A Fools Game In Afghanistan

Article published on March 7, 2002
community published
Article published on March 7, 2002

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

By supporting the Northern Alliance the US have certainly gained a decisive advantage on the ground, yet at the same time Bush has altered the political balance of the country. While news reaches us in dribs and drabs in unconnected pieces it is a good idea to put all these pieces together and sketch a picture of this conflict.

After the conclusion of the Bonn agreement and more than two months of a war nearing its end, the future of Afghanistan is drawing itself. What will the effects of American policy be? The quasi-victory of the Northern Alliance, backed by the US seems a priori to have given reason to such a policy, as well as the constitution of an interim government and the fall of Kandahar. Yet, to maintain this is to misunderstand the short sighted choice of the US.

It must first be specified that such an option did not go without saying from the beginning. The US hesitated for a long time before helping the Northern Alliance with American strikes, the taking of Kaboul leading necessarily to a change in the political situation of the country. Yet it must be remembered that the start of the strikes was still laborious. Finally, the Americans, in order to avoid becoming entangled in the Afghan web, decided to carry on regardless, obtaining in this fashion a decisive advantage on the ground at little cost. In this same way the intervention of their troops in Kandahar, and now in Tora-Bora is nothing but the last episode of a show which allowed them to strike the deathblow on the Taliban and Al-Qaida forces, already well worn down, with few losses in front of the cameras of the world. The US then accepted to be the blind accomplice of the Northern Alliance, for the better but also for the worst, as shown by the bombing of the prison-fortress of Mazar-E-Charif.

In doing this the American President has only tipped the scales from one extreme to another without seeking a balance, opening the way not to peace but to an interior and exterior political game.

For this offensive is above all a way for a good number of great powers to reinvest on the ground in Afghanistan and Central Asia after a long absence, in the face of Pakistan and the emancipation of the Asian population. Russia is the primary beneficiary in this sector, in Chechnya and in Central Asia, where she has been marginalised since the end of her war with Afghanistan and the dislocation of her empire. Today unavoidable, Russia backs the Northern Alliance in the Bonn negotiations. In a lesser measure, Iran also comes back to the negotiating table of the region with the Chiite composite of the Northern Alliance. And secondarily, China has reinstalled its authority in Xinjiang. The 11th of September has therefore created a new competition among networks and States, but has also re-dealt the cards among the alliances of the region to follow a traditional policy. In this way the surprising coalition composed of the US, Russia, China, with the discreet agreement of Iran, can be explained.

Also, the Northern Alliance is in fact a sundry coalition of actors very different from each other, and not always well-recommended. Ex-KGB agents, old communists, Chiite Islamics, disciples of the Commander Massoud, a mix of Uzbeks, Hazaras. Massoud knew it, but under the circumstances was forced to associate himself with these men against a common enemy, the Taliban. It is therefore fundamentally a military alliance and in no way political. Having played a while the collective game, a return of the individual game at the heart of the alliance is to be expected under the pressure of respective backing and individual ambitions. Despite the constitution of a unified government in Kaboul, zones can already be made out: Ishmail Khan in Heart, Dostom and Daoud are disputing the control of the North, the Panchiris Kaboul. At this moment then we are seeing a return to the old situation of 1992 1996, when the war-lords, the very same as those seen today, each with their sphere of influence, exploited shamelessly their territory. From now, how can we believe that a provisional government can function?

The Uncertainties of the Bonn Conference

From this point of view, the Bonn conference is a vast and edifying fraud. At the negotiating table, the group of the king Zahar Chah, supported by the West, the Northern Alliance supported by Russia and the Chiite group supported by Iran. Among them only one group is present on the ground the Northern Alliance. The Pachtoun tribes are hardly inclined to let themselves be governed by troops under the command of other minorities of the country. It is to this imperative, the rebalancing of forces, that the Bonn conference should aim. Hamid Karzai, a Pactoun who studied in India and a refugee in Pakistan has been named in order to redress the balance by representing Pachtoun interests, and those of the unhappy Pakistan with whom they must compromise. Yet, very westernised, he does not even touch unanimity among the Pachtouns. Apart from this, a seat at the head of the country must be given to the small group that control the ground. Key administrative and ministerial posts have therefore been handed to the Northern Alliance, and in particular to its Tadjik group from Panchir, supported by the Russians.

Already denounced internally by Dostom and Khan, without ministerial offices, their authority questioned by fighting among war-lords for the control of Kandahar the government seems to have got off to a bad start. From now on how can it be believed that this coalition can endure and represent some kind of order for Afghanistan? The officers surrounding the king are long gone and incapable to govern when so far from the real situation, even if the king does enjoy a certain legitimacy. Disorganised, with no central organisation, this State can only leave to prosper local despots. Its sphere of influence strongly risks being limited to Kaboul. Financial aid has so far avoided splits but all sustain their own army. Now, how to impose a UN force on unwilling local powers, except for them most minimal missions? There are already problems in bringing English troops to the Bagram airport, and French troops to Mazar-E-Charif.

Faced with all these uncertainties, the US, have waged war, does not seem keen to provide after-sale service. The ground is already occupied and it will be difficult to chase out the pretenders to power. Neither king, nor Northern Alliance, but an international and impartial force should have been installed in Afghanistan to rebuild a State, train competent and responsible civil servants (the Afghan population having slipped into illiteracy after 20 years of war), and to modernise this society slowly by giving progressively more roles to women that they could not have hoped for under a Northern Alliance government. The solution of the problem in Bonn, not by Afghans themselves, but by exiles, is a lie which serves a bigger game. In Afghanistan, there are no good or bad parties, just parties playing their own games. The Americans, by unilateral intervention and support of no matter who, depending on their immediate interests, whether Pakistan in the 90s or the Northern Alliance now, have already ruined all hope for change.

Also, the fight against terrorism is an issue too important to be left to one State alone. The role of Europe in both cases is to put an end to the policy of one finger on the button and to unite for the promotion of other solutions. For one thing is sure, a war against financing an international operation would have been more effective that a brutal unilateral military operation which, far from creating balance, can only prolong the cycle of violence and instability in which this country has been trapped for more than 20 years. The return of the war-lords and attacks of journalists, small time guerillas, as well as the reappearance of the opium trade tolerated in the countryside are the proof. Underneath the smouldering ashes of the war, fire still burns.