Afghanistan Five Years after the Taliban

In the Grip of the Jihadists

Hopes were high for Afghanistan's democratic renewal; but no one wanted to challenge the power of the warrior princes in the north of the country. Today Hamid Karzai's government is mired in a profound crisis of confidence. By Thomas Ruttig

November 2001 - The Northern Alliance marches into Kabul (photo: AP)
The Karzai government made too many compromises with former militants and warlords, says Thomas Ruttig, visiting scholar for Germany's Institute for International and Security Affairs

​​"At first we thought that the commitment of the international community would solve the crisis with a democratic perspective for Afghanistan. So why were the fundamentalists supported and not the democrats?" asks Muhammad Zarif Naseri.

The tall Pashtun spent over 20 years fighting communists and the Taliban and has now founded a small political party. His eyes flash angrily as he mentions the name of a provincial governor who threatened his family when he ran for the Loya Jirga in 2001. "He's sitting in Parliament today, though it was commanders like him, with their plundering, robbing, and murdering, who put the Taliban in power in the 1990s."

Phalanx of the Mujaheddin leaders

A friend of Naseri's tells how appalled he was when he saw on television almost the entire phalanx of the Mujaheddin leaders sitting next to Bush and Karzai at the president's table at a gala dinner held for Bush's visit to Kabul in March.

After all, they had been the ones who destroyed whole sections of Kabul back then, killing thousands of civilians and creating half a million refugees. In fact, President Hamid Karzai often consults the jihadist princes on important decisions, especially the interim president from the 1990s, Burhanuddin Rabbani, and Abdul Rasul Sajaf, a Wahhabi financed by Saudi Arabia.

"In effect, Sajaf is Karzai's Grand Vizir," in the bitter words of Nazeri's friend, who prefers to remain anonymous. "If war criminals like him had been born in the Balkans, they'd be on the run now, or sitting in a cell in the Hague."

Political roadmap for the post-Taliban era

Yet five years ago, after the fall of the Taliban, everything looked so promising. On November 13, 2001, they retreated from Kabul overnight, almost without a fight, and soon abandoned their stronghold Kandahar as well. The UN's offices were thronged by thousands of teachers, engineers and civil servants who had been fired by the Taliban and now wanted to be registered for the new beginning.

Hopes were pinned on Germany, where a political roadmap for the post-Taliban era was being created in Petersberg near Bonn and Hamid Karzai was named as interim president, a man who had not discredited himself in the warrior princes' turf battles.

At the bazaars one often hears the words "Now we're finally becoming a normal country again." Today Afghanistan has an elected president and an elected parliament. But Karzai's government is mired in a deep crisis of confidence.

The police force – a uniformed gang of criminals

The reputation of the foreign soldiers and development workers, once greeted so hopefully, has suffered as well. The Taliban has made a third of the country into a no-go zone for them. The reason lies in the deep disappointment at the fact that most Afghans' lives have not really improved since 2001. A lack of transparency has raised doubts about whether the aid is being used properly. According to official statistics, 40 percent of the population is unemployed. Only 6 percent have access to the electricity grid.

The responsible minister recently advised the population to lay up stocks of candles for the winter. In many provinces the police force is a uniformed gang of criminals. The largely unreformed justice system is corrupt, when it exists at all. At the same time, the resurgent Taliban courts with their draconian punishments are regarded as "clean" by the Afghans.

Meanwhile, the most lucrative of businesses – the heroin trade – has become a problem of epidemic proportions. Afghanistan produced a record 6,100 tons of raw opium this year, making up 92 percent of the world's raw opium production – despite all the development workers' drug eradication efforts. Drug dealers have infiltrated all levels of the administration, holding government posts and sitting in the parliament.

"The Bonn agreement was broken"

The so-called Bonn peace process has given the country government institutions without eliminating the structures of violence that have developed over the course of 25 years. The foundations were laid the very day the Taliban beat its retreat. In defiance of international agreements that Kabul should be demilitarized and an interim government formed, the US government gave the former Mujaheddin of the Northern Alliance permission to march into the Afghan capital.

That no longer served any military purpose. However, it gave the Northern Alliance an immense political advantage: its followers took over the state apparatus and to this day have hardly shared any of their power with other political forces.

Today the United Nations estimate that so-called illegal armed groups comprise approx. 120,000 members, which, coincidentally enough, is exactly the same number of fighters who the Mujaheddin claims were under arms in 2001 and temporarily receiving either pay or demobilization compensation – from international aid funds. "The Bonn agreement was broken even before the ink was dry on the paper," one of Karzai's former ministers sums up the situation.

Bush's special envoy and King Shahir Shah

The crucial date on which the Afghan peace process completely collapsed was June 10, 2002, when the Loya Jirga, the traditional national council, was supposed to meet in Kabul's Polytechnical College. At this point the Afghans still hoped that they would finally be able to take the political fate of their country in their own hands.

The 1600 delegates who gathered there represented the entire spectrum of Afghan society: professors and illiterate nomad leaders, self-confident female television moderators and veiled young women, Islamist ideologues and hopeful democrats.

There was one thing the majority agreed on: the warlords must not be allowed to take the helm again. When one of them, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, turned up to declare his candidacy, he met with so much resistance that he took to his heels.

Surprisingly, however, the big Loya Jirga tent remained closed that afternoon. Supposedly the opening had been delayed for a day due to organizational problems. In fact, however, Zalmay Khalilzad, at the time President Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan (now ambassador in Baghdad), was working feverishly behind the scenes to keep Karzai's opponent from challenging his reelection.

This opponent was former King Muhammad Sahir Schah. After his ouster in 1973, he had lived in exile in Rome ever since, but was regarded as the only figure really capable of promoting integration. The delegates from the Pashtun south were especially keen to see him as the head of state. But Khalilzad and the Mujaheddin were opposed.

The Bush government was leery of the aging ex-monarch because he had repeatedly dared to criticize its policies: the bombing of civilians in Afghanistan and – worse still – its actions in the Gulf. The Mujaheddin had already forced Sahir Shah to repeatedly delay his return home by threatening a putsch. In a perfect example of imperial power politics, Khalilzad, rather than the king himself, publicly declared his renunciation of all public offices.

The bitter words of an Afghan friend still echo in my ear: "Communism failed, and so did the Islam of the Mujaheddin and the Taliban. Will democracy fail as well?"

Thomas Ruttig

© Die Tageszeitung 2006

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

The author worked for the UN in Afghanistan from 2000 to 2003. At present he is a visiting scholar at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politk in Berlin.

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