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Dark Clouds amassing on Afghanistan's political Horizon

A Brief Review of Post-Taliban Afghanistan

by Marco Mezzera*

Voices in Kabul seem to sing in unison "We are so happy that the Taliban have left. Now, we are free again to do what we want - to sing, to listen to music, to cut off our beards...". But as soon as one travels out of the ethnically mixed capital of Afghanistan, opinions on the Taliban and on the period that followed their rout seem to differ quite strongly.

During a meeting in early May with a group of tribal leaders from the district of Pul-i Alam, Logar province (only about 70 km south of Kabul), their leader, Mr. Sheri Khan, cast a different light on one of the most obscure and reclusive periods of Afghan history. In words that elicited expressions of agreement from the gathering of Pashtun elders, he calmly explained, "Security during the Taliban was very good. There were no weapons around at that time, while now the people who are ruling us have reintroduced weapons." He further recalled that women and children would stay outside until late in the evening, along the main road that leads to Kabul, without fearing for their safety. Something unthinkable before the Taliban brought order to the region, and something still to be seen in the current times of political transition.

Sheri Khan was voicing his concern for a possible resurgence of the country's long and deeply rooted history of factional "disorder". Throughout the centuries, internal Afghan conflicts have taken place along ethnic or tribal division lines. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that in a Pashtun dominated area, people feel at least some sense of sympathy with a movement that, prior to being influenced by foreign influences, drew its main support from this ethnic majority group. On the other hand, when it is the ethnically mixed inhabitants of Kabul that offer judgment over the Taliban, their tone expresses resentment and relief at the departure of a repressive regime.

What has taken over from the Taliban, though, cannot be defined as a non-partisan liberation army. On the contrary, the ethnic composition of the Northern Alliance forces that, against the prescriptions of the Bonn Agreement did not vacate Kabul after the successful military campaign against the Taliban and the Al Qaeda group, rises past fears of ethnically-based abuses and conflicts. Some of the tribal leaders in the Logar province claimed that several of the Alliance's Tajik commanders were already spreading their tentacles outside the capital city. Since they had implemented the disarmament of large sections of the civil population, they were nearly the only Afghans left with weapons that could speak for them, and they were making sure that the message was getting across loud and clear.


Kabul at the beginning of May was a city where an artificial calm reigned. Although the first impression conveyed a sense of security, confirmed by the crowds of people swarming through its streets and the regular sighting of uniformed personnel of various affiliations, more thorough observations would make clear that order prevailed mainly because of the presence of external control mechanisms.

First among these was the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which deployed over 5.000 personnel within the capital, in spite of constant calls from both domestic and international actors for an expansion of its mandate beyond city limits. From the onset of its deployment at the end of December 2001, the peace-keeping force faced various logistical and political problems that strongly limited its capability to make a positive impact on the stabilization process throughout the country.

The first problem was that the UN Security Council had deliberately avoided creating a military entity that might have interfered with the anti-Al Qaeda and Taliban operations of the "Coalition Forces". Consequently, American military advisers were left free to define their strategies on the ground without being held responsible to a broad and politically representative institution such as the UN. For instance, the practice of supporting various warlords to seal useful military alliances, as reported by several sources, would very likely have been met with great resistance from the international community. As a result of this approach, ISAF was left with the sole responsibility of guaranteeing law and order in Kabul until a domestic structure could take over. More precisely, protection of the interim administration and of the overall political process leading to the holding of an emergency Loya Jirga (grand tribal council) in June was also entrusted to ISAF.

In addition to those broad tasks, ISAF has also been trying to help the interim administration reconstitute its security apparatus, namely the national police force and the army. Germany is leading the effort to revive the police forces which, during the Taliban period, had been absorbed by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The German government has committed funding for training, especially on human rights issues, and vehicles. At the beginning of May many Volkswagen vans in the characteristic green and white colors of the German police were easily recognizable in the streets of Kabul.

The task of building a national army has been shared by different ISAF members, namely Great Britain, Turkey, France, Italy and Germany, although, as previously mentioned, this effort has been accompanied by a seemingly contradictory parallel process of training and empowering of warlords' armies by the Coalition Forces.

In the meantime, though, ISAF has helped to form what could be a nucleus of the future Afghan national army. About five months ago, the first batch of 600 members of an "Afghanistan National Guard" were installed and tasked with being a kind of Presidential Guard. In order to respect the fundamental principle of broad representation, members of the battalion have been drawn from 29 of the country's 32 provinces.

Notwithstanding these attempts to safeguard the (ethnic) representation principle, especially in highly sensitive institutions such as the security bodies, in the months preceding the Loya Jirga ISAF was already being associated with the Northern Alliance, mainly because the Alliance forces were the ones actually controlling Kabul and most of the country.

Just to mention a few examples, three key positions within the Karzai interim government were in the hands of members of the Jamiat-i-Islami party, to which also the late anti-Taliban resistance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud belonged. They were the Defense Ministry, under General Mohammed Fahim, a former lieutenant of Massoud; the Interior Ministry, in the hands of Younis Qanooni; and the Foreign Ministry, controlled by Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. The three ministers are often referred to as the "Panjshiri Troika", after the Panjshir valley north of Kabul from where they originally came. Ethnically speaking, they control a largely Tajik army in a country that is predominantly Pashtun.

Finally, ISAF has also been severely hampered in its operations by the nature of its multinational composition. At the beginning of May nineteen different countries were contributing personnel and material to the mission, resulting in the usual organizational nightmare of having to coordinate the activities of many contingents that could not even communicate in the same language with each other.

On top of that, ISAF's mandate had tremendous limitations not only in territorial terms, but also in its capacity to effectively monitor the security situation on the ground. According to one civil military officer of ISAF, the international force, for example, was not allowed to gather any intelligence on the ground.


On 4 May, while returning to Kabul from a trip to the Logar province to meet with some district assemblies of tribal leaders involved in the Loya Jirga process, the commissioner I was traveling with decided to stop in the small enclave of General Atiqullah Lodeen, situated in the district of Mohammad Agha. As our car left the primary road and travelled slowly to the place of the meeting, we witnessed an unfamiliar scene. Standing on the side of the small rural road, there were two lines of disciplined soldiers in immaculate camouflage uniforms, presenting their impeccable military salute to the passing vehicle. Their neat and ordered appearance was a dramatic contrast to the scenes in Kabul of groups of rag-tagged Northern Alliance soldiers bivouacking at their positions around the city. These soldiers were different, and there were many of them, spread out in the fields around a fortified compound, which was also equipped with a couple of anti-aircraft batteries.

As soon as we got the chance to talk to one of the lieutenants of General Atiq, as he is familiarly called by his men, we finally understood the kind of scenario we had just entered. General Atiqullah was introduced as the "Chief of Southern Zone Compion", which in practical terms implied an army of about 4.000 soldiers covering, and supposedly controlling, the areas of Paktya and Gardez, South-East of Kabul.

The same staff member did not try to hide the fact that most of the high-tech military equipment in the hands of the soldiers was American. On the contrary, he was boasting the good ties that their army had with US military advisers, who had also provided their men with most of the military training. The biggest share of General Atiq's army was at that time allegedly engaged with skirmishes with remaining pockets of Taliban and Al Qaeda forces alongside the Pakistani border. Most probably, the truth was that the skirmishes were taking place with rival warlords, fighting for territorial control and political positioning in view of the coming emergency Loya Jirga. It was in fact clear that the stronghold we had entered, with its civilian population, was also functioning as a reservoir of votes and support for the general's political aspirations.

General Atiq's story is probably just one of the many similar situations that one would encounter outside Kabul if allowed to investigate freely. Factional warlordism - often encouraged by foreign interests – has been a permanent characteristic of Afghanistan's troubled history. The US "contribution" is just the more recent but it comes at a very critical moment, when the international community is openly declaring that it is trying to help the country to rediscover the path towards true democracy.

According to the few news reports on the issue coming out of Afghanistan, the various aspirant warlords spread around the country immediately understood the huge potential for their military and territorial growth of a strategic anti-Taliban alliance with the international forces. And in fact, while that military campaign was still at its height, rumors were already filtering of ethnic cleansing operations aimed at the Pashtun minorities in the north of the country. Later there were reports that a Tajik commander of the Northern Alliance, General Mohammed Atta, was attempting to regain territory from Uzbek and Hazara rivals. At the beginning of May, skirmishes were erupting south of Kabul, although it was quite complicated to assess their exact nature due to strong limitations in the flow of information. More to the south and to the east of the capital, other warlords, allegedly with armies of over 12.000 men and probably equipped by US assistance, were undermining the power of their fellow Pashtun leader Hamid Karzai in the cities of Kandahar and Jalalabad. And finally, one of the worst examples of warlordism in the country and of the way alliances permanently shift according to the necessity of the moment, Gulbuddin Hikmetyar was still at large ready to join the big game once the right opportunity arose.


One month before the great event it seemed that almost everyone in Afghanistan, and all for different reasons, was monitoring (and probably interfering in) the results of the Emergency Loya Jirga.

This traditional Afghan decision-making process had been chosen by all the parties present at the UN-brokered Bonn Agreement at the end of 2001, as the most suitable means to build up a as wide as possible political accord and thereby advance the country's efforts towards a stable and democratic environment. Through the work of the Loya Jirga Commission, a group of 21 Afghans in charge of drafting the selection and operational rules of the grand council, and with the help of the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan (UNSMA), which dispatched around eight of its members as advisors to the Commission, the first phase of the "electoral" process started around 15 April in the district of Mardyan, Jawzjan province, in the north of the country. Two-thirds of the 1,501 delegates were due to be indirectly elected through a two-stage process taking place at the district level. In the first stage, between 20 and 60 electors would be chosen by representatives of communities, who then had to agree on the final selection of between one and four candidates to be sent to the Loya Jirga on behalf of the district. The candidates were to be chosen between 21 May and 5 June and the process was based on the principle of one representative for every 25,000 people. The remaining third of the grand council was to be appointed by the Commission itself.

All the chosen candidates were then expected in Kabul on the night of 7 June, and after two days of preliminary sessions, the regular meeting was due to take place between 10 and 16 June. There were three main tasks waiting for the Loya Jirga: 1) the election of the head of state; 2) the election of a cabinet; and 3) the decision of a basic structure of the new administration. Together, those tasks were expected to determine the configuration of a new Transitional Administration to replace the Afghan Interim Administration (AIA) agreed in Bonn. The new interim government was given a life-span of two years in order to convene a Constitutional Loya Jirga for the drafting of a new constitution (after 18 months) and to hold elections for a new government.

In spite of the huge expectations both Afghans and the international community placed on the Loya Jirga, a little more than one month before it major challenges were still to overcome. The main one was the threat of a resurgence of factionalism and by the widespread perception that the Interim Authority was dominated by the ethnic minorities (Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara) that formed the Northern Alliance. For instance, according to a UNSMA officer, 24 out of 25 department heads at the Defence Ministry of Muhammed Qassem Fahim were from the same clan.

The second major problem was the Commission's lack of resources to properly administer the process, especially in terms of the huge task of providing the necessary information to all the communities involved. When attending a couple of tribal leaders' meetings in the Logar province, the extent of the need for information on all the basic aspects of the Loya Jirga process became very clear. Besides, for the people attending those meetings it was very important to feel that they were not left alone, often to the mercy of a local warlord, in their task of selecting the right electors. However, despite its great efforts, it was also clear that the Commission could not possibly extend its direct guidance to all the 363 districts of the country. Even its idea to appoint a volunteer for each district to spread information to all eligible residents had obvious limitations. Realistically such a person could barely be expected to communicate the date and place of a district assembly, let alone inform the people about the election rules and the format and purpose of the Loya Jirga itself.


When the Loya Jirga started, the main contentious issues surfaced immediately, especially the choice of the head of state. Divisions among ethnic and political lines concentrated around two key candidates for that position. On the one hand, the Pashtun majority supported the 87-year-old former king, Zahir Shah, while on the other the Northern Alliance gave its support to the interim prime minister Hamid Karzai. The Alliance's backing for the Pashtun Karzai can be explained by the fact that he represented a neutral solution. He did not belong to any of the ethnic groups of the Alliance, and although he was from the Pashtun majority, the level of (armed) support that he could command from his own people was deemed as irrelevant.

The nomination controversy was eventually solved before the council could reach a dangerous stalemate. After a couple of other contenders withdrew their candidacies, Zahir Shah followed suit and publicly endorsed Karzai as president. Then it was the turn of the Interior Minister, Yunis Quanooni, to resign, allegedly to allow a more inclusive process in the formation of the new government. Nevertheless, the whole process continued to be marred by reports of intimidation and bribery and by the presence of warlords who had not even been elected at the Loya Jirga sessions.

The final result could hardly be considered the result of a successful democratic and participatory exercise. Karzai was indeed elected as the head of state for the following 18 months, but his cabinet did not reflect the longed-for reshuffle and sharing of power among the various ethnic groups. With the exception of the Interior Ministry, all the other major power posts in the government continued to be firmly held by people close to the Northern Alliance.

Sidelining the former king may have guaranteed a quick political victory in the initial battle for the presidency, but it may prove to be no more than a postponement of the bigger war that will come once the Pashtun majority realizes that it has been completely left out of the game.

*Marco Mezzera is a Research Associate with Focus on the Global South.

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