DAWN - OpEd; March 13, 2002

Published March 13, 2002

As Zahir Shah returns

By M.H. Askari

ALMOST half way through his term as head of the interim administration in Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai does not have much reason to be pleased with the way the situation has been developing in his country.

True, the Taliban government has been ousted from Kabul and the administration that has replaced it is apparently backed by the consensus of the various factions of Afghan people. Substantial funds have also been pledged by the developed nations for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Afghanistan. But stability which is the sine qua non for any future progress continues to remain elusive.

This would be the outlook confronting former King Zahir Shah when he returns home after about 30 years of being in exile since his deposition in a coup. His sense of outrage at the way things are shaping up in Afghanistan was evident from his call, a few days ago, that the Americans must put an end to “this stupid war.” The US which takes pride in having liberated Afghanistan from a reign of terror has apparently paid no heed to his call.

Afghanistan is virtually under the US occupation. American planes continue to relentless bombard certain parts of the eastern Paktia province bordering Pakistan, killing people indiscriminately. Remnants of Taliban and Al Qaeda forces are holding out in this area and putting up a stiff resistance. According to one account, the Afghan resistance fighters occupying the high ground in Arma mountains of Paktia could be heard laughing when the Americans were frustrated in their attempts to fire at them hoping to dislodge them.

The Americans make no secret of their intention to stay in Afghanistan and even to use it as a launching pad for assaults on some other countries of the region, if that became necessary in the course of their so-called war against terror. Even their sophisticated bomb which can penetrate to considerable depth and suffocate to death whoever is holed up there has not yet put an end to the resistance. Osama bin Laden, who is regarded as the mastermind behind the terrorist attacks carried out in the US in September last year, is believed to have perfected the technique of building underground shelters for conducting his operations.

Sooner or later, the Americans and their allies will be able to liquidate the remnants of the Taliban and the Al Qaeda who are holding out in pockets around Arma mountains. US military spokesmen claimed on March 6 that their forces had already killed some 400 guerillas and were determined to kill many more if the resistance continued. American ground forces have also joined the fighting in the Paktia region but until the time of writing the Al Qaeda and Taliban desperadoes had not given up. Americans are deeply disturbed at the casualties which they are suffering in the fighting and could be planning to pull out some of their forces.

Surprisingly, the al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are also reported to be receiving reinforcements. It is speculated that these could be coming through the Pakistani tribal belt adjoining eastern Afghanistan. Pakistan hopefully would not be implicated in providing the guerillas succour. Fortunately, an American military spokesman who was asked during a BBC telecast the other day whether Pakistan could be involved was emphatic that this could certainly not be the case; Pakistan and President Pervez Musharraf had consistently provided support to the international campaign against terrorism.

There have been reports, albeit unconfirmed, that some Taliban and Al Qaeda survivors of the war in Afghanistan have removed their black turbans and trimmed their beards and could be regrouping for another round of fighting. Some western observers insist that Osama bin Laden is still alive and is possibly holed up underground in Afghanistan.

A matter of concern to Hamid Karzai and his administration are the reports that the ethnic factor which in the 1990s had stood in the way of the Afghans becoming united could be reasserting once again. Three officials of Karzai’s interim administration, all Tajiks, were believed to have been behind the murder of Karzai’s aviation minister, Abdul Rehman. The latter was known to be a very brave man who had survived imprisonment at the hands of the soviets. Newspaper reports attributed the murder to the ethnic factor.

The Guardian news service, in a signed article by Luke Harding, has said that Afghanistan is in “real danger of sliding back into civil war.” He believes that the seeds of a future ethnic conflict are being sown by the interim political set-up which gives too large a role to the Taliban’s old adversaries — the Tajiks — and too small a role to Pakhtuns who comprise 40 per cent of the Afghan population.

It is said that the Tajiks account for only about 25 per cent of the Afghan population and Karzai, a Pukhtun, could be becoming “isolated and vulnerable even within his own administration.” Reports also claim that under the Bonn agreement the Tajiks had been given a large number of very sensitive portfolios — defence, interior, justice and foreign affairs. The three officials who killed Minister Abdul Rehman apparently belong to the Jamiat-i-Islami, the Tajik faction of the Northern Alliance which spearheaded the assault of the Taliban government in Kabul.

So what is the scenario that the ex-king Zahir Shah will find in Afghanistan when he returns there later this month? A lingering war, warlords straining at the leash to break away from the centre, strains between various ethnic factions, resentment against the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) which functions as Afghanistan’s national army and in which the British forces have a lead role. According to reports, Britain hoped that Turkey would take over their role but the Turks are apparently not willing to do so by Gulf newspapers, believes.

There is an air of general expectancy that when ex-King Zahir Shah returns to Afghanistan, he would be able to restore a certain semblance of stability. He is regarded as something of a father figure by a large segment of the Afghan people. While he occupied the Royal throne (from 1933 to 1973), Afghanistan enjoyed comparative peace and stability. But for the machinations of his cousin, Sardar Daoud, who twice served as his prime minister, Zahir Shah may have succeeded in introducing some radical changes in Afghanistan.

The return of Zahir Shah should have a palliative effect on the Afghan society but it is too early to say whether it would end the dissensions between the various factions of the Afghans and create a stable social and economic order.

However, it is important that the master plan to restore civil society which was agreed when the Afghan elders discussed their country’s future in Bonn should be faithfully implemented. The Loya Jirga which was envisaged on Zahir shah’s return must be convened without any dithering. It would not be easy, but a Constitution to govern Afghanistan through an agreed set of laws should be evolved.

As the well known Afghan affairs expert, Henry S. Bradsher, has said, reaching agreement on a new structure for the state depends upon resolving and re-establishing cultural and social conventions that were Jettisoned during the past regimes. They must be re-established. Most of all, outside interference in the affairs of Afghanistan must cease. In this, the US needs to demonstrate the greatest sense of responsibility and restraint.

Playing Al Qaeda card

By Ashfak Bokhari

TO the world’s poorest countries which are victims of the West’s indifference, utter hopelessness, rampant violence, warlordism and extreme corruption but have a threatening presence of Jihadi militants, President Bush’s war on terrorism offers the promise of a better tomorrow. But to prove their eligibility, they should know how to play the Al Qaeda card.

Some political analysts now call it the Manila Method — to pay tribute to President Arroyo’s diplomatic skill. The Philippines had a long-running insurgency in the south and for years the Americans paid no heed to it. Reason: the insurgency pursued by the Abu Sayyaf group had no anti-American content. But then Manila, sensing which way the wind was blowing, claimed that the insurgency was closely linked to Al Qaeda organization. The Americans who quickly rushed to the trouble spot are now helping the Filipinos with arms, troops and cash. About 600 American soldiers are currently in the Philippines advising and training local troops. Al Qaeda militants have, however, yet to show up in that country.

A similar act of wisdom has been demonstrated by Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh. Taking his cue from President Pervez Musharraf who radically reshaped his foreign policy after 9/11, the Yemenese president spared no time in taking a similar U-turn which surprised Washington. He cracked down on Al Qaeda militants who are present there in large numbers. President Bush admired his decision and promised financial and military assistance to Yemen when Saleh met him in Washington.

Before September 11, the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh was seen by Washington as an adversary, harbouring (anti-American) terrorists and deserving punishment. Westerners were advised against visiting that country where kidnapping the whites for ransom has been common.

Not long ago, Yemen was not willing to cooperate with the FBI investigators who looked into USS Cole bombing of October 2000, nor did it take action against Islamic militants who had allegedly organized it and were accused of killing 17 Americans in Aden. Now, the Yemeni government is more than eager to help the US presumably out of fear. Instead of becoming another Mulla Omar, knowing what consequences it can lead to, Saleh is now a self-proclaimed friend of the West. According to Gen. Franks, Yemen has worked “hand in glove” with the United States to help fight terrorism.

In the past, Yemen has been a key base of support for Osama bin Laden, whose father was born there. There are several well-armed militias which are more powerful than the government, particularly along areas near the Saudi border. It is home to at least 20 senior Al Qaeda leaders. President Bush approved plans this month to send 100 troops to Yemen to help train its army to fight the terrorists.

Yet another country falling in this category is Georgia, a pro-West state whose sovereignty Moscow had never fully accepted. It seeks to benefit from America’s largesse in its war on terrorism but incidentally has no formal Al Qaeda presence on its soil to justify the need for US assistance. Its problem was how to play Al Qaeda card. This has now been solved by Philip Remler, American charge d’affaires who claimed that a large number of Al Qaeda extremists were hiding in Pankisi Gorge, located near its border with Chechnya. So, the US is now sending 200 Special Forces soldiers and more than 50 million dollars in equipment to beef up the Georgian army which is in a bad shape.

Meanwhile, a country deserving a larger dole from the Americans on a priority basis is Somalia. It is currently passing through the worst structural breakdown and is likely to be among the next targets of attack after Afghanistan. What should it do to benefit from America’s war on terrorism? Its transitional foreign affairs ministry recently sent a secret message to the country’s transitional president, Abidqassim Salad Hassan, saying Somalia’s “most urgent priority at the moment is to get bombed by the Americans. Then, maybe, somebody will finally start paying attention and money to our country”.

Somalia’s main problem is that it has been forgotten by the West after the Americans’ bid to restore order there in



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