There is a joke from Kabul: Hamid Karzai, the interim head of state, signs
a document and hands it to a man sitting across from him. "Here is the edict for
your appointment to a senior position in my government. Now it's your turn to
sign a document." The new appointee asks: "What is the document that I should
sign?" Karzai replies: "Your last will and testament."
The joke may sound cynical, but it reflects the mood of anxiety in Afghanistan.
During the last six months, at least a dozen senior officials have been killed,
including a vice president, a Cabinet minister and a provincial governor. The
ex-king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, and Defense Minister Mohammed Qassim Fahim have
escaped assassination attempts.
In every case, Karzai's entourage, using leaks to the American media, has alleged
that the killings were organized by unspecified factions within the governing
coalition. Karzai is so distrustful that he replaced his Afghan bodyguards with
72 U.S. Marines in July.
Initially, the United States had been careful to minimize its involvement
in Afghan politics. The U.S. plan was to destroy the terrorist organizations,
kill or capture as many of the criminals as possible, organize some form of governmental
authority and then leave. The task of leading an international stabilization force
was assigned first to the British, then to the Turks; the United Nations was put
in charge of the so-called nation-building efforts.
By those yardsticks, the U.S. achieved its objectives in June. The terror groups
were smashed. A stabilization force was in place, and Karzai and his Cabinet filled
the role of a national authority.
Now, however, there are signs that the U.S. may be abandoning its minimalist
agenda in favor of a maximalist one that could trigger a civil war and drag the
U.S. into Afghan factional bloodletting.
Judging by statements by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan,
U.S. action in Afghanistan is being transformed from a limited police operation
into an open-ended empire-building scheme with geostrategic goals.
Under this plan, the U.S. would acquire a permanent military presence in Afghanistan
and turn it into a base for projecting power in Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent,
the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. A landlocked country larger than France,
Afghanistan could serve as a terrestrial aircraft carrier for U.S. military facilities
in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Afghanistan also could be used as a transit route for oil and gas pipelines
from Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Central Asia via Pakistan and the Indian Ocean.
Both Karzai and Khalilzad have worked as consultants for U.S. oil companies that
have pushed for this scheme since 1996. A third Afghan involved, Ashref Ghani,
is minister of finance in the Karzai Cabinet.
Some Afghans have identified Khalilzad and Ghani as the twin eminences-grises
in Kabul, with Karzai just the front man. At times Khalilzad has stepped out of
the shadows to show who is boss. Some Afghan officials report directly to the
U.S. envoy or receive his instructions over the telephone.
In the days immediately after Sept. 11, the U.S. acknowledged that Afghanistan
was a fragmented nation where numerous groups wielded power with a combination
of violence and bribery. The U.S. was cautious not to side with groups that wanted
to restore the monarchy in one form or another.
For a broader American agenda to succeed, a number of conditions would have
to be met. Chief among these is the creation of an Afghan government capable of
mobilizing public support for a long-term U.S. military presence. Such a government
is also needed for the protection of the projected oil and gas pipelines along
more than 700 kilometers of some of the most dangerous territory in the world.
The Khalilzad-Karzai-Ghani triumvirate hopes that its ethnic group--the Pushtuns--will
dominate such a government. The problem is that the Pushtun community, which is
38% of the population, is the most fractured of all 18 ethnic groups in Afghanistan
today. Further, it lacks the intellectual, bureaucratic and technical elements
needed for building and running a modern centralized government.
Western and southwestern Afghanistan, where the pipelines would pass, are now
controlled by Tajik forces and their Char-Aymaq, Baluch, Uzbek and Turkoman allies.
A recent unsuccessful attempt by Pushtun forces to capture the air base at Shindand,
seen as a future U.S. base, showed how tough it would be to change the balance
of power among the factions.
The U.S. has thus far resisted pressure to become involved in the fighting
on the side of the Pushtuns. But these things have a diabolical logic of their
own. All empires have blundered their way into situations that they have subsequently
Since its creation as a state in the 18th century, Afghanistan has been a patchwork
of ethnic and tribal communities with a nominal central government in Kabul. It
has been a buffer separating rival neighboring empires. Afghanistan has always
been an easy land to conquer but the hardest to hold. A newcomer to the region,
the United States should not ignore those facts. It is, perhaps, time for the
U.S., its initial mission accomplished, to take a deep breath and evaluate what
really might happen if it stays in Afghanistan.
Amir Taheri is editor of Politique Internationale. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times