Pashtun Comes To Shove

How to persuade Afghanistan’s tribes to unite behind Hamid Karzai.

Hamid Karzai

America’s search for Osama Bin Laden continues, but for the Afghans, the war is over. Kandahar has fallen. Hamid Karzai, the man named as leader of the Afghan interim government, has installed himself in the former residence of Mullah Mohammed Omar. Yesterday he even gave a press conference. Less than two weeks from now, on Dec. 22, that interim government formally takes power. Karzai will run the country, as far as that is possible, until elections can be held or some other solution is reached. (For more on the terms of the Bonn agreement, see this“International Papers” column.) Without a doubt, this is Afghanistan’s best chance at real peace and real stability for two decades. What are the chances of success?

After it ended, the optimists were cheered by the relative good temper of the delegates at the Bonn conference  that selected the new interim government earlier this month. The press and the United Nations praised the relative calm of the discussions and the inclusion of two women, as well as the qualities of the country’s new leader. Karzai could not attend the conference—he was fighting in his native Kandahar Province—but addressed it by satellite telephone. “We are one nation, one culture. We are united, not divided,” he told the delegates. “We all believe in a Islam that is a religion of tolerance.”

That is just what we all want to hear, of course—and Karzai’s pedigree is just what we want to see. Both the Baltimore Sun and USA Today have discovered his U.S.-based brothers, two of whom run restaurants in Baltimore, Boston, and San Francisco. The New York Timeshas found out that Karzai studied in India. The Washington Posthas found a U.S. special forces officer who fought with Karzai and describes him as “my friend.” Everyone has suddenly remembered that Karzai’s father, Abdul Ahad Karzai, the former speaker of the Afghan parliament and the leader of his Pashtun clan, the Populzai, was a well-known Afghan moderate. After Abdul Ahad’s 1999 murder—Taliban gunmen shot him in the street—the Populzai chose Hamid as their new clan leader. That makes Karzai, in the words of the writer Robert Kaplan, “Afghan royalty.” Even the Taliban tried to get him to join them, despite his moderate views, simply out of regard for his hereditary position. He has roots there and contacts abroad—what could be better?

And yet—listen to an account of how Karzai was named chairman of the interim government, and one begins to feel some twinges of doubt. Among the conference delegates, there were some worries about his lack of experience. An admittedly unreliable source has even told me that back in October and November, when Karzai was meant to be inside Afghanistan organizing the anti-Taliban resistance, he was, for some of the time, inside his house in Quetta, Pakistan, reporting his fictional progress to the CIA on his mobile telephone (which could explain the conflicting reports about him having been suddenly airlifted out of Afghanistan). More to the point, Karzai was not the first choice even of his own faction, the supporters of the former king. Their first choice was an Uzbek—and everyone in the room felt the chairman should be a Pashtun. Hamed Karzai is a Pashtun, par excellence.

But then that was the way the entire interim Afghan administration was chosen, with ministries and titles parceled out with great care. The chairman had to be a Pashtun, but the foreign minister, the interior minister, and the defense minister are Tajiks from the Northern Alliance. In some cases, ministries were simply assigned to ethnic groups, with no actual candidate selected: What mattered most was to which ethnicity the job should belong, not to which person. Agreement was finally reached, but it is fragile.

Others have begun to challenge the agreement as well. Uzbek leader Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum announced that he wouldn’t respect the interim government. He has now reversed his position but who knows for how long. One of the conference factions, the Iran-backed “Cyprus group” has emitted ambitious noises about whether it will participate in the interim government. One of the country’s ethnic groups, the Shiite Hazara, has openly grumbled about their lack of representation. One Pashtun leader walked out while the conference was still going on. There are constant rumors about covert Russian support for some factions of the Northern Alliance, which may explain the dissatisfied noises coming from Afghanistan’s former President Burhanuddin Rabbani. As for the Pakistanis, they are openly annoyed at having been ejected from the playing field. Some clearly want a larger role for the ex-Taliban, at the expense of the Northern Alliance.

This, I’m afraid, is precisely what happened in Afghanistan before, in 1993, the last time there was an international conference to decide the country’s fate. Everything was wonderful, everything was decided—and then everyone went home and started shooting at everyone else. And this, I’m afraid, is where the United States comes in now. Aristocratic, Westernized, fluent English-speaker though he may be, Hamid Karzai is going to need some help, and he knows it. Yesterday, he asked America not to “turn away again” from Afghanistan—and we should listen to him.

True, we cannot put an end to the factional and inter-ethnic squabbling that have condemned Afghans to war and poverty for two decades. We cannot wave a magic wand and grant Karzai political experience and legitimacy either. We can, however, control the flow of aid money, as the Afghans know. From now on, the equation should be a simple one: You don’t cooperate with Karzai’s interim government—you don’t get food or new roads for your region.

At the same time, we have to ensure that no one else breaks the rules. If we aren’t funding Gen. Dostum, we’d better make sure the Russians or the Uzbeks aren’t doing it either. Nor can Iran or Pakistan be allowed to subvert the peace deal. As I’ve written before, all these countries have publicly (and privately) expressed their desire to see an end to the fighting, and everyone is tired of the unrest. Still, they may be tempted to help their friends along. We should make sure that they resist the temptation.

I am not saying this will be easy or that it won’t be time consuming. Limiting the influence of outside powers calls for a great deal of subtle arm twisting, which only the United States even has the power to try. Controlling the flow of aid money requires an extremely hard-nosed approach that the United Nations, even if the United Nations is the nominal patron of the new Afghanistan, will simply not be able to take. The destruction of the Taliban was an American decision, and if Afghanistan is not to deteriorate into anarchy and chaos once again, the rebuilding of Afghanistan must be an American project. It isn’t just our money that’s needed, it’s our clout.