Forces that would rip Afghanistan apart

Posted in Broader Middle East | 05-Aug-04 | Author: Michael Weinstein| Source: Asia Times

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, center surrounded by bodyguards, arrives to a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan.
What is the other transition - the one in Afghanistan, not Iraq - going to look like, if it occurs at all?

Experts are in agreement that the transition is in trouble. Throughout its history as a field of conflict between contending empires and great powers, Afghanistan has developed a formula for survival that has helped it to keep its territorial integrity and indigenous authority system, despite its dizzying ethnic diversity and the external pressures that have been exerted on it. That formula - a weak central government allowing comprehensive power to local and regional leaders - is always vulnerable to civil war, which has been a staple of Afghan existence and threatens to break out again.

The troubles in Afghanistan and the uncertainty of its transition are rooted in the possibility that the bargains and compromises necessary for restoring the country's political paradigm will not be made or will not be strong enough to prevent relapse into civil war, or at best a failed decentralized state, with the national government only fully controlling the capital Kabul, as is currently close to the case.

Afghan social organization
Afghanistan's history of invasions that kept compounding ethnic diversity precluded the country from achieving integrity through a strong centralized government. Instead, the sense of belonging together was achieved by a complex system of nested loyalties rooted in localities. The unit of Afghan social organization is the qaum, a network of affiliations that is most intense in the family, in which are nested wider loyalties to tribe, clan, occupation, ethnic group, region and finally to the continued existence of the country itself, but not necessarily to the current regime. Qaums function to provide their members with mutual aid and to protect them from outside groups. The degree of support and protection is greatest at the local level and becomes more attenuated in broader contexts, in which boundaries between qaums shift in response of changing balances of power.

Qaums are societies within a society. They have allowed Afghanistan to survive over centuries, through a common interest in local autonomy, against external threats. Their strength - fierce defense of local control - is also their weakness: each qaum is suspicious of the others, and when they cannot agree, they are prone to take up arms. The widest qaum - the state, which in the Western model has no structural competitor - is for Afghans a more or less useful facility for other qaums, not an object of loyalty or devotion. Afghan nationalism is social, not political.

Since World War II, attempts to submit Afghan society to centralized rule have been calamities, due to internal resistance and external intervention. The communist regime, which seized power in 1978 and attempted to impose land reform and secularization, was met with militant opposition, which brought the Soviet Union into the conflict, leading to a civil war and war of liberation, under the banner of Islam. The opposition forces were aided and abetted by the United States, and were able to overthrow the communists in 1992, three years after the Soviets had withdrawn their troops. Having won the war, the coalition of mujahideen fell apart into the traditional qaum pattern, in which authority was now firmly in the hands of warlords, who continued the civil war among themselves.

Concerned about its neighbor's instability, Pakistan supported a movement of Afghan refugee religious students, which became the Taliban militia. The Taliban promised to end the civil war and unite Afghanistan around an Islamist state. The Taliban's victory in 1996 ushered in a period of religious fascism that provided relative security at the cost of state terrorism, but did not break the qaum system. When the United States removed the Taliban militarily, because the regime had provided a haven for al-Qaeda before September 11, 2001, the familiar pattern reasserted itself, with civil war prevented only by the presence of multinational forces.

Afghanistan's recent civil wars have left it with a hyper-militarized form of its social paradigm. At present, a weak transitional government in Kabul led by Hamid Karzai is protected by foreign troops and does not exert effective control over the rest of the country, which is divided among local and regional warlords with primary affiliations to clans and particular ethnic groups. Taliban persecutions and the resentments sparked by civil war have sharpened ethnic divides, lessening the will to compromise.

The Taliban have regrouped as guerrilla forces determined to impede the formation of a stable Afghan government. The primary condition for centralized state control - the disbanding of local and regional militias - has not been realized: Approximately 40,000-50,000 fighters are still under the control of the warlords, dwarfing the fledgling Afghan army.

Prospects for transition
Given the deep-rootedness of the qaum system and the military power of local strong men, it cannot be expected that Afghanistan will achieve a Western-style market democracy. The most that can be hoped for by Western powers is some form of bargain among the contending groups to share power through granting one another autonomy. Any greater centralization is unlikely because the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) powers are unwilling to expend the resources even to attempt to achieve it.

Afghanistan is a poor agricultural country without strategic resources. The NATO powers, led by the US, need to keep it from once again becoming a base for Islamic revolution, but their vital interests extend no further than that. They would be unwilling even to lend sufficient support for a Middle Eastern style one-party crony dictatorship to take hold. Indeed, Afghanistan has the lowest international troop-to-population ratio of recent interventions (1:1,115, as compared with 1:161 in Iraq).

The NATO powers are banking on the election of Karzai to Afghanistan's presidency on October 9. A member of Afghanistan's Pashtun plurality, Karzai is beholden to the occupying forces and follows pro-Western foreign policies.

It is still not certain that the election will be held, given efforts to sabotage it by the Taliban and warlords who are threatened with loss of their power. Although 70% of eligible voters have been registered, the figure is only 10%-15% in predominantly Pashtun areas where the Taliban resistance is active. Where registration has been successful, voters are likely to follow the leads of local strong men, many of whom have been suppressing political opposition.

Whether or not elections are held on October 9, the question will remain whether the various forces in Afghan society can reach a pact with each other to prevent civil war.

Recent developments in the run-up to the election show fissures emerging between political leaders from different ethnic groups, raising the probability that a successful bargain will not be made. On July 22, Uzbek strongman General Abdul Rashid Dostum resigned from the transitional government and announced his candidacy for president. Five days later, Yonus Qanooni, a Tajik who had been shifted from the important post of interior minister to education minister in an effort to satisfy Pashtun interests, declared his candidacy. At the same time, the first vice president of the transitional government and its defense minister, Mohammed Fahim - a Tajik backer of Qanooni - was dropped from Karzai's electoral ticket.

In Afghanistan's ethnic demography, the Pashtuns constitute approximately 40% of the population, the Tajiks about 20%, the Hazaras another 20%, the Uzbeks 5% and an array of other ethnic groups the remainder. Politically the groups are not unified and their factions cross ethnic lines, depending on local issues. Nevertheless, Dostum's and Qanooni's candidacies pose the possibility that Karzai will not receive a majority in the first round of voting and will have to face a run off with the second-place candidate. Karzai's position is strengthened by his retention of Abdul Karim Khalili, a Hazara, as second deputy president, but the Hazaras also have their own presidential candidate in Mohammed Mohaqiq. A coalition of convenience of Qanooni, Dostum and Mohaqiq could pose a strong challenge to Karzai if he does not win a majority in the first electoral round.

If the presidential election is held successfully and Karzai wins a clear majority, his hand will be strengthened for making the deals with warlords across ethnic lines that will open the possibility for Afghanistan to regain its traditional political pattern of a weak central power presiding over strong local power centers that are satisfied with their degrees of autonomy and their shares of resources and offices. If he loses the first round with a plurality and wins a run off, he will be in a weaker position and divisive tendencies will assert themselves. If Karzai loses a runoff, especially to a non-Pashtun, stabilization will be difficult to achieve and renewed civil war will loom as a possibility, requiring long-term commitment of foreign military forces if the NATO powers choose to try to prevent that outcome.

Whatever the election's result, certain conditions will persist in Afghanistan that have international ramifications. The country is likely to remain a major provider of heroin, a destabilizing influence on Pakistan, a field for the eastward expansion of Iran's influence and, if decentralization goes too far, a staging base for Islamic revolutionaries once again. Those conditions will be alleviated by a successful political agreement, but they will not be eliminated. In the absence of massive economic and military aid from the industrial powers, which is unlikely to come, Afghanistan will remain on the brink of becoming a failed state or will become one yet another time.

Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan is not threatened with secession or breakup. It is not an expression of modern Western colonialism, but an exceedingly complex society that has been subject to imperialism throughout its history and has kept its integrity through the delicate balances and overlapping affiliations of the qaum system. With no real external support for modernization from the outside, that system is reasserting itself as the blessing and the curse that it has always been.

Afghanistan functions most successfully when the decentralized forces that compose its society trust one another sufficiently to compromise over common concerns and let the rest devolve to localities. The country's political system breaks down into civil war when that trust is lacking, unleashing cycles of defensive aggression. Recent civil wars have eroded trust and left authority over the qaums in the hands of warlords, who have gained in influence over other traditional authorities, especially elders and clerics.

The most likely future for Afghanistan is severe instability that Western powers, expending limited resources, will attempt to contain, but will not be able to resolve.

Published with permission of the Power and Interest News Report, an analysis-based publication that seeks to provide insight into various conflicts, regions and points of interest around the globe. All comments should be directed to [email protected]