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Stability at long last?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 13 - 12 - 2001

The deal for an interim administration in Kabul, thrashed out in Bonn, resulted in a precarious balancing act between Afghanistan's many factions. Iffat Malik asks whether the deal will work
After eight days of negotiations, plenty of skillful diplomacy, massive international pressure and the knowledge that failure could result in disastrous civil war, Afghan factions meeting in Bonn finally produced an agreement for a new interim government to run Afghanistan. The historic deal was signed on 5 December, under the approving gaze of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Achieving a deal was by no means easy, but the real test -- implementation -- lies ahead.
The four Afghan delegations meeting in Bonn agreed to set up a 30- member executive or cabinet, headed by a chairman with five deputy- chairpersons. This executive will take power in Kabul on 22 December and run Afghanistan for the next six months, at the end of which a traditional Loya Jirga (council of tribal elders) will be convened. The Loya Jirga will produce a transitional government, which will give way to an elected government after two years. Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun tribal leader, was chosen for the top job as chairman of the interim administration.
Karzai is head of the influential Popalzai tribe, which is based in Kandahar -- the city where the Taliban originated. He is an educated man who has spent much of his life in exile and had a lot of interaction with the international community. Although he is a strong supporter of Afghanistan's erstwhile king Zahir Shah, Karzai also served as deputy foreign minister in the mujahidin government of the early 1990s. He was once briefly allied with the Taliban, but their extreme interpretation of Islamic government drove him away. The Taliban are suspected of killing Karzai's father in 1999. He entered Afghanistan in October this year to rouse Pashtuns against the Taliban, only narrowly avoiding a similar fate to that of Abdul-Haq. Abdul-Haq -- another Pashtun ally of America -- was captured by the Taliban and executed.
Agreeing to a Pashtun leader was a big compromise on the part of the dominant Northern Alliance delegation. They were handsomely rewarded for it, however, securing 18 seats in the new cabinet including the three powerful ministries of defence (Mohamed Fahim), foreign affairs (Dr Abdullah Abdullah) and the interior (Younas Qanooni). Zahir Shah's delegation -- the second largest in Bonn -- secured eight ministries, including finance and reconstruction, upon which much of the focus will be in the next few months. The overall ethnic composition of the council is 11 Pashtuns, 8 Tajiks, 5 Hazaras, 3 Uzbeks and 3 members from smaller minority groups. Two council members are women.
Although the Bonn agreement was welcomed by the international community and by many Afghans, significant voices of dissent began to emerge just a day after it was signed. Many Pashtuns feel they are under-represented. There are 11 Pashtuns in the new government, but most are either exiles or hold minor posts, or both. Pir Ahmed Gailani, a Pashtun spiritual leader based in Peshawar, criticised the deal as being "unbalanced," claiming that "injustices have been committed in the distribution of ministries." The same charge was made by former mujahidin commander Gulbudin Hekmatyar and by Ismail Khan, who is now in charge of the eastern Herat area.
Such opposition is worrying, but a far more serious cause of concern is the dissent voiced by General Abdurrashid Dostum, head of Junbish-i Milli, a faction of the Northern Alliance. With a 20,000 strong army which controls Mazar-i Sharif and the surrounding areas of northern Afghanistan, Dostum is a powerful figure. He complained bitterly that while it was his army that had brought about the defeat of the Taliban by taking Mazar-i Sharif, it had received only minor posts. He has also accused his Tajik Alliance partners of reneging on a promise to give him the foreign ministry. Instead, he has been left with the mining, agriculture and industry ministries. In his anger, he has announced that he will boycott the new government and deny it access to the north.
Also high on the Bonn conference's agenda was the idea of a peace- keeping force. An annex to the agreement requests that the UN Security Council consider mandating an international force to assist in the maintenance of security in Kabul and its surrounding areas. US opposition has prevented the Security Council from doing this so far. Washington fears a peace-keeping force could hinder its military operations.
But such a neutral force may prove to be vital if the new government is to function securely and independently -- something hardly possible in the current atmosphere in Kabul, which is dominated by Northern Alliance soldiers. A neutral force will also be necessary to minimise -- and put an end to -- factional in-fighting if it breaks out. A neutral force is also the only way to guarantee security to aid agencies operating in the country.
Washington has signalled recently that it will allow a peace-keeping force to be deployed before 22 December. Nevertheless, doing so will be far from easy. Afghans have never tolerated foreign forces on their soil. Local resistance to peace-keepers could be diminished by using a 100 per cent Muslim force, drawn from 'neutral' countries like Bangladesh and Turkey, as opposed to interested parties like Iran and Pakistan. Another way to encourage Afghans to accept the force is to stress that it will operate for a very limited period only, until an Afghan army can be established. Even with such assurances, local warlords like Dostum and Ismail Khan will not willingly cede control of the territories they hold.
The Bonn agreement faces several obstacles -- not least, the precedent that all five power-sharing agreements in Afghanistan signed since 1988 have failed. But there are also many causes for optimism.
One of the biggest obstacles to the Bonn deal was President Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of the Northern Alliance. At Bonn, he was explicitly thanked for agreeing to transfer power to the new authority but was given no role in it. Rabbani lacks the support of the Alliance's younger triumvirate (Abdullah, Qanooni and Fahim) -- who seem to have decided that his time is over. This leaves Rabbani powerless to stop Karzai's administration taking power on 22 December. The transfer will probably mark the end of Rabbani's political career, and his exit symbolises military rule giving way to a political process -- a very promising development.
Hamid Karzai is an excellent consensus candidate. Though a Pashtun, his anti-Taliban credentials are beyond question. He belongs to a younger, more educated generation. He comes to the job with clean hands -- having stayed aloof from Afghanistan's civil wars, he does not have the bloody legacy of people like Dostum. He also has the skills and background to be able to deal effectively with the international community.
Dostum's bitter opposition to the Bonn deal has raised the alarming prospect of civil war. However, while Dostum has made it clear that he would boycott the new government if it goes ahead, he has also made it clear that he supports the UN process. His statement that he "will not go to Kabul until a proper government is in place" suggests that, instead of military confrontation with Karzai, he will wait for the Loya Jirga and a transitional government to be installed. Others opposed to the deal have also said they will not try to sabotage it.
The Bonn agreement is not about setting up a permanent -- or even long-term -- administration for Afghanistan. Karzai's cabinet will run affairs for only six months. There will be a chance to iron out the current ethnic and political imbalances when the next transitional government is set up. The six months between the agreements provides breathing space -- the hope is that, unlike the "hothouse" environment in Bonn, there will be far more time to consider such issues before the Loya Jirga. As long as opponents of the Bonn deal believe that the agreed timetable will be followed, they are unlikely to take up arms.
There is one final cause for hope that Afghanistan will not degenerate into civil war. When civil war broke out in the past, it happened while no one was watching. This time round, the eyes of the international community are fixed on Afghanistan. This global attention and, more significantly, the fact that billions of dollars of promised aid will not come unless there is a stable broad-based government, was a major factor in achieving the Bonn agreement. It will also be a major incentive in ensuring its implementation.
Mustafa Zaher, the former king's grandson, commented on the Bonn agreement that "Maybe it's not perfect, but under the circumstances it is something honourable, something good. I think the future of Afghanistan looks very bright." He could yet prove to be right.
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