FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

It’s About the Guns

by Patrick Cockburn The Independent

Few political movements have come so far so fast. A month ago, the Northern Alliance was clinging on by its fingertips in a few strongholds amid the crags of the Hindu Kush mountains. Today, it is master of Kabul, seems about to take Kunduz and is preparing to attend talks with other Afghan leaders in Bonn on Monday. The aim is to set up an interim government for Afghanistan, uniting all factions and ethnic groups.

The conference is unlikely to succeed. The Northern Alliance is not eager to share power. Its leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, newly arrived in Kabul from the mountain fastness where he has lived for the last few years, says the meeting in Bonn will be “symbolic”. He wants substantive talks about sharing power to take place in Afghanistan, probably in Kabul, under the guns of his triumphant soldiers.

And it is the guns which will count. They are the symbol of the new Afghanistan just as they were of the old. Stalin’s wartime jibe about the importance of the Vatican – “How many divisions has the Pope” – is wholly true of Afghan politics. Plans to bring back King Zahir after 28 years in exile will founder on the fact that he has no armed force at his command. Even if he were to return, he would be a puppet in somebody’s hands.

The problem facing the Northern Alliance today is similar to that which faced the Taliban until a few days ago. Its base is too narrow for it to hold on to the power it has seized. The Taliban was able to capture 90 per cent of Afghanistan because of Pakistani and Saudi backing. The Northern Alliance has been able to make its great advances this month only because of the US air offensive.

The Northern Alliance was extraordinarily skilful in seizing the opportunity presented by the devastating attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 11 September. Just two days before, it had lost Ahmad Shah Masood, its military leader, when two assassins, pretending to be television journalists, blew him up during an interview.

But within days of this disaster, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the suave opthalmologist who is the foreign minister of the Northern Alliance, was arranging for helicopter loads of journalists to be ferried to the Panjshir valley just north of Kabul. In a world hungry for news about Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance received massive publicity. It has never looked back.

It was an incident over the Japanese pick-up truck I hired, soon after reaching the Panjshir, to take me to the different battlefronts, that brought home to me how weak the Northern Alliance really was. The truck and its driver cost $100 a day, the high price being fixed by the Northern Alliance Foreign Ministry. The arrangement worked. The driver was good and the pick-up did not break down on the horrible Afghan roads.

One day, however, a dozen angry soldiers arrived at the house I had rented with some other journalists. Their commander, a tough-looking man in his thirties called Abdul Rashid, explained the reason for their fury. He said the truck I was using belonged to him. He had captured it personally from the Taliban in a battle three years before. The money he received from me paid for food for himself and 40 men he commanded.

“We have no other income,” Abdul Rashid said. “Without the money for the truck we will starve.” It turned out that the reason he was so angry was that the Foreign Ministry wanted as many people as possible to benefit from the money being paid by foreign journalists. They intended to supply me with a different driver and vehicle. The commander wanted me to join him in a joint protest to the Foreign Ministry, something I refused to do.

Men like Abdul Rashid, after years of war and poverty in the mountains, will not easily share power with anybody. And it is local military commanders such as him, like knights in the Middle Ages in Europe, who are the building blocks of political power in Afghanistan. It is the defection or sudden neutrality of these professional soldiers, who have often fought since their early teens, which determines the outcome of battles in Afghanistan.

In such a militarised society, stability is difficult to achieve because the threat of armed force is always just beneath the surface. It is exacerbated by deep ethnic divisions. The Pashtuns, on whom the Taliban relied, make up 42 per cent of the population. The Tajiks (25 per cent) and the Uzbeks (8 per cent) generally stand behind the Northern Alliance. Massacres, particularly around the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, have exacerbated ethnic hatreds over the past five years. Already the Hazara, Shia Muslims of Mongolian ancestry, who make up 19 per cent of the population, are protesting at the Tajik takeover of Kabul.

But there are also some reasons for optimism. Afghans are intensely war weary. There is a deep desire for a normal life at every level. Afghans with university education complain that their children are barely literate because the schools have been destroyed. In the fertile lands of the Shomali plains north of Kabul, the fields watered by rivers flowing out of the Hindu Kush, local doctors say that 80 per cent of the children are malnourished.

Afghans know that they now have an unprecedented opportunity to obtain foreign aid, but that this requires some form of civil peace.

The external pressures on Afghanistan should also be less. The Northern Alliance may exaggerate the degree to which the Taliban was a catspaw of Pakistani intelligence – but only by a little bit. Iran and Russia, the traditional backers of the Northern Alliance, will also want to expand their influence, but this is likely to be pacific. Neither wants a confrontation with the US.

Power in Afghanistan is fragmented and will remain so. Even villages behave like independent republics. A foreign peace-keeping force might help to reduce the friction between different parties, armies and ethnic groups. But, as the UN discovered in Somalia, failure to be seen as wholly neutral would have disastrous results.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
January 20, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Divide and Rule: Class, Hate, and the 2016 Election
Andrew Levine
When Was America Great?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: This Ain’t a Dream No More, It’s the Real Thing
Yoav Litvin
Making Israel Greater Again: Justice for Palestinians in the Age of Trump
Linda Pentz Gunter
Nuclear Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Ruth Fowler
Standing With Standing Rock: Of Pipelines and Protests
David Green
Why Trump Won: the 50 Percenters Have Spoken
Dave Lindorff
Imagining a Sanders Presidency Beginning on Jan. 20
Pete Dolack
Eight People Own as Much as Half the World
Roger Harris
Too Many People in the World: Names Named
Steve Horn
Under Tillerson, Exxon Maintained Ties with Saudi Arabia, Despite Dismal Human Rights Record
John Berger
The Nature of Mass Demonstrations
Stephen Zielinski
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
David Swanson
Six Things We Should Do Better As Everything Gets Worse
Alci Rengifo
Trump Rex: Ancient Rome’s Shadow Over the Oval Office
Brian Cloughley
What Money Can Buy: the Quiet British-Israeli Scandal
Mel Gurtov
Donald Trump’s Lies And Team Trump’s Headaches
Kent Paterson
Mexico’s Great Winter of Discontent
Norman Solomon
Trump, the Democrats and the Logan Act
David Macaray
Attention, Feminists
Yves Engler
Demanding More From Our Media
James A Haught
Religious Madness in Ulster
Dean Baker
The Economics of the Affordable Care Act
Patrick Bond
Tripping Up Trumpism Through Global Boycott Divestment Sanctions
Robert Fisk
How a Trump Presidency Could Have Been Avoided
Robert Fantina
Trump: What Changes and What Remains the Same
David Rosen
Globalization vs. Empire: Can Trump Contain the Growing Split?
Elliot Sperber
Dystopia
Dan Bacher
New CA Carbon Trading Legislation Answers Big Oil’s Call to Continue Business As Usual
Wayne Clark
A Reset Button for Political America
Chris Welzenbach
“The Death Ship:” An Allegory for Today’s World
Uri Avnery
Being There
Peter Lee
The Deep State and the Sex Tape: Martin Luther King, J. Edgar Hoover, and Thurgood Marshall
Patrick Hiller
Guns Against Grizzlies at Schools or Peace Education as Resistance?
Randy Shields
The Devil’s Real Estate Dictionary
Ron Jacobs
Singing the Body Electric Across Time
Ann Garrison
Fifty-five Years After Lumumba’s Assassination, Congolese See No Relief
Christopher Brauchli
Swing Low Alabama
Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones
La Realidad: the Realities of Anti-Mexicanism
Jon Hochschartner
The Five Least Animal-Friendly Senate Democrats
Pauline Murphy
Fighting Fascism: the Irish at the Battle of Cordoba
Susan Block
#GoBonobos in 2017: Happy Year of the Cock!
Louis Proyect
Is Our Future That of “Sense8” or “Mr. Robot”?
Charles R. Larson
Review: Robert Coover’s “Huck out West”
David Yearsley
Manchester-by-the-Sea and the Present Catastrophe
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail