The Bush administration is now “suggesting” that the elections scheduled for June in Afghanistan – for which the administration itself pushed – may have to be postponed because of “security problems.” There’s much more to this than a huge understatement.
Not only a third of the country – as Washington says – is unstable, but practically everywhere outside of the capital Kabul. Security advisers for international aid agencies reveal every week what’s really happening. Except for the Kabul-Jalalabad road, to travel overland in Afghanistan is still a very dangerous undertaking. Even the recently rebuilt and repaved Kabul-Kandahar road is considered dangerous.
According to the United Nations, at least 70 percent of 10.5 million eligible Afghan voters should be registered for the elections to be considered credible. But at the moment, Afghan registration workers are not even capable of fulfilling their mission in most parts of the country. The administration of US President George W. Bush now says that “at least the presidential election” can take place in June, or maybe July. Bushites are “advising” the government of Hamid Karzai on the matter.
According to Kabul sources, Karzai himself seems reasonably sure to win a presidential election. Wishful thinking in Washington rules that Karzai will be “re-elected” – he was in fact imposed as president by the Bush administration – with broad support among average Afghans. No evidence suggests that most Afghans even know what Hamid Karzai stands for – apart from the fact that he is widely referred to as “the kebab seller.”
Parliamentary elections – supposing that they are free and fair – will pose a tremendous problem to the Bushites. Former mujahideen are all masters of new political forces in Afghanistan – and none of them are aligned with Karzai. They include Muhamad Fahim, the powerful defense minister and former number two to assassinated Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Masoud; Yunous Qanoni, the education minister; Ishmail Khan, the governor of Herat (and the surrounding western provinces for that matter); and general Rashid Dostum, Uzbek-backed and the virtual owner of the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and environs. They have all mounted electoral challenges against Karzai. Moreover, all former mujahideen commanders still maintain their own extensive private armies. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, head of the Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan, former mujahideen and now branded a terrorist by Washington, was in control of 25 percent of the members of last December’s loya jirga (grand council), as well as four local governors. The loya jirga ratified a new constitution for the country that gives future presidents wide-reaching powers. Hekmatyar also commands loads of weapons and thousands of warriors and is effectively leading the Afghan resistance.
Karzai’s weapon of choice has been to distinguish between “good Taliban” – who accounted for at least 40 percent of the members of the loya jirga – and “bad Taliban” – who are responsible for the relentless anti-government and anti-American guerrilla war raging in the south and southeast.
Afghan witnesses repeatedly tell of Taliban militia invading Afghan territory and coming from Pakistani positions across the border – something that suggests a secret tribal deal. These “bad Taliban” discarded their flowing white turbans long ago: they wear the pakool, the felt beret which is a mujahideen icon.
The timetable for any sort of election by the end of June favors only one player: the Bush administration, so that they can exit the country as quickly and quietly as possible before presidential elections in November.
The guerrillas – or jihadis – know this very well, and that’s why Hekmatyar won’t accept any deal to lay down his arms and join the government. Asia Times Online reported on Wednesday (Afghanistan: When push comes to shove ) that Hekmatyar had been made such a deal from the US. Lakhdar Brahimi, the former United Nations coordinator in Afghanistan who has just completed a mission as UN envoy to Iraq, is on record as saying that there can be no quick fix, election-wise, in either Afghanistan or Iraq.
Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah – one of leader Mullah Omar’s top lieutenants and a member of the 10-member shura council established by the Taliban in 2003 – told Reuters by satellite telephone: “There is no question of the Taliban talking to anyone until the American forces leave our country.” Dadullah is definitely not the compromising kind. He is blamed by Kabul for the killing of an El Salvadorian Red Cross worker in May last year, and worse still the destruction of the two giant Bamiyan Buddhas in March 2001. He claims that Mullah Omar is still in Afghanistan – probably protected by concentric circles of tribesmen in the mountains north of Kandahar – and in full contact with his commanders.
Attacks conducted by the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Hekmatyar’s forces in eastern and southern Afghanistan, alongside Pakistan’s tribal areas, happen almost daily. The arc extends from Zabol, in the Afghan south, and runs north through the provinces of Paktika, Paktia, Nangarhar and Kunar (a possible hideout of Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri). The Afghan resistance’s rearguard bases are in the neighboring Pakistani tribal areas, from Zhob in the south to Kohistan in the north, through South Waziristan (another region where bin Laden might be hiding), North Waziristan, Kurram and Khyber. The Taliban are infiltrating all over these areas, nonstop. Since last year, the Musharraf government has prohibited access to journalists, especially the foreign press.
And then there’s opium, which accounts for half of Afghanistan’s gross national product. The country, post-Taliban, has reverted to its status of a de facto narco-state. According to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan’s opium production in 2002 was worth US$20 billion; farmers nonetheless received only $1.2 billion out of the total. The official Afghan economy grew 30 percent in 2002, but if one adds the opium trade the percentage rises to 60 percent. In 2003 it was no different – it should yield huge profits from the best opium harvest in Afghanistan in years.
UN and US diplomats maintain that the poppy fields benefit the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Afghan warlords and their private armies. They conveniently forget to mention that the trade also benefits former Northern Alliance commanders reconstructed into Kabul bureaucrats. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Afghanistan have no mandate to fight drug trafficking. As Karzai, NATO and the US military are not saying or doing anything, Afghan farmers keep doing business as usual. However, a new task force, apparently trained by the British, has swung into operation, but its results are not yet known.
Kabul sources confirm that Afghanistan is back to its early 1990s chaos following the withdrawal of Soviet troops after a decade of occupation. Al-Qaeda – rather Fath al-Islam (Victory for Islam) – is hiding in mountain headquarters, most probably in Kunar province. Kunar – a succession of mountains and remote valleys – is an extension of Nuristan, in whose own remote valleys anthropologists believe is imprinted the genetic code of the Greeks who battled for Alexander the Great and then stayed behind after he went back to Mesopotamia.
On the Pakistani side of Kunar one finds Dir, the main city in the northern part of Northwest Frontier Province. It is here, in the Chitral area, that the backup forces of Hekmatyar are concentrated. Already in September 2002 (see Exit Osama: enter Hekmatyar) Asia Times Online broke the story that Hekmatyar, the Taliban and al-Qaeda were united in a jihad to expel the Americans. The situation remains pretty much the same: the anti-American jihad binds together Hekmatyar, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the mullahs who control the Pakistani madrassas (religious schools), and hardline sectors of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
The Busharraf factor
Amid the ups and downs of the extremely ambiguous relationship between the government of Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf and the Karzai government, only one variable remains unchanged: “strategic depth.” Only a few days after September 11, 2001, an intelligence source in Islamabad told Asia Times Online: “Pakistan simply cannot delink from the Taliban, and the Taliban delink from the ISI. Historically, whenever the ISI felt that some groups were going out of their control, they tried to politically divide them. Hardliners will go behind the scenes, and a new leadership will be brought in.” Two-and-a-half years after September 11, that’s exactly what’s happening. The “good Taliban” are already at work in Kabul and the main Afghan cities, and they have been influential in the loya jirga. The “bad Taliban” take an active part in the guerrilla war in the south and southeast. Either way, the ISI has nothing to lose.
For the hardline sectors of the ISI – a government within a government – Afghanistan means nothing apart from “strategic depth” in the endless war of attrition against India. For ISI hardliners, and even for Musharraf himself, there’s only one possible outcome in Kabul: a pliable, Pashtun-dominated, pro-Islamabad, anti-Delhi government. But an inefficient, isolated Karzai is not such a bad alternative. In the unlikely event US and NATO troops leave Afghanistan, the inevitable destiny of the Karzai government is already written on the walls of madrassas in and around Peshawar – more than 2,000 Koranic schools. Conservative Islam operates in this complex environment through a mix of illegal traffic of drugs and weapons and a reserve of hundreds of thousands of hardcore Islamists.
Pakistan has revealed itself to be the worlds’ leading nuclear proliferator. But nothing will happen to “Busharraf” – as many people in Pakistan call him – because the Pakistani strongman is George W. Bush’s man in Islamabad.
Musharraf is the living proof of the Bush administration’s lies which justified the Iraqi invasion: we will bring democracy to Islamic lands and we will curb the spread of weapons of mass destruction. But the fact is, Pakistan is a nuclear proliferator state – unlike Iran or even Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. And Pakistan is no democracy – it is ruled by a general with dictatorial powers.
The Bush administration’s main reason to support Musharraf is to have bin Laden delivered on a plate before the US presidential elections. Sources confirm to Asia Times Online that hardline sectors of the ISI are absolutely sure of the exact whereabouts in the tribal areas of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. But for the Musharraf system to pass this information to the Americans is out of the question: it is the key to keep Washington’s support. In the unlikely event Musharraf hands bin Laden to Washington, his “presidency” would be terminated by Islamic hardliners well before Pakistan’s 2007 elections for the National Assembly. Pakistanis have been voicing their preference for an elected president well before September 11. But the Bushites obviously prefer Musharraf.
Afghanistan swirls with rumors – including the far-fetched possibility that Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters are escaping through the mountains of the Afghan northeast towards Xinjiang in China. Meanwhile, all bets are off concerning the imminent spring offensive – which in fact consists of two offensives: the “bad Taliban,” Arab-Afghan fighters and Hezb-i-Islami ranks, under Hekmatyar’s command on one side, against NATO forces on the other side. The ultimate price is not so much political and military control over Afghanistan as the 1,700-kilometer Trans-Afghan-Pipeline (TAP) that will carry gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to a Pakistani port.
Karzai, as it is well known, is also a US citizen. He was once a manager at US oil giant Unocal, and he failed to convince the Taliban when they ruled Afghanistan to build the TAP. After being imposed as Afghan president by the White House and Pentagon-connected Zalmay Khalilzad – today the US ambassador in Kabul – Karzai signed a treaty with Musharraf and Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov in late 2001, pledging their common support to TAP. Turkmenistan again has delayed any action until June: Niyazov certainly wants to know who will be the clear winner after the spring offensive(s). Should the Taliban end up getting a piece of the action, sources in Turkmenistan say that the flamboyant Turkmenbashi – as the leader is known – will be laughing all the way to the bank. As for Musharraf, he doesn’t care with whom he does business – as long as he keeps “strategic depth.”