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Bush’s Afghan Democrats, Gangsters, Murderers and Stooges

Washington wants the loya jirga to succeed. True, far too many of its pliant warlords–the Pashtun and Tajik gangsters whom the Americans paid in thousands of dollars for their sometimes loyal alliance against Osama bin Laden–have been trying to bribe and bamboozle their own candidates into power once they realized that the “grand assembly” of Afghans would actually be held today. And true, there has been intimidation and delegates murdered.

But a successful interim government–whatever its chances of producing fair parliamentary elections–is vital for the United States. Firstly, it will allow President Bush, despite his failure to capture either Mr bin Laden or the Pimpernel-like Mullah Omar, to claim that America has fulfilled its promise to bring “democracy” to Afghanistan. Secondly–and more importantly–because it is America’s ticket out of the country. As an article in the Wall Street Journal, the President’s best friend in his “war on terror”, put it last week, nation-building “certainly beats keeping crack [sic] US troops on the Afghan-Pakistan border for the next 10 to 15 years”.

But even if the democrats and the killers and murderers of Afghanistan–let us not be squeamish about some of the “delegates”–bring off their tribal rites today, it’s by no means certain that Afghanistan’s central authority will be able to do any more than they have already: rule the streets of Kabul while regional warlords–including one of their own vice-ministers–battle with rival mafiosi in the rest of the country.

Hamid Karzai, the head of the present interim government, has only one popular mandate in Afghanistan. It doesn’t come from the thugs of the Northern Alliance who “liberated” Kabul from the Taliban last November.

Nor does it come from his own Pashtun people, with whom his prestige has rested only upon his personal integrity. It comes from his friends in the West, those who advised him, dressed him in his stunning green robes and paid for his advancement. It comes from those Western nations–stand up, all of us–who have promised to fund, through him, the regeneration of Afghanistan.

The gang leaders of Afghanistan have agreed to let Mr Karzai remain leader of the next interim government. But at present, those same mafia bosses are running many of the major cities of Afghanistan. Humanitarian organizations and charities are, in many cases, still forced to funnel their aid through these ruthless men, in Mazar-i-Sharif, in Nangahar province, in Khost. Voters in the forthcoming elections know that their humanitarian aid comes via the warlords.

So who will they vote for in parliamentary elections? Mr Karzai is trying to form the country’s first non-sectarian political group–allegedly with the brother of Ahmed Shah Masood, the Tajik leader murdered two days before the 11 September atrocities in the United States. And loya jirgas have their uses. While by no means pliant, the British used them to maintain their control of Afghanistan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The wretched President Nadjibullah–he who was emasculated and then strangled by the Taliban in 1996–persuaded two loya jirgas to keep him in power.

So with American money behind him, Mr Karzai may have a good chance to go on leading Afghanistan–at least for the moment.

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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