Afghanistan begins to unite against US


Richard Moore

        At first glance, the United Front lineup resembles erstwhile
        Northern Alliance - Burhanuddin Rabbani, Mohammed Fahim,
        Yunous Qanooni, Abdullah, Ismail Khan, and Rashid Dostum.
        But curiously, the United Front also includes two top Khalqi
        leaders from the communist era - members of the politburo of
        the Afghan Communist Party, General Nur al-Haq Olumi and
        General Mohammad Gulabzoi.

        Holbrooke harshly reprimanded Karzai: "We don't want to see
        in Kabul the kind of political chaos which in Baghdad is
        destroying the coalition effort."

Original source URL:

Afghan Battle Lines Become Blurred
By M K Bhadrakumar
19 May, 2007

Asia Times Online

New fault lines have appeared on the Afghan chessboard. While the "international
community" kept watch on the obscure lawless borderlands of Pakistan's tribal 
agencies for the Taliban's spring offensive, templates of the war began to shift
- almost unnoticed.

Things are not going to be the same again. The war is transforming. Adversarial 
lines are being redrawn. The enemy's contours have changed. Front lines are 
being abandoned. In another six to eight weeks, hot, dry winds will have 
arrived, bearing fine, yellow dust that envelops everything, making appearances 
even more deceptive. No one will be able then to tell with certitude who is the 

Looking back, the ground began to shift on New Year's Eve, when the lower 
chamber of the Afghan Parliament passed a bill that would grant amnesty to all 
Afghans involved in any war crimes during the past quarter-century. The 
resolution said, "In order to bring reconciliation among various strata in the 
society, all those political and belligerent sides that were involved one way or
the other during the two and a half decades of war will not be prosecuted 
legally and judicially."

The quarter-century covered the entire period from the Saur Revolution in the 
spring of 1978 through the bloody years of the Soviet intervention, through the 
riotous mujahideen rule and the senseless civil war that followed, all the way 
to the Taliban takeover in Kabul in 1996 until the ouster of that regime in the 
autumn of 2001.

For the first time, Afghans spoke out that they no longer held the United States
in awe. At a single stroke, the December 31 amnesty move deprived the US of the 
one weapon that it wielded for blackmailing the "warlords" into submission - 
powerful leaders of the Northern Alliance groups, the mujhideen field 
commanders, and petty local thugs alike.

The prospect of a war-crime tribunal was held like a Damocles' sword over any 
recalcitrant Afghan political personality - be it Burhanuddin Rabbani, Yunous 
Qanooni, Rashid Dostum or Rasool Sayyaf. In the able hands of former US 
ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, it did wonders while ensuring Hamid Karzai's 
election as president and in consolidating US dominance in Afghanistan.

What was astonishing was that the amnesty bill covered even Taliban leader 
Mullah Omar and Hezb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Clearly, an Afghan 
"revolt" was afoot against the existing political order imposed by the US. 
Implicitly, it called into question the raison d'etre of the war, since the 
largest group in the mujahideen-dominated 249-member lower house of Parliament 
consists of the elected members of Hezb-e-Islami besides a sizable number of 
former Taliban figures (such as Mullah Abdul Salam Rocketti) who act as the 
Taliban's political wing in Kabul.

A lot of homework had obviously gone into the initiative. Afghan leaders, with 
their native wisdom, estimated that the war was going nowhere and that the 
chance of "victory" by the US, which was never good, had probably passed. They 
saw ahead that the superpower, which arrived full of hubris, might well depart 
humbled. They wished to be on call when the time came.

Of course, it was apparent to anyone that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization
was a divided house and that the United States' old European allies didn't share
its apparent intention to turn Afghanistan into a client state under a NATO flag
from where US power projection into the Persian Gulf and the Middle East and 
South Asia and Central Asia would become possible.

Most important, Afghans estimated that as in Iraq, dialogue would become 
unavoidable, and a regional solution involving Afghanistan's neighbors might 
become necessary. They were deeply skeptical whether Washington would stay the 
course. They could hear the Taliban's distant drums approaching Kabul's city 

The amnesty move unleashed a wave of political activism in the subsequent few 
weeks, leading to the formation of the new United Front early last month. The 
platform of the United Front is interesting. It calls for a parliamentary form 
of government; it wants to deprive the president of the power to appoint 
provincial governors (who should be elected officials instead); it demands 
changes in the electoral laws from the present so-called non-transferable system
to a proportional system, etc. It speaks of dialogue, reconciliation and 

But evidently the United Front is bent on cornering Karzai in a typical Afghan 
way - incrementally but relentlessly, until his political nerves give way and 
his US support becomes redundant. It is harshly critical of the Karzai 
government's ineptitude and corruption, and it draws attention to the great 
suffering of the Afghan people.

In the sphere of foreign affairs, the United Front vaguely seeks "coordination" 
with the foreign forces present in Afghanistan, and leaves it at that for the 
present. Significantly, it calls for the official recognition of the 
international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan - known as the Durand 

At first glance, the United Front lineup resembles erstwhile Northern Alliance -
Burhanuddin Rabbani, Mohammed Fahim, Yunous Qanooni, Abdullah, Ismail Khan, and 
Rashid Dostum. But curiously, the United Front also includes two top Khalqi 
leaders from the communist era - members of the politburo of the Afghan 
Communist Party, General Nur al-Haq Olumi and General Mohammad Gulabzoi.

They were close associates of former defense minister General Shahnawaz Tanai, 
another top Khalqi leader, who staged an abortive coup attempt in March 1990 
against the government in Kabul with the help of Pakistan's Inter-Services 
Intelligence (ISI) and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and eventually fled to Pakistan 
seeking asylum.

Khalqis, who are drawn from the Pashtun tribes, have had a strong nexus with the
Taliban over the years. Tanai, who is based in Pakistan, used to provide the 
Taliban with a skilled cadre of military officers, who flew the Taliban's "air 
force", drove their tanks and manned their heavy artillery, absolving the need 
of Pakistani regulars except in very selective roles. In the recent years, he 
has been a visitor to Kabul.

Therefore, questions arise. Is a far-reaching restructuring of the Taliban going
on? Mullah Dadullah's killing seems part of the process. It does seem that 
Hekmatyar and the mujahideen/Khalqi elements within the Taliban are slouching 
toward mainstream politics in Kabul. A sidelining of the extremist, "jihadist" 
elements by ISI could be under way.

Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf could be acting, finally. Hekmatyar
has certainly positioned himself somewhere in the vicinity of the United Front. 
He is almost visible. Mullah Dadullah's killing no doubt strengthens him. 
Equally, Taliban leader Jalaluddin Haqqani (who is second only to Taliban 
supreme Mullah Omar) too has a mujahideen pedigree. Also, Haqqani and Hekmatyar 
go back a long way. In the Afghan jihad of the early 1980s, Haqqani was a camp 
follower of Professor Rasool Sayyaf (one of the prime movers, incidentally, of 
the amnesty move in Parliament).

The mystery deepens insofar as Hekmatyar also has a strong "Iran connection", 
having spent five years in exile in Mashhad after the Taliban takeover in Kabul 
in 1996. The big question is whether Iran would countenance a Taliban 
organization that is cleansed of murderers of monstrous ferocity like Mullah 
Dadullah (or rabidly obscurantist extremists like Mullah Omar) entering 
mainstream Afghan politics.

Arguably, it might. At any rate, almost on the heels of the consultations in 
Pakistan by Ambassador Ronald Neumann, US special envoy on Afghanistan, early 
this week, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki arrived in Islamabad on 
Thursday. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is due to visit Kabul in June. 
Musharraf's close confidant, Railway Minister Sheikh Rashid, was received by 
Ahmadinejad in Tehran early this week.

While Mullah Dadullah's killing might have dealt a significant blow to the 
Taliban insurgency, Iran will still be cautious about the Taliban's command 
structure. Iran will also factor the growing anti-American sentiments among the 
Afghans. But Iran cannot be missing the point that it has indeed become a 
meaningful interlocutor for the US with respect to Afghan situation - just as 
over the future of Iraq.

The Afghan bazaar perceives that Ahmed Zia Massoud (brother of Ahmed Shah 
Massoud and vice president in the Karzai government) is the leading figure in 
the United Front. Some say Massoud staged a putsch against Karzai. There is 
bound to be speculation about ascendancy of Russian influence. Moscow went on a 
publicity binge over the visit by the delegation of the Collective Security 
Treaty Organization to Kabul on March 9-13. But these are early days.

What cannot be overlooked is that Russia and Iran are not quite on the same 
page. The acrimony over the Bushehr nuclear power plant has taken a toll. 
Ahmadinejad's public criticism of Russian policies while on a visit to the 
United Arab Emirates last week underscored that the trust deficit is real.

The alignments remain fluid. Qanooni, who is close to Tehran, is keeping a low 
profile. "Ustad" Rabbani is doing the talking. He is a great bridge-builder. 
Meanwhile, Karzai alleges that the United Front is "supported by foreign 
embassies". Indeed, the Front includes personalities who kept links in the 1980s
and '90s with Moscow, Central Asian capitals or Tehran.

The United Front has rattled Karzai (and Washington). Karzai wouldn't like the 
initiative to slip into the hands of the United Front. The Senate, which is 
dominated by his nominees, passed its own resolution on May 8 calling on the 
government to hold direct talks with the resurgent Taliban and other opposition 
forces - "direct negotiations with the concerned Afghan sides in the country".

The Senate resolution also sought that in the meantime, NATO military operations
against the Taliban should cease. It said, "If the need arises for an operation,
it should be carried out with the coordination of the national army and police 
and in consultation with the government of Afghanistan."

This partly aims at assuaging Afghan public opinion, which is incensed over 
Karzai's inability to protect the people from the excesses perpetrated by the 
trigger-happy US forces. Meanwhile, the lower house of Parliament has raised the
ante by exercising its constitutional prerogative to sack Karzai's close 
confidant, Dadfar Spanta, pinning responsibility for the recent deportation of 
52,000 Afghan refugees from Iran. Karzai promptly questioned the legality of the

To be sure, Karzai is coming under multiple pressures. On the one hand, there 
are the incipient moves by political opponents eroding his credibility and 
authority. On the other hand, the "international community" has become critical 
of him. At a high-level conference in Brussels on April 28, Richard Holbrooke, 
former US ambassador to the United Nations in Bill Clinton's administration, 
said Karzai government had "lost momentum" and transparency and was alienating 
its erstwhile supporters.

He added that Karzai was "walking away from democracy"; that NATO was successful
in containing the Taliban but the Karzai government's bad performance was 
rejuvenating the Taliban's support; that there had been a "massive waste" of US 
and European money in Afghanistan because of very poor coordination of the aid 
effort; and that Karzai was losing his authority.

Holbrooke harshly reprimanded Karzai: "We don't want to see in Kabul the kind of
political chaos which in Baghdad is destroying the coalition effort."

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who was present, shared 
Holbrooke's concerns. Given Scheffer's record of parroting US thought processes,
Karzai would have felt exasperated. Indeed, within a week of the conference in 
Brussels, Scheffer headed for Islamabad, accompanied by the United States' 
supreme commander in NATO, where he and Musharraf pledged new anti-Taliban 

Scheffer said in Islamabad, "It is my strong opinion that the final answer in 
Afghanistan will not be a military one and cannot be a military one. The final 
answer in Afghanistan is called reconstruction, development and 

The new buzzword is an "integrated approach" in Afghanistan. But no one has 
fleshed it out. There is an Afghan opinion building up over the imperative of an
intra-Afghan dialogue leading to genuine power-sharing. But the US and NATO 
pretend they aren't seeing the groundswell of opinion.

Their emphasis is on the existential challenge posed by Afghan war to NATO's 
global role. They look over the Afghan ridge toward the new cold-war horizon. 
Meanwhile, the US is inexorably losing its monopoly over conflict resolution in 
Afghanistan. And regional powers include some that are against the open-ended 
presence of NATO forces.

It may turn out that the real "tipping point" is not over the Taliban's 
much-awaited spring offensive (which may not even happen), but if regional 
powers begin seriously to exploit the political rifts in Afghanistan for 
undermining the NATO strategy.

Not surprisingly, Washington shudders to think of any "regime change" in 
Islamabad in the present circumstances, no matter the political turmoil within 
Pakistan. As Scheffer put it in Islamabad on May 8 during the first ever visit 
to Pakistan by a NATO secretary general, NATO and Pakistan find themselves in 
the "same boat", and should seek an enduring, mutually beneficial partnership 
that goes beyond the "war against terror". And who else could hold the Pakistani
end of the bargain better than Musharraf?

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for 
more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) 
and to Turkey (1998-2001).

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd.)

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