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February 2002 issue of
World Press Review
(VOL. 49, No. 2)
Premature Conclusions in Bonn
From Anarchy to Diarchy
Shankar Jha, Outlook (independent weekly), New Delhi,
India, Dec. 17, 2001
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.
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).
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
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.
Pakistans 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 todays 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,
Pakistans 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 Shahs 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
In retrospect, one cant 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.