Afghanistan: November 19, 2001


The Tajik faction of the Northern Alliance, which controls Kabul and parts of northern Afghanistan, has reached out to the other factions, as well as the Pushtuns in the south and the former king. So far it's all talk. The other factions want to make sure they get lucrative positions in the central government. The national government of Afghanistan has never really ruled the country and has customarily been dominated by Pushtuns. The central government serves mainly to deal with foreigners and collect import and export taxes, plus fees for things like visas passports and the like. Much of this money is then stolen by government officials. Little was ever spent on infrastructure (roads, schools, hospitals, water works, and so on.) But for most Afghans, this didn't matter. Life revolved around individual villages, towns and mountain valleys where most Afghans lived. Local politics took care of things out there. 

For centuries, Afghans felt the national government was successful if it didn't bother them. And for most of Afghanistan's history, the national government kept to itself. The last 22 years of war in Afghanistan can be traced to struggles for control of the central government, and the lucrative opportunities for large scale theft. The exiled king was deposed in 1973, by a cousin, for trying to clamp down on the corruption (he had fired his cousin from a government job for excessive theft). The Afghan communist party overthrew the corrupt cousin in an attempt to clean up the government. But then various factions of the Afghan communist party fought each other for control of the government, the Russians stepped in and so it went. The Taliban came in while various warlord armies were fighting for control of the central government. The Tajik factions had won that war when the Taliban showed up. Promising clean government, the Taliban got popular support and took over. But the Taliban promised to run things for only two years. They lied, the people got tired of getting harassed by religious police and here we are. 

The Tajik factions (the same ones) are back in Kabul. The last time (1996), before the Taliban showed up, the Tajiks were not sharing the loot. This time they promise they will. They have every incentive to do so. While a Taliban army may not show up this time, thousands of armed and angry Pushtuns, Uzbeks and Hazaras might. So in the time honored Afghan tradition of "let's make a deal," the Tajiks are discussing with everyone how best to divvy up the pie. 

Complicating the issue is the clean government crowd. This is not just pesky foreigners, but many Afghans as well. The 22 years of war has sent millions of Afghans into exile. Many landed in democratic nations (Western Europe, North America) and tell the folks back home that it is possible to have clean government. Actually, there is clean government, but it is usually only found at the village level. Most Afghan men have guns, and it anyone gets sticky fingers in the village, you are likely to find yourself facing some angry men with guns. There is sometimes relatively clean governments at the provincial government. Although being a provincial governor is seen as a license to steal, there are sometimes honest provincial governments. But these virtuous fellows are seen as rare and unusual, not something you can depend on. Now Afghans abroad have spread the word that it is possible to have honest and accountable rulers on a regular basis. The current crop of Afghan politicians are aware of this grass roots attitude. Not that a lot of politicians are enthusiastic about being honest (and poor) officials, but it is something that has to be dealt with. How everyone will work out the demand for sharing the loot, and making government honest, remains to be seen.

The siege of Kunduz has gotten down to serious negotiations between the fanatical bin Laden troops and the besieging Northern Alliance forces. The bin Laden crew wants safe passage out of the city, under the supervision of UN observers. The bin Laden troops comprise several thousand foreigners (Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens, Etc.) who are thoroughly disliked by most Afghans. The bin Laden troops have terrorized the more numerous Afghan Taliban troops stuck in the city with them. The Taliban commander admitted that at least a thousand of his men had been killed over the weekend by U.S. bombs. But civilians fleeing the city say that the bin Laden troops have killed several hundred Taliban Afghans they suspected of trying to surrender. The Northern Alliance has asked Pakistan if it would help in taking custody of the Pakistani Taliban troops. But the biggest problems will be with the Arabs and other non-Afghans. Many of these are known terrorists and some are liable for prosecution in their home countries. Where do you send them if you guarantee them "safe passage?" It will be interesting to see how this plays out. In situations like this, Afghans are prone to negotiated settlement. For example, the Northern Alliance would have little problem letting most of the Afghan Taliban go. But what do you do with the foreigners? The Northern Alliance wants to avoid taking the city by storm, as this would get a lot of Northern Alliance soldiers and Afghan civilians killed. A longer siege will also get more civilians killed. It's an ugly situation.


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