles more pressing questions concerning a sat-phone. Ahmad Wali lived in the US for 10 years. He even had an NGO, from 1992 to ’98 – the Environmental Foundation Agency (EFA). Until recently he was basically concerned with the show-stopping French soccer superstar Zinedine Zidane: nowadays he has to hold court to the world media trying to find out where exactly his brother is.
Hamid Karzai, 45, educated in Kabul, holder of a Master of Political Science degree from India, former deputy foreign minister of the pre-Taliban Rabbani government, with a wife living in Quetta, and now a man on a mission of peace, may be at the moment the most sought after Afghan in the whole planet. But where, exactly, is Hamid Karzai?
According to his brother, Hamid Karzai “is safe, in Afghanistan, in the south of Uruzgan province” – in Deh Rawad village, not far from Tarin Kowt, where elusive Taliban supremo Mullah Omar was born. His brother says Karzai is “talking to tribal leaders, on a peace mission, continuing his work to try to form a loya jirga [grand council] and a broad-based government in Afghanistan.” This is obviously a long-term process: nobody expects Hamid Karzai to round up a couple of tribals and topple the Taliban before Ramadan.
Ahmad Wali stresses that “loya jirga.” This is the real Afghanistan. “If we have a problem in a village, the elders come together and solve the problem.” In tribal Uruzgan, according to Ahmad Wali, “there is very strong support for us. The Taliban are only 6 years old, but our relation to the tribes is more than 100 years old.” In the view of both Karzai brothers, former king Zahir Shah’s return is “an acceptable solution to Tajiks and also to Pashtuns.”
Ahmad Wali says “Afghan people were always religious – not fundamentalists. Islam didn’t come with the Taliban. The Taliban have nothing to do with Islam. People even in the countryside do not agree with them.” But he admits, “In the beginning we even supported them, until the middle of 1996,” because the Taliban were promising security. At the time, he adds, the Taliban were saying, “We are mullahs, we will go back to the madrassas. But then they became power-hungry.” Ahmad Wali insists that nowadays “everyone is in favor of a Loya Jirga all over Afghanistan.” Farid, Karzai’s cousin, adds that “People think that Afghans are Taliban. But we want freedom, and a government with rights. Islam says every human being has rights. We don’t want to insult our religion.”
The younger brother stresses that “Hamid is always in touch with the people.” Ahmad Wali also reveals that Hamid left Quetta almost a month ago – that is, even before the capture and execution of former jihad commander Abdul Haq by Taliban intelligence. On the day he left Quetta, “he said he would drive to Karachi and then take a plane to Islamabad. But he drove straight to Kandahar, and crossed the main checkpoints with no problem.” After all, Hamid Karzai is an Afghan, and a beard is the only passport for a travelling Afghan.
Unlike Abdul Haq, Hamid Karzai was never a fighter or commander. Neutral sources note that the Karzai clan – which originates from the small village of Kar – supports the Taliban morally, but does not take active part in Afghan politics. Before the Taliban, Hamid Karzai was a representative of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s government at the UN: “But then America approached him, bought him, and he withdrew himself from the Taliban, still in their early stages,” says a source. That’s when he started his campaign in favor of a loya jirga.
Ahmad Wali says Hamid Karzai, for the moment, “is not contacting any Taliban commanders. He is just working with tribal leaders.” He has not been in contact with the Northern Alliance either: their last meeting – which included the presence of the subsequently assassinated “Lion of the Panjshir,” Ahmad Shah Masoud, was in early 2001. The Karzai political mantra is predictable: “The Pashtuns have to be part of any government in Kabul. Otherwise, it won’t survive. The largest, most populous areas are Pashtun.”
As we talk, Ahmad Wali says he just spoke with his brother a few hours ago – by sat-phone. The BBC also talked to Karzai on his sat-phone. He placed the call – not the network. The BBC forgot to mention that they wanted badly to call Karzai, and then Ahmad Wali arranged for his brother to make the call. We ask for the sat-phone number. Ahmad Wali replies: “He will call you.” But a few minutes later he says “he called” his brother to tell him about Abdul Haq’s execution. On his BBC appearance, Karzai said he was in Afghanistan, he had to fight his way to safety, and then he made a worldwide appeal so Afghanistan can “get rid of these foreigners” – meaning the Al-Qaeda Arabs.
Last Tuesday, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said off the record during his return trip from Central and South Asia that Hamid Karzai had been “extricated” from Afghanistan. A number of American sources have confirmed they had sent a helicopter to “extricate” Karzai from Afghanistan. Afghan Islamic Press, on the other hand, said more than a week ago he had been arrested with 25 other people and could be hanged.
Will Hamid Karzai be back? “Nobody knows. But it won’t be soon,” says Ahmad Wali. The road is long, “and our mission started already 20 years ago.” The Taliban insist that Hamid Karzai is in Toba, a deserted Baluch area northeast of Quetta. An usually well-informed source in Islamabad, a consultant to Al-Jazeera, confirms that he is in Toba. The fact is, Hamid Karzai could be in Deh Rawad. Hamid Karzai could be in Toba. And Hamid Karzai, a confirmed bon vivant, could be hitting jackpots in Vegas. Place your bets – and track that sat-phone number.