Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Wednesday had an air of high drama – the commander-in-chief visiting the front line – even as the Taliban’s relentless onslaught is bringing them close to the city, traditionally an anti-Taliban bastion. The historic city and its inhabitants are cut off from the rest of the country and awaiting the worst.
But Ghani’s real agenda was to form a front comprising the government forces and the disparate local armed groups to stall the Taliban offensive and buy time. Does the proposition of an anti-Taliban “United Front” at this late hour look viable?
Ghani took the Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum with him to Mazar-i-Sharif. They have a common interest insofar as Dostum too is a beached whale in Kabul. Ghani’s primary objective is to arrange a patch-up between Dostum and the Tajik warlord ruling Mazar-i-Sharif, Mohammed Atta.
Tajiks (45%) and Pashtuns (40%) are the main ethnic groups in Mazar-i-Sharif’s half-million population and Uzbeks constitute a minority of 10-12%. But Dostum and his henchmen called the shots in that city from the Soviet era. Dostum could never forgive Atta for usurping power after the Americans came.
Dostum is an uncontrollable phenomenon and it is anybody’s guess how many times the Iranian deputy foreign minister at the time, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, sneaked into (Taliban-ruled) Afghanistan in the late 1990s to pacify the internecine squabbles among the Northern Alliance factions.
Who will play Boroujerdi’s role now? Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive under Ghani, is a lone ranger, half-Tajik and half-Pashtun by birth, and ill-equipped to negotiate with warlords. Ahmed Shah Massoud used to assign difficult political missions to the late Abdul Rahman (who negotiated Dostum’s defection from Najibullah’s camp).
The only person with political acumen to mediate between unruly warlords would probably be Yunus Qanooni, but he has been marginalized.
The warlords are notoriously greedy for money. In 2001, the Americans brought in dollar bills literally in gunny bags to “incentivize” the warlords, who got used to demanding huge kickbacks since then, amassing properties in Dubai or wherever, and have become multimillionaires. No wonder the Afghan finance minister simply resigned and fled abroad on Wednesday.
Will US President Joe Biden re-employ the warlords? Extremely doubtful.
In the present ethnic lineup, there is no Pashtun warlord in sight. Already, the two “strongmen” on Ghani’s side are Tajiks – Vice-President Amrullah Saleh and Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi. And both are Panjshiris, hailing from one of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan, with a population of about 175,000 (in a country of 38 million).
The optics don’t look good – although no one discusses ethnic undercurrents publicly. Therefore, the big question is, why would anybody want to risk life for the survival of the current setup in Kabul?
In the Afghan bazaar, people will laugh if they are told these guys are fighting for democracy. Nor have warlords any high opinion of Ghani. His past record is of a fickle-minded person. Indeed, on Tuesday, he fired the chief of the Afghan Army.
Then there is the external angle. Almost all the warlords have experienced foreign patronage. It is a legacy of the Afghan jihad. “Have gun will travel” culture is deeply entrenched in their psyche. A warlord’s fealty goes to the highest bidder.
Dostum, a car mechanic by profession, was a creation of the KGB. After the Soviet collapse, Tashkent became his watering hole. He has since served Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (helping the Taliban to capture Herat in 1995) and Turkey. Ideology or politics have never bothered him. Currently, Turkey commands Dostum.
Therefore, it’s highly intriguing that while Dostum is challenging the Taliban, the tidings from Ankara are that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is planning a summit meeting between himself and the Taliban leader. Dostum was recently in Ankara and conceivably, Turkish intelligence briefed him.
At any rate, Erdogan said in nationally televised remarks that the current process with the Taliban is “quite problematic.” To quote Erdogan,
“We are working on this matter, including some meetings with the Taliban. So much so that I may be in a position to meet with the person who will become their leader. Why? Because if we cannot take them under control at the top level, we will not be able to establish peace in Afghanistan.”
Erdogan added meaningfully, “Don’t we have veritable blood relatives in Afghanistan? We do. With all these, we will take certain steps and work to see who we can take on our side.”
Dostum won’t work at cross-purposes with Erdogan. So, what if Erdogan gets a deal from the Taliban to accommodate Dostum? Atta needs to be wary – and Ghani too.
Iran too prioritizes the safety and welfare of the Shia-dominated Hazarajat region and the security of Tajik-dominated western border regions of Afghanistan. Tehran has expressed satisfaction that it is in direct contact with the Taliban.
Iran’s nexus with the Northern Alliance came in the heat of the moment in the wake of the Taliban attack on the Iranian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif in August 1998 in which 11 Iranian diplomats were killed. Today’s circumstances are different.
As for Russia and China, the Taliban’s consolidation in the North is a factor of stability and security. On Wednesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu acknowledged, “What’s important to us is that the border with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is also taken under the control of the Taliban.”
Shoigu took note that the Taliban have vowed not to cross into Central Asian republics. Suffice to say, Russia, China, Central Asian states, Iran or Pakistan have no reason to foster Afghan warlords. That means Ghani will have to “incentivize” the warlords. Does he have the money, power and material resources to do that?
This is where the strategic significance of the Taliban’s capture of Pul-e-Khumri in Baghlan province on Wednesday needs to be understood.
In effect, the Taliban now control a strategic hub – the so-called “outer ring road” – that connects Kabul with six Northern provinces; with Panjshir, Takhar and Kunduz to the northeast; with Samangan and Bamyan to the west; and with Parwan to the south.
That is to say, the fall of Pul-e-Khumri cripples Kabul’s supply lines. Clearly, the Taliban’s intelligence system knew precisely what was happening in Ghani’s court.
Once Mazar-i-Sharif falls, some isolated pockets of resistance may remain, which the Taliban would tackle through political work or coercion. Historically, Afghanistan has only rarely been at peace with itself.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.