Rebuilding Afghanistan:
Premature Conclusions in Bonn

From Anarchy to Diarchy

Downtown in Ruins: The main commercial street in Kabul, as in all of Afghanistan's cities, resembles an archaeological site rather than an urban center (Photo: AFP).

Things have gone well in Afghanistan. The Taliban collapsed far more rapidly than anyone had dared hope. The Northern Alliance raced into Kabul against the wishes of its patrons but confounded them by behaving with exemplary restraint. Pashtun tribes in the east and south have not only deserted their ethnic brethren in the Taliban, but have taken up arms against them. The Taliban stronghold of Kandahar is turning out not to be as formidable as many had feared. [The Taliban surrendered Kandahar on Dec. 7.—WPR] It is perfectly possible that by the time this appears in print the fighting will be over and Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden will be captured or dead.

All this has been achieved with great economy in killing. Several hundred civilians have indeed died, and a massacre of captured Al-Qaeda prisoners in Mazar-e-Sharif has left a bad taste in the mouth. But by the standards of modern-day war, and especially of the Afghan struggle against the Soviets, this has been a painless victory.

The United States deserves a rich measure of credit for the way in which it has handled the entire operation. Though U.S. and British troops have gone into the country, for the most part they have done so not to fight the Taliban directly but to provide anti-Taliban Afghan forces with the technological backup and technology-related military advice they needed to achieve a swift victory. They have also learned from the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, and have drawn upon Russian knowledge of the country. In fact, nothing reveals the new contours of conflict more clearly than the unstinting tactical advice and intelligence the Russian forces provided the United States.

Pakistan’s Gen. Pervez Musharraf too deserves credit and respect for the way he turned an epic crisis for his country into an opportunity to attack the succubus of the jihadi state in Pakistan and to try to bring his country back to the path of modernization and development. One can only hope he will show the same sagacity with respect to Kashmir.

The Bonn conference too has produced as good a result as anyone could have hoped for. Hamid Karzai, a moderate Pashtun leader, has been elected chairman of the interim administration. This satisfies the need to acknowledge the numerical dominance of the Pashtuns in Afghanistan. But the defense, interior, and foreign affairs portfolios have gone to the Northern Alliance. This acknowledges and rewards their decade of tribulation and sacrifice in the battle against the Taliban, and quietly concedes their military predominance in today’s Afghanistan.

Karzai himself is a moderate Afghan of the Sufi tradition, with a considerable following that is growing by the day. He has the maturity to work with the Northern Alliance and, having lived for years in Pakistan, knows its leaders and people. They therefore do not fear him. Last, but most importantly, the United States and the world community have made it clear that they will not walk away from Afghanistan this time but will help actively and unstintingly in its reconstruction.

So why do I feel a twinge of anxiety? The only cause I can identify is that things seem to have gone too well. My anxiety is not centered on the outcome of the war. It centers on the reconstruction of the Afghan state and polity. Both have been fluid and volatile at the best of times.

The Afghan nation goes back only to the mid-18th century. While the Pashtuns are numerically preponderant, this is only a linguistic preponderance; they are divided into a score or more of tribes that have fought each other as often as they have collaborated with each other. Ahmed Shah Durrani (formerly Abdali) was the first to bring both Dari- and Pashto-speaking tribes under one banner. Since then, unity has been maintained by a system where marriages have alternated with assassinations, extravagant gifts with treacherous bullets.

This fragile and constantly shifting balance was disturbed first by the Anglo-Russian rivalry that led Britain into two disastrous and expensive Afghan wars in the 19th century and a third in the 20th century. These gave birth to left-leaning Afghan nationalism that reached its apotheosis in the overthrow of King Zahir Shah and the communist coups of the 1970s that triggered the Soviet invasion in 1979.

In the last 22 years, the Afghan polity and civil society have borne the brunt of the Afghan war, the civil war that followed, Pakistan’s disruption of the Afghan political equation backed by the United States, conquest by the Taliban, and finally the tacit takeover of the Taliban by Al-Qaeda.

Today there has been no Afghan state for 22 years and both the polity and civil society are in tatters. Before Afghanistan can be rebuilt, all three must be reconstituted, and the task must begin with the reconstitution of the Afghan state.

This is a task the West has grossly underestimated. The modern state must not only enjoy unquestioned power but must also hold a monopoly of coercive power. The Bonn conference focused on endowing the interim Afghan administration with the first, but neglected the second. As a result, it has created a diarchy of sorts: Karzai, buttressed by Zahir Shah’s backing, has the authority; the Northern Alliance has the power. So long as the two work together, and so long as the Northern Alliance itself hangs together, the infant post-Taliban state will be stable. But if either of these two conditions ceases to hold, a power vacuum will once again develop in Afghanistan and become a standing temptation for Iran, Pakistan, and Russia to try to fill.

In retrospect, one can’t help feeling Bonn was premature. Power equations cannot be thrust upon a nation from the outside but rather must develop from within. For these equations to mature, the U.N. should have waited till the fighting ended. [The Bonn agreement was reached on Dec. 5, two days before the Taliban surrendered Kandahar.—WPR] Karzai is in the thick of the fighting around Kandahar. His military prowess would have been tested and his backing among the Pashtuns would have consolidated itself. The diarchy Afghanistan is now saddled with would have been less pronounced.