KABUL – The New Great Game is taking some really wacky twists and turns. Slowly but surely, the Russian Bear is back in Kabul – 12 years after its ignominious end-of-the-Cold War retreat from Afghanistan after 10 years of occupation. Kabulites couldn’t be more amused – while President Vladimir Putin is laughing his mink coats off in Moscow – as a Pakistani intelligence source summed it up three weeks ago. “This time they [Russia] got Afghanistan without spending a single rupee.”
Russian advisers are eating dinner over white tablecloths at the Intercontinental Hotel, while British troops have to settle for tepid cans of baked beans, freezing off their bottoms in distant Bagram airport, 47 kilometers north of the capital. Afghans couldn’t be more pragmatic: Russians are in because they are providing weapons and humanitarian help through a “military medical unit” of the Ministry of Emergency Situations in Moscow. Brits are out because they are basically just helping the American military campaign: they are not providing anything substantial.
The Russians, billing themselves as “civilians” – and enjoying a high level of armed protection – are building a rescue hospital, at no cost to the Afghans, with a capacity to care for 300 patients a day. The Russians are not under a United Nations mandate. They did not tell the UN they were coming. And the UN, although a bit startled, doesn’t seem too bothered, at least on the record. Afghans in Kabul certainly need all the help they can get. Inayatullah Nazeri, the new Afghan minister for refugees, says that about 1,000 needy people arrive in Kabul every day.
But south of Kabul province, in Logar province, something entirely non-Great Game is happening: a local taste of things to come in the form of a vigorous experiment in participative democracy, Afghan-style.
The last Northern Alliance outpost before Taliban and/or warlord territory – guarded by two tanks – is only 20 kilometers south of Kabul. Farther afield, in Logar province, the region is totally controlled by local commanders. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the radical Pashtun hothead and former prime minister of Afghanistan, used the then recently repaved roads as landing strips during the mujahideen wars of 1992-96. The countryside is ravishing, although people are bitterly poor. Seventy percent to 80 percent are Pashtuns. The main crops are wheat and corn. In Muhamad Agha district – the most strategic in Logar – we learn from the locals in the bazaar that after convening a shura (tribal council), the local commanders finally established total control over the province – and told the Northern Alliance not to interfere.
At Muhamad Agha, we met Janahamed, the Northern Alliance representative for Logar province, who showed up in battle fatigues in a packed room to confirm that “the local people control the region”. He is from Parwan, is based in Kabul, and says that he will visit Logar “every day” for consultations.
Haidari, the district governor, says that the Taliban left Logar barely 12 hours after the fall of Kabul. There was no gunfight. There were only 60 Taliban in the district, according to him, and roughly only 200 controlling all seven districts of the province. Haidari says that the Taliban used to “annoy and put a lot of pressure on the people”, but that the general passive reaction was a result of their lack of weapons.
In Waghjan bazaar, a foreign presence almost causes a riot. Ghulam, a villager, says “in our area there are no Taliban any more. We are waiting for a loya jirga, [grand council] and for the UN peacekeepers”. Another villager, Baba, says, “We didn’t do anything. Let our children have education and live in peace.” Among “the people”, not a lot of bitterness seems to remain regarding the Taliban. “They were Muslim and we are Muslim. We just wish peace and security. We are needy people. We are facing hunger.”
As far as the representative democracy process in this region is concerned, it seems to basically involve the rich and the respected. No women are allowed – “forget women forever” – exclaims an exalted villager. But respected engineer Akajan Barakzai – the man in charge of the electricity supply of Logar – is adamant: “This is a kind of democracy. We are building a government of all tribes.”
A while later, at the capital Pol-e Alam – little more than a noisy collection of mudhouses – we finally meet the newly-elected governor of the whole of Logar province, Dr Faizullah. According to locals, he was elected after a shura [assembly] was finalized on Tuesday morning. Dr Faizullah was a previous commander of the Jamiat-I-Islami, the largest political party in the Northern Alliance. He says that he is prepared to share power with the Northern Alliance: “Yes, we recognize the Northern Alliance, we are with the United Front, and we recognize the Islamic State of Afghanistan.”
In the middle of the current, extremely murky priorities are “negotiations with the people of this province” and then to establish security – something completely absent in provinces such as Nangarhar, Ghazni and Kunduz. He does not name his preference for the next Afghan leader, preferring to state that he is in favor of “self-determination to the people of Afghanistan”. This, in local parlance, means a loya jirga.
Logar did not send a representative to the UN Bonn conference of all Afghan parties: Whatever the Islamic State of Afghanistan finally decides, Logar will accept. Dr Faizullah is even in favor of a government headed by Burhanuddin Rabbini, the leader of the Northern Alliance – something that would never go down well in other Pashtun-dominated areas. And as far as former King Zahir Shah is concerned, “He is an old man, he has had much authority, and he has the right now to participate in the negotiations.”
Hopefully, the players in Bonn – intellectuals under the banner of the Cyprus process, a Peshawar delegation (the Pir Syed Ahmad Gailani group), the Rome delegation (Zahir Shah’s people), the United Front (led by Younous Qanooni, the acting minister of the interior), and the UN – will have as much good sense as the good people of Logar.