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THE KILLING of Haji Abdul Qadir, one of the Vice-Presidents of Afghanistan, derails the progression of the peace process. Qadir was a colourful personality a senior leader of the Afghan Jehad in the 1980s with enduring links to Western security establishments, a Pashtun with a tribal following in the Eastern provinces bodering Pakistan, the wealthiest Afghan warlord with extensive business dealings which could include drug trafficking, a tall Pashtun who showed the audacity to cross the ethnic divide and join up with Northern Alliance and so on. Therefore, his killers can be traced to several constituencies.
An important clue to Qadir's killing could lie in its timing, within a month of his elevation to the number two slot in the transitional government in Kabul. His appointment was conceived as a step toward adding Pashtun faces to the power structure aimed at addressing the imbalance resulting from over-representation by non-Pashtun groups. The President, Hamid Karzai, hails from the Ahmedzai tribe. It was hoped that the appointment of the two at the top would help subsume the historical rivalry between the Eastern and Western Pashtun tribes. Qadir was to be built up as the unifying figure of Ghilzai or Eastern Pashtuns who are otherwise getting incrementally alienated from the Afghan peace process and becoming the hotbed of opposition to American military presence in Afghanistan a glaring deficiency when we recall that out of the Peshawar Seven selected by General Zia-ul Haq in 1981 to spearhead the Jehad against the Soviets except for one Tajik (Burhanuddin Rabbani) the rest were all Ghilzai or Eastern Pashtuns.
For the second time in recent months, plans for creating an Eastern Pashtun figurehead in Kabul have gone awry. In the feverish run up to the removal of the Taliban Government last year, Americans endeavoured to place the Mujahideen commander Abdul Haq (Qadir's brother) who was a staunch ally of Western security agencies in the leadership role in Kabul (Karzai's name came up later). But Haq was caught and executed by the Taliban. Now Qadir has met a similar fate while holding the talisman of overt American backing.
The high volatility amongst Eastern Pashtuns and the failure of the American military might to pacify them yet should be regarded as a setback to the entire peace process as per the Bonn Agreement. The assumption that Eastern Pashtuns would tamely fall in line by the time the Loya Jirga got into session in Kabul in June has been belied. The Loya Jirga, which was convened as a carefully crafted piece of political theatre, has not helped matters either. A Pashtun grassroots movement including Eastern Pashtuns came out on the eve of the Loya Jirga rooting for ex-king Zahir Shah in preference to Mr. Karzai as the new head of state. Zahir Shah was pressed hard by the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmai Khalilzad, to withdraw to ensure that Mr. Karzai would remain as the head of state. This curious spectacle eroded Mr. Karzai's standing in Pashtun eyes. He faces an `image problem' in regard to his American backing. Apart from the Iranians, no one seems to have quite foreseen at the time of the return of Zahir Shah to Kabul in March the highly unstable character of the political equations or that there could be an inherent contradiction between Mr. Karzai and the royalist camp.
In the process, an impression, which will be difficult to erase, has gained ground that the entire Loya Jirga was a calibrated exercise to put the rubber stamp of political legitimacy on another set-up in Kabul headed by Mr. Karzai. Reacting to the outcome of the Loya Jirga, Pacha Khan Zadran, the Eastern Pashtun leader, said last week that "This (eastern provinces) is our area and must be controlled by us. The Government of the Northern Alliance is not acceptable here. Everything that has been done in the name of the Loya Jirga in Kabul was artificial. The former king was removed from the stage by force. We do not accept Karzai's Government because this Government is a Government of the Northern Alliance. Karzai must resign, otherwise problems will arise. Paktia, Paktika and Khost do not want to see the authority of the Northern Alliance. So all the people who have been appointed by the Northern Alliance must leave Gardez and Khost, otherwise we will take control of the place by force".
There has also been criticism on the composition of the new Cabinet announced by Mr. Karzai in the closing hours of the Loya Jirga. The royalists have been sidelined. Ethnic Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley retain their dominance in the new Government. The Defence Minister, Mohammad Fahim, and the Foreign Minister, Abdullah Abdullah, retain their posts. The former Interior Minister, Yunous Qanooni, has been accommodated by creating a new post of Presidential Security Advisor. Given that the new Interior Minister, Taj Mohammad Wardak, is an 80-year-old who returned to Afghanistan only six months ago after over 20 years of exile in the U.S., and considering that Mohammad Arif, another Panjshiri, continues as the intelligence chief, Mr. Qanooni will call the shots in the state security apparatus. Pashtuns regard themselves to be underrepresented and view Mr. Karzai as being overly accommodating to the Panjshiris. Deals would appear to have been struck for pacifying various warlords of the Northern Alliance. Haji Qadir and the Hazara Shia leader, Karim Khalili, were appointed Vice-Presidents along with the Tajik commander, Gen. Fahim. The Uzbek leader, Dostum, and the Governor of Herat, Ismail Khan, were also offered the post of Vice-President by Mr. Karzai but they declined the offer to move to Kabul rather than preside over their turf in northern and western Afghanistan. According to Human Rights Watch, "Afghan warlords are stronger today than they were 10 days ago". Mr. Karzai also had to placate Islamist conservatives by appointing the cleric Fazul Hadi Shinwari as the new Chief Justice. Mr. Shinwari is on record that Sharia punishments of the Taliban era including stoning and amputation will continue.
In the aftermath of Qadir's killing, the stakes are high for all protagonists. For Americans, their voyage of discovery in search of a Pashtun leader for all Afghans is entering deep waters. Mr. Karzai sees the imperative to display that he is a homespun figure and no foreigner's proxy. The warlords would relentlessly seek a quid pro quo for their support of the Kabul set-up, in the nature of autonomy for their fiefdoms. The disaffection amongst the Pashtuns would seek outlets which in turn provides fertile ground for radical movements. A mistake here, a mistake there such as the wanton bombing of a wedding party last week by American aircraft in Uruzgan last week resulting in heavy civilian casualties and the cup of Pashtun wrath can spill over. U.S. dependence on Pakistan's cooperation correspondingly increases and would go beyond the manifest agenda of tracking down Al-Qaeda elements in the craggy mountains and creeks of eastern Afghanistan. In the process, intelligence agencies of neighbouring countries can be expected to sidestep conventional diplomacy and politics and get back into their proactive role of setting the Afghan agenda.
(The writer is a former IFS officer who has served in Kabul.)
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