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4 April 2002Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

When nation-building destroys
Is the new Afghanistan a 'human rights triumph' - or 'not a pretty picture'?

by Brendan O'Neill

'2001 was the year when Afghans began to regain their freedoms', said US assistant secretary of state Lorne Craner on 4 March 2002, as his boss Colin Powell hailed the new Afghanistan a 'human rights triumph' at the launch of the US State Department's annual report on human rights.

'A year ago, [Afghanistan] was ruled by one of the world's most repressive regimes', said Craner. 'Now Afghans have come to cherish the lives, society and freedoms they have regained.' (1)

But when US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked about the state of Afghanistan just two weeks earlier on 18 February 2002, he said: 'It's not a pretty picture.' (2). He raised concerns about 'rival factions…still jostling for power, al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters remain[ing] on the loose, and Iran creating trouble by spiriting weapons across the border in support of factions opposed to [the interim government]' (3).

This isn't the Bush administration's only contradictory claim about the state of the new Afghanistan. On 19 March 2002, as the United Nations held emergency debates about 'extending the international peacekeeping force beyond Kabul [to counter] mounting lawlessness and violence in much of Afghanistan' (4), Rumsfeld claimed that 'no "serious security problem" exists in Afghanistan' (5). But a month earlier, on 21 February, Associated Press revealed that 'the CIA is warning in a classified analysis that Afghanistan could descend into civil war' (6) - and Donald 'no serious security problem' Rumsfeld said that if things got any worse, US forces may have to 'police the whole country' (7).

President Bush declared on 13 March 2002 that Osama bin Laden no longer poses a big threat in Afghanistan. 'I truly am not that concerned about him - I know he is on the run', said Bush (8), describing bin Laden as 'a person who has now been marginalised' (9). But just a week later, US commanders were keen to point out that al-Qaeda is 'still a problem in the new Afghanistan', with major-general Frank Hagenbeck claiming on 21 March 2002 that 'there are al-Qaeda operatives in Paktia right now, who are going to great lengths to regroup' (10).

So what is the state of post-Taliban Afghanistan? Is it a human rights triumph where freedoms have been regained, or just a mess? A security nightmare that needs heavy policing, or a state with some non-threatening security issues? One thing is certain: the Bush administration's contradictory statements about Afghanistan over the past two months show that US policy is driven less by concern for democracy and human rights, than by political expediency.

In northern Afghanistan, there is a 'barely concealed civil war'
When the USA wants to pose as a global defender of human rights, it talks up the new Afghanistan as a 'success story' (11) - but when it wants to put some pressure on the interim government, it points out Afghanistan's 'unpretty' problems (12). When the UN talks about deploying more peacekeepers, Rumsfeld says Afghanistan doesn't have any 'serious' security issues because he is 'opposed [to] enlarging the [UN] mission' (13) - but when it comes to justifying further US intervention, Rumsfeld holds forth on Afghanistan's ongoing 'security nightmare' (14).

And when President Bush wants to convince us that all 'people who love freedom [should] be concerned about Iraq', as he did on 13 March 2002, then he'll say he's no longer 'concerned' about small fry like bin Laden (15). But when US commanders want to justify bombing caves from on high and sending US troops (or more often Afghan allies) into places like Shah-i-Kot (16), they talk of al-Qaeda as a 'deadly threat' that has yet to be 'destroyed' (17).

Yet behind all these contradictory statements, one sentence about the new Afghanistan rings true: 'It's not a pretty picture.' Since the Taliban was defeated in November 2001 and the new multi-ethnic interim government installed in December 2001, Afghanistan has been unstable bordering on chaotic. UK prime minister Tony Blair may have hailed the collapse of the Taliban as a 'total vindication' of the West's war (18) and President Bush might have described the interim government as a 'new beginning', but these developments have brought anything but stability to Afghanistan.

In northern Afghanistan, there is what one journalist calls a 'barely concealed civil war'. The interim government's defence minister General Mohammed Fahim and its deputy defence minister General Abdul Dostum have clashed over who controls the north. Dostum, who largely controlled northern Afghanistan from the start of the 1990s until he was ousted by the Taliban in 1998, is 'unhappy with the new power carve-up' and unhappy about being deputy defence minister (19). As one report says, 'Northern Afghanistan, once the bastion of a single warlord [Dostum], is now the stage for an increasingly violent struggle, as the same rivals that helped reduce the country to rubble race against time to expand their power base' (20).

Also in the north, there are reports of ethnic Pashtuns being forced out of their homes by both Dostum's and Fahim's forces. According to one report: 'Claiming that anti-Taliban commanders have been inciting people to loot homes and kill Pashtuns, thousands of ethnic Pashtuns are fleeing northern Afghanistan.' (21) Observing northern Afghanistan, one Afghan commentator raised concerns that 'post-Taliban Afghanistan may be unable to rein in the ethnic, tribal and personal rivalries that have riveted the Central Asian nation for more than two decades' (22).

Meanwhile, in east Afghanistan there are what one US newspaper calls 'turf wars' and 'ethnic rifts' (23). '[S]urging ethnic tensions and jockeying warlords are undermining dreams of unity and peace', says one report - claiming that 'portions of the "Pashtun belt" in the east of the country are in disarray after the collapse of Taliban rule. While [interim prime minister] Hamid Karzai is himself Pashtun, his writ seems even less respected in these eastern areas than in other trouble spots. One recent appointment he made of a governor for the Ghazni province sparked a return message from the local council that "we'll take any Hindu in the bazaar" over this candidate' (24).

Karzai's government is an unelected clique holed up in Kabul
But then, Karzai's interim government is hardly in control of Afghanistan. As the New York Times reported at the end of March 2002, 'Outside Kabul, there is little evidence of a central government at all': 'Indeed, Karzai often appears to be less a head of state than a mayor. In his three months in power, Karzai has ventured only occasionally into the provinces….' (25) The New York Times concludes that 'for all Karzai's cheeriness, there are growing signs that the interim government over which he presides is a troubled enterprise, sustained almost entirely by his charisma and Western cash' (26).

In short, Karzai's interim government, despite the hope that it would bring 'unity and reconciliation', now resembles those unstable and ever-changing governments that Afghanistan had between the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and the arrival of the Taliban in 1996: unelected cliques holed up in Kabul, while the rest of Afghanistan is largely controlled by other factions.

So what happened to the West's plans for post-Taliban peace and security? Why is Afghanistan descending further into division, sectarianism and civil conflict? Some commentators would have us believe that that's just how Afghanistan is, like it or lump it. 'You have to ask yourself', writes one US journalist, 'whether there can ever be peace in a country with such stubborn and bitter divisions' - while another asks, 'How can a nation be rebuilt when moving about it sometimes mean courting death?' (27). Yet it is precisely Western 'nation-building' that has exacerbated tensions in Afghanistan.

There has been division and tension in Afghanistan for decades, particularly following the Soviet withdrawal in the late 1980s. When the Afghan force the Mujahideen - which the USA financed, armed and sponsored to fight against the Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989 - took control of Afghanistan, its rule was marked by chaos and barbarity. Different groups and factions of the former Mujahideen spent much of the 1990s fighting over which was the official Afghan government. After the Taliban seized power in 1996, many of these opposing factions formed the Northern Alliance to take a stand against Taliban rule - but it was a shaky alliance that was finally ripped apart by the collapse of the Taliban in November 2001. Now, past animosities are rising to the fore, helped along by further interference from outside.

Take the new interim government, around which much of rising tension between former warlords has occurred. The government was set up by the United Nations and Afghan representatives in Bonn, Germany, at the end of November 2001, and finally agreed on 5 December 2001. The 'Agreement for a Broad-Based, Multi-Ethnic Interim Government' may uphold 'the right of the people of Afghanistan to freely determine their own political future' - but it simultaneously takes that right away by granting superseding powers to the UN in Afghanistan, including: 'the right to investigate human rights violations and [to] recommend corrective action', the right to 'advise the interim authority in establishing a politically neutral environment', and the right to 'monitor and assist in the implementation of all aspects of this agreement' (28).

The interim government institutionalises the ethnic and sectarian divisions that have blighted Afghanistan for decades. Far from offering a vision of democracy or unity, the UN-backed interim authority raises ethnic divisions to government level, making representation dependent on ethnic background and power. The Bonn agreement describes the interim authority as 'a first step towards the establishment of a broad-based, gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic and fully representative government' (29) - and makes clear that the interim government's chairman, vice-chairman and other leaders were selected 'on the basis of professional competence and personal integrity…with due regard to the ethnic, geographic and religious composition of Afghanistan' (30).

The interim government institutionalises ethnic and sectarian divisions
So far as the agreement is concerned, any successful administration in Afghanistan must ensure 'the equitable representation of all ethnic and religious communities' (31).

Whatever else the Taliban did, it at least brought a measure of stability to Afghanistan. In the wake of the Taliban's collapse, making ethnic and religious background the measure of power was inevitably going to lead to conflict and bloodshed among former warlords. Indeed, in much of north and east Afghanistan, commanders and generals now exert their power in the interim government and stake a claim in the future of 'multi-ethnic Afghanistan' by fighting each other on the ground.

Consider the clash in the north between deputy defence minister Dostum and defence minister Fahim. Their bitter battle over the past two months didn't arise out of thin air, but has been exacerbated and driven by the struggle for power on the loya jirga, or grand council, which will replace the interim authority in June 2002. In June, the UN, the interim government and tribal leaders will agree on a permanent multi-ethnic government along the same lines as the interim authority - and in preparation for that, some current interim ministers are fighting it out on the battlefield. As one report perceptively notes:

'Ironically, the tension [in the north] is being fanned by the very institution meant to bring stability to the war-torn nation after 23 years of conflict - the grand council. The traditional summit of tribal elders is due to meet in June to elect a representative government meant to unite the nation's disparate patchwork of tribes and ethnic groups. For warlords who have always measured their influence in firepower rather than votes, the next few months represent a chance to gain as much clout as possible before the die is cast.' (32)

Others have pointed out how the ethnic selection procedure for the interim authority has heightened the northern conflict. Defence minister Fahim is a leader of the Jamait Party, which is largely made up of ethnic Tajiks, while deputy defence minister Dostum is a leader of ethnic Uzbeks. Dostum's Uzbeks far outnumber Fahim's Tajiks in the north, which is why Dostum was able to 'rule the north' for so long (until the Taliban ousted him in 1998). But because the interim authority wanted an equal measure of Tajik representation in its cabinet of ministers (and also because the UN and co were never keen on the notorious Dostum), it picked Fahim as defence minister and made Dostum his deputy.

As one commentator points out, this finally gave Fahim's Jamait Party the confidence to have a pop at Dostum, after years of bitter but contained rivalry: 'The Jamait Party has been emboldened to challenge the ethnic Uzbek Dostum by its dominance of key positions in the interim authority, notably the defence [ministry]…. In the north, Dostum is being slowly squeezed out of his traditional stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif by local Jamait commander Mohammed Atta, who has the air of a confident man.' (33)

Afghan leaders have used America's lack of intelligence for their own ends
And as the Times of India points out, on top of the ethnic rivalry sparked by the battle for power on the multi-ethnic grand council, outside intervention continues to play its part in dividing the north: 'With Dostum supported by traditional ally Turkey and the Jamait Party said to be favoured by Russia, the spectre of foreign interference - the cause of many of Afghanistan's past problems - is never far away.' (34)

Meanwhile, in eastern Afghanistan direct US intervention is exacerbating tensions between ethnic groups and rival ministers. The Bush administration may not 'go in for nation-building' and it may claim that its war aim in Afghanistan is just to get rid of al-Qaeda (though its war aims seem to change on an almost weekly basis (35)) - but in east Afghanistan, the US military is heavily involved in civil conflicts around who will hold power in the new multi-ethnic Afghanistan.

In the city of Jalalabad in east Afghanistan, for example, the US military is supporting Hazrat Ali as regional defence minister - providing him with weapons and transportation. But Ali, a leading member of the small Pashai tribe, has little support in Jalalabad, which is in the heart of east Afghanistan's 'Pashtun belt'. However, as the Washington Post points out, American backing has allowed Ali to take on, and defeat, all-comers: 'Ali's rise has come at the expense of two more politically experienced men, veteran guerrilla leader Mohammed Shareef and regional governor Abdul Qadir. At least for now, Ali, a member of the small Pashai tribe, has trumped these two ethnic Pashtun rivals in the centre of Afghanistan's Pashtun belt' (36).

America's backing of Ali has created tensions in parts of east Afghanistan, with one Afghan commentator predicting that 'civil conflict there looks almost inevitable' as Ali and his supporters 'flaunt their power'. But then, as the Washington Post says, 'such bullying comes easily to Ali, who as America's local warlord is the only power that really matters in Jalalabad. Supported by US military might and dollars, Ali represents a potent new force in post-Taliban Afghanistan, challenging a weak central government that has no choice but to do business with him. [He] owes his rise largely to the Pentagon…' (37)

Some claim that US forces are directly involved in supporting attacks on interim government appointees in east Afghanistan. On 24 March 2002, Sur Gul, the security chief in Khost, was shot at by rival Afghans - and the governor of Khost claims that US forces supported the attack. As Associated Press reported: 'The governor of an eastern Afghan province demanded US special forces hand over several rival Afghan allies, who allegedly opened fire on the region's security chief, killing a bodyguard and wounding two others before reportedly fleeing into an American compound. Afghan authorities said the assailants were believed to have been allies of the USA and took refuge in the Americans' fortified airport compound.' (38)

The US military has used force in Afghanistan's burgeoning civil conflict. On 18 February 2002, the US military dropped bombs in south-east Afghanistan, not on al-Qaeda caves this time, but on divided Afghan forces. As the New York Times reported: 'American forces appear to have opened a new phase in the war in Afghanistan with two bombing raids that Afghan commanders in the area said were aimed at clashing militia forces rather than the Taliban or al-Qaeda…. The bombing raids seemed to have placed the USA for the first time in a position of using American air power in defence of the [interim] government.' (39)

On 18 February, the US military dropped bombs on divided Afghan forces
When US forces are not deliberately involving themselves in civil clashes in Afghanistan, they often find themselves drawn in. Some Afghan leaders have used America's lack of intelligence on Afghanistan for their own ends - by getting US forces to attack their rivals by falsely labelling them al-Qaeda or Taliban forces. In December 2001, Afghan warlord and governor of the Paktia province Bacha Khan was removed by Afghanistan's interim government after he allegedly 'tricked US commanders into bombing a convoy of tribal leaders travelling to his inauguration in December by telling the Americans that the vehicles carried Taliban leaders' (40).

And at the end of February 2002, US forces and their Afghan allies shot and killed 16 men in a compound in the Hazar Qadam region of southern Afghanistan after being told they were al-Qaeda members. But, as the New York Times reported, '[Some] Afghans insist the Americans were fed false information from a local warlord hoping to help his side in a power struggle.' (41)

Reading some reports about rising tensions in Afghanistan, you could be forgiven for thinking there was something in Afghans' blood that drove them to squabble and fight. In fact, the recent rise in civil conflict between rival ethnic groups and rival political players is driven from without - by the setting up of an ethnic-based interim government, with the promise of a permanent ethnic-based grand council in June, which grants power and influence according to ethnicity, and by continuing US and foreign intervention in the battles for power among rival Afghan forces.

Some will continue to see Afghanistan's conflicts as a result of Afghans' inability to live together in peace - citing something like the murder of the interim civil aviation minister Abdul Rahman, who was killed at Kabul airport in February 2002, allegedly by an angry mob who wanted to fly to Mecca but were frustrated by delays, as an example of 'Afghan savagery'. Yet even this killing was attributed to members of the interim government rather than to ordinary angry Afghans.

At the end of February interim government leader Karzai revealed that two senior interim government ministers had been arrested in Saudi Arabia in connection with the murder, and that five suspects 'associated with the interim authority' were also being held in Afghanistan itself. According to one report, 'Karzai [blames] the murder on Rahman's long-running personal feuds with some officials in the intelligence, defence and justice ministries' (42). Another example of how conflict is heightened by institutionalising ethnic and political divisions, perhaps?

As violence flares in Afghanistan, it is a bit rich for US and European politicians to express 'grave concern' about the possibility of civil war - considering that, if it happens, they will be largely responsible.

Brendan O'Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

The strange battle of Shah-i-Kot, by Brendan O'Neill

America's axis-tential crisis, by Brendan O'Neill

spiked-issue: After 11 September

(1) Release of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2001, US State Department, 4 March 2002

(2) USA worried about Afghan disorder, Associated Press, 21 February 2002

(3) USA worried about Afghan disorder, Associated Press, 21 February 2002

(4) Afghan peace force won't be extend beyond Kabul, Washington Post, 20 March 2002

(5) Afghan peace force won't be extend beyond Kabul, Washington Post, 20 March 2002

(6) USA worried about Afghan disorder, Associated Press, 21 February 2002

(7) USA worried about Afghan disorder, Associated Press, 21 February 2002

(8) USA will take action against Iraq Bush says , Washington Post, 14 March 2002

(9) USA will take action against Iraq Bush says, Washington Post, 14 March 2002

(10) General warns of unwinnable guerrilla warfare, Daily Telegraph, 22 March 2002

(11) Release of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2001, US State Department, 4 March 2002

(12) USA worried about Afghan disorder, Associated Press, 21 February 2002

(13) Afghan peace force won't be extend beyond Kabul, Washington Post, 20 March 2002

(14) USA worried about Afghan disorder, Associated Press, 21 February 2002

(15) USA will take action against Iraq Bush says, Washington Post, 14 March 2002

(16) See The strange battle of Shah-i-Kot, by Brendan O'Neill

(17) Al-Qaeda: down but not out, Tehelka, 29 January 2002

(18) Fighting the wrong war, Guardian, 11 December 2001

(19) North Afghan face-off threatens fragile peace, Times of India, 3 March 2002

(20) North Afghan face-off threatens fragile peace, Times of India, 3 March 2002

(21) World: Ethnic Pashtuns flee northern Afghanistan, Nando Times, 21 February 2002

(22) World: Ethnic Pashtuns flee northern Afghanistan, Nando Times, 21 February 2002

(23) Turf wars, ethnic rifts plague Afghan north and east, Christian Science Monitor, 5 March 2002

(24) Turf wars, ethnic rifts plague Afghan north and east, Christian Science Monitor, 5 March 2002

(25) Charm and the West keep Karzai in power, for now, New York Times, 26 March 2002

(26) Charm and the West keep Karzai in power, for now, New York Times, 26 March 2002

(27) Rule of gun on the rise after ouster of Taliban, Los Angeles Times, 13 January 2002

(28) Afghan Agreement on Broad-Based, Multi-Ethnic Government, US State Department, 5 December 2001

(29) Afghan Agreement on Broad-Based, Multi-Ethnic Government, US State Department, 5 December 2001

(30) Afghan Agreement on Broad-Based, Multi-Ethnic Government, US State Department, 5 December 2001

(31) Afghan Agreement on Broad-Based, Multi-Ethnic Government, US State Department, 5 December 2001

(32) North Afghan face-off threatens fragile peace, Times of India, 3 March 2002

(33) North Afghan face-off threatens fragile peace, Times of India, 3 March 2002

(34) North Afghan face-off threatens fragile peace, Times of India, 3 March 2002

(35) See When is a war not a war?, by Brendan O'Neill

(36) US backing helps warlord solidify power, Washington Post, 18 February 2002

(37) US backing helps warlord solidify power, Washington Post, 18 February 2002

(38) Gunmen attack Afghan security chief, Associated Press, 25 March 2002

(39) In a shift, USA uses air strikes to help Kabul, New York Times, 19 February 2002

(40) See The strange battle of Shah-i-Kot, by Brendan O'Neill

(41) Afghan witnesses say GIs were duped in raid on allies, New York Times, 27 February 2002

(42) New account of minister's death, BBC News, 20 February 2002

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