The West’s man in Kabul likely to achieve little more than Moscow’s men did

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On December 22, almost exactly 22 years after the Soviets installed a puppet government (on December 27, 1979, headed by Babrak Karmal) in Kabul, the Americans repeated the feat. Hamid Karzai was “sworn in” as prime minister with British troops guarding the interior ministry building where the ceremony took place, and General Tommy Franks, head of the US Central Command, looking on. A touch of drama was added to the ceremony by a giant portrait of Ahmed Shah Masoud, the assassinated Northern Alliance commander, glaring at the audience of some 2,000 assorted tribal elders, warlords, foreign diplomats and hangers-on. There were other idiosyncracies as well: three flags instead of a single Afghan flag decked the platform; each group claimed that its flag represented Afghanistan.

All this was dwarfed by the news that US planes had bombed a convoy of Afghan elders from eastern Afghanistan who were on their way to Kabul for the ceremony, killing 65 of them. Reliable sources report that an Afghan warlord, Bacha Khan, unable to extort money from the convoy, had contacted the Americans to allege that Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters were in it. That was enough to provoke the trigger-happy Americans.

Now that a humpty-dumpty government has been put together, the task of rebuilding the country can begin. But all indications are that this will not be easy. Most of the 29 ministers failed to show up at their offices on December 24, the new government’s first working day according to its official schedule. The cabinet had held its first meeting the day before; in it Karzai had outlined his government’s priorities: reconstruction, the economy and bringing about “peace and stability”. According to an Agence France Presse report from Kabul, some ministries had been provided with “start-up kits” by foreign donors (chairs, desks, computers, telephones and so on), but others were left out. The Martyrs and Disabled Ministry appears to be in particularly bad shape: its building is badly damaged and there is hardly any furniture.

While the ministries will take some time to start functioning normally – many officials do not even know how to use their newly-installed telephones – there are more pressing issues confronting the interim administration. First, it is unrepresentative, cobbled together under US pressure. In a rigidly structured tribal society where tradition holds sway, Karzai lacks legitimacy because he is not a senior tribal leader; he is merely a middle-ranker. This is a major handicap. Even worse, the Afghans know well that he is an American puppet, having been on the CIA payroll for a long time. Unfortunately, most factional leaders have been paid CIA agents since the Soviet occupation. Karzai confirmed his indebtness to the Americans when he announced on December 24 that US troops can stay in Afghanistan for as long as the problem of “terrorism” exists. Now the Americans themselves – vice president Dick Cheney and others – have said that it will take 50 years or more to root out terrorism, so Karzai has said in essence that the Americans can occupy Afghanistan for at least 50 years. This may be a hard pill to swallow for a country whose people are averse to much foreign interference in their affairs.

Karzai, however, faces other problems as well. He has little military strength to back his administration; he is dependent on foreign troops to guard him. It is the Northern Alliance that controls Kabul and occupies the key interior, foreign and defence ministries. General Fahim, the NA commander, has been appointed defence minister but, in a sop to general Abdul-Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord has been appointed deputy defence minister. The reality is that Afghanistan is a fractured society and the government’s writ, despite the presence of foreign troops, is limited to Kabul. The situation has been controlled so far by bribes and military threats, both supplied by the Americans. Already some warlords are getting restless, feeling left out of the great dollar bonanza, and are beginning to threaten the fragile coalition.

Given Afghanistan’s tortuous history, the assassination of Karzai cannot be ruled out. This is most likely at the hands of the Northern Alliance’s Tajik troops, whose leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani, held the nominal presidency for 10 years. He has been completely left out but his more ambitious juniors – Yunus Qanooni, Abdullah Abdullah and Qasim Fahim – may not be so cooperative if they decide that Karzai, a southern Pashtun, is getting too big for his boots. Similarly, while the Taliban have been driven from power, most of them have simply melted into the countryside and may strike back at any opportune moment. Afghanistan is far from settled and is unlikely to become any more stable because of thenew interim administration.

Then there is the question of the five million or so Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran. Are they likely to return? Does the new administration have the resources to accommodate them? Instead of addressing these questions, there has been much greater emphasis, especially in the western media, on getting Afghan women to discard their burqas, as if that had been the source of every problem under the Taliban. It is interesting to note that few women have done so, reflecting the fact that the burqa is part of Afghan tradition. The women themselves are much more concerned about food, safety and shelter. With the Northern Alliance’s marauding troops on the loose in Kabul and with memories of past experiences still fresh, safety is a major concern for most of them as well as for children, a large number of whom are orphans. There is also the problem of bandits, who are present in the cities as well as the countryside. Since the Taliban left at least 10 foreign journalists have been killed, and a Swedish woman journalist has been raped. There is nobody to register a complaint, much less investigate. Little or nothing like this occurred during the much-maligned Taliban rule.

While the Afghans grapple with these issues, the Americans have other problems as well. After proclaiming for weeks that Usama bin Ladin was holed up in the Tora Bora mountains, on December 16 the Eastern Alliance militia announced that they had “defeated” the al-Qaeda fighters but that there was no trace of Usama. The US military victory rings hollow without Usama being found “dead or alive”, in Bush’s infamous phrase. Numerous theories have been floated: Usama is dead in one of the caves (general Pervez Musharraf says this); he has fled to Pakistan (the Northern Alliance insists on this); he is in or on his way to Somalia (some Americans use this to justify attacking the country); he may be in Chechnya or on the way there (to give the Russians an excuse to continue their slaughter there). In the absence of Usama’s body or his reappearance somewhere, the question will continue to haunt the US. There is nothing more disconcerting than an inconclusive end to a war that was supposedly waged with precision-guided weapons and “smart bombs” to bring the “terrorists” to justice.

After all this death and destruction, will the Americans now be able to build their pipelines to bring Central Asian oil and gas to South Asia? The answer to this question is what will determine whether the Americans think they have really won or lost the war in Afghanistan.

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