Will history repeat itself in Afghanistan' Ten years ago, in April 1992, after Mohammad Najibullah was overthrown, an interim administration, representing a Pushtun-Tajik alliance, assumed power in Kabul. Its president was a Pushtun jihadi leader with a limited support base — Sibghatullah Mujadedi. His major qualification for the job was his ethnicity — no one but a Pushtun had ruled Afghanistan for the better part of 250 years.
His defence minister was Ahmed Shah Masood, a Tajik. Northern Afghanistan was left to the devices of Abdul Rashid Dostum who ruled from Mazar-e-Sharif. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence wanted to install Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in Kabul. He pounded the capital with rocket attacks until he was designated prime minister. However, he could never enter Kabul. His antics and that of the other jihadi factions eventually paved the way for the taliban.
Ten years on, it is another Pushtun — Hamid Karzai — with no support base who heads the government in Kabul. He too is there because of the need to give a Pushtun face to the interim administration. His defence minister is again a Tajik, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, a deputy of the late Masood. The distrust between the Pushtuns and the Tajiks continues and Karzai has been provided American bodyguards.
Hekmatyar is again on the periphery of Kabul — in Kunar or in Loghar — and has declared jihad against the Karzai government. The latest series of bomb explosions in Kabul, including the car bomb that killed 26 people on September 5, is believed to be his handiwork. There is speculation that Pakistan is fuelling instability in Afghanistan using Hekmatyar, the remnants of the taliban and the al Qaida.
The writ of the Kabul government is limited. The governors of the regions — particularly Ismael Khan in Herat, Dostum in Balkh and Jousjan, Gul Agha Sh-erzai in Kandahar, Hazarat Ali in Jalalabad and Din Mohammad in Nangarhar — are power centres in their own right.
Yet there are some differences between the Afghanistan of 1992 and that of 2002. For one, the commitment of the international community to ensure an independent, stable and democratic Afghanistan is deeper today than ever before. For another, unlike in 1992, Tajik control over Kabul today is near total.
However, there are four imponderables that will determine the future of Afghanistan. One, the staying power of the Americans and the international community. Two, the extent of accommodation between the various ethnic factions. Three, the pace of reconstruction activity. And, four, the interference from across the borders in Pakistan.
As of now it seems that the United States of America will stay the course as it would not want Afghanistan to lapse into chaos once again. But with what seriousness it would continue to pursue its objectives is a matter of speculation. While welcoming the US presence, many in Afghanistan feel that the problem with the US approach is that it sees the whole issue as a “project” — having “done” Kosovo, they now want to “do” Afghanistan. Such an approach seeks to impose structures from above, hoping that everything else would automatically fit in. Institutions, however, have to develop from within a society for them to be suitable and durable.
What this means is not another one-off loya jirga but a sustained and credible dialogue between the different ethnic groups and communities of Afghanistan. As of now, there is only an understanding that everyone should get a share in governance — but what share and within what system is unclear.
The accommodation among the various ethnic factions is tricky. Nobody knows, for example, who can speak on behalf of the Pushtuns. It is certainly not Karzai — especially after the attempt to assassinate him in his home town of Kandahar in the Pushtun heartland. The southern regions of the country — predominantly Pushtun — feel that they do not have their fair share of power in the Karzai government. The Tajik political leadership is also amorphous. Fahim is there because of his military strength and not because of his political vision, if he has one.
Dostum, for example, believes that only a broad federal structure can allow proper power-sharing and keep Afghanistan together. His federalism means a separate flag, defence policy, currency and an independent school curriculum. Even now he prints his own currency called “Jumbishi”, as opposed to the Afghani, which is accepted in the other parts of Afghanistan but at a slightly devalued rate.
If the Afghan ethnic groups are keeping quiet for the time being, it is because they all expect some amount of rebuilding and reconstruction to take place under the aegis of the US. The moment donor fatigue sets in and aid-flow stops, their differences are likely to surface again. As of now, however, international aid is only a trickle. Not even ten percent of the aid promised has been realized in the 10 months following the beginning of the aid process.
There are also no arrangements to absorb foreign aid. The banking system has collapsed. There is a central bank with a president and a building but it does precious little. Nobody knows who prints the afghanis. Many believe that there is more than one actor or country behind it. When the government announced its intention to revalue the afghani, the market was suddenly flooded with brand new notes which came in containers and the exchange rate went up from 45,000 to 56,000 afghanis to a dollar. No one seems to know how and why the Afghan moneychangers are able to deal in almost any currency with the latest exchange rate being only a phone call away. The speculation is that it is the drug trade which makes this possible.
The most important factor which has kept Afghanistan destabilized is, of course, foreign interference. The needle of suspicion is already pointing towards Pakistan. It is more than willing to help the Pushtuns — Pakistani newspapers are full of stories about the marginalization of the largest community of Afghans in the new power structure. Some analysts believe that the assassination of the governor of Nangarhar, Haji Qadeer, in the Afghan capital in July was aimed at showing that Pushtuns are not safe in Tajik-controlled Kabul. The attempt on Karzai’s life was also aimed at plunging the country into chaos once again. The expectation in Ka-bul is that any day now an aid-worker or a foreign diplomat may be assassinated.
Having lost its so-called “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, Pakistan can be expected to do everything to spread disruption and disorganization to discredit the Afghan transitional government. However, nobody knows at what level the current Pakistani involvement is — at the level of Pakistani militant groups supporting the remnants of the taliban, rogue elements of the ISI and its retired officers or the government itself' If Pakistan is fully in the picture, then the question is — how can General Pervez Musharraf afford to fight his own jihadis while encouraging similar forces in Afghanistan'
What is clear, however, is that there are regional forces or countries which resent the US presence in Afghanistan and, therefore, seek to destablize the present arrangement in Kabul. They know that this is a medieval political situation. A single carefully planned assassination can change the board on which the game is being played.