What’s in store for Afghanistan?

A strange sense of resignation and ennui has surfaced in political circles in Afghanistan.

Shrinivas Rao Sohoni

A strange sense of resignation and ennui has surfaced in political circles in Afghanistan even as conditions here worsen by the day. The military effort of the 46-nation NATO-led ISAF is being assessed ineffectual, as the Pakistan-based, ISI-mentored armed insurgency and Saudi-sponsored Wahhabi Islam spread in the region.

NATO policy makers, given their enormous information resources, may scarcely be unaware of the simple truth that the international security force can make no meaningful headway in Afghanistan so long as the armed opposition has base support and safe haven in Pakistan and there is Saudi propagation of Wahhabi Islam on war footing.

Almost nine years in the theatre, the West has not succeeded one whit in deterring Pakistan from pursuing a policy since 2001 of feigning partnership in the NATO effort while supporting the armed opposition; nor succeeded in deterring the Saudis from fuelling inflammatory Wahhabi Islam.

The West has appeared, at different times, diffident, sanguine or in denial, about the role of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The question arises whether there is lack of will and of the wherewithal to deal with these two countries in accordance with western interests.

As is increasingly realized, the counterinsurgency campaign is floundering, as it strains to contain the armed opposition in Afghanistan without confronting, let alone neutralizing, the mainstays of the insurgency.

(Drone attacks on sundry targets in frontier areas, while effective in killing some militants and arousing fear, are hardly the means of neutralizing the real provenance of the insurgency.)

The mainstays of the armed opposition are the military leadership in Pakistan and Saudi ruling strategists, and these worthies remain undisturbed; on excellent and cordial terms with the West; cultivated and even pampered by the West.

The West has for decades lavished on Pakistan financial aid and a formidable array of weaponry, and has now initiated a phase of enhanced assistance.

For years it has shied away from confronting the three-fold nexus: between the Royal House of Saud and Wahhabism: towards proselytizing for extremist radical orthodox Islam; the nexus between Saudi and Pakistani leaderships: aiming at domination of Afghanistan and the Central Asian region; and the nexus between Pakistan and Narco-Terrorism. Is there another key nexus operating? There are reports of aircraft laden with narcotics taking off each day from a particularly strategic military airport under international air traffic control.

(It is to be noted that the burgeoning illicit drugs trade also needs bulk supply of precursor chemicals from Pakistan to narco-terrorist cartels for manufacture of heroin.)

In Pakistan, the proliferation of rigid and strict Wahhabism and the diktats of Hanbali interpretation of sharia law - in vogue in Saudi Arabia, put pressure on adherents of Sufism, Barelvi school and the Hanafi interpretation of sharia - traditional to Pakistan.

Wahhabism treats as ‘shirk’ (deviant and prohibited) the veneration at ‘dargahs’ (shrines of saintly persons), the wearing of amulets and talismans, and warns even professedly Sunni Muslims of reprisals and severe punishment in case they fail to conform strictly with Wahhabi norms and practices.

In Mingora, the main town of the scenic Swat Valley, Wahhabis beheaded and threw at a crossroads the body of a young Sunni Muslim school teacher for the ‘crime’ of daring to wear a shalwar not short enough to expose his ankles. Subsequently, as a further indignity and warning, the corpse was hung from a meat hook.

Wahhabism has intensified the campaign of murdering Shias; the Shias being termed ‘mushrikeen’ and legitimate targets for killing. Terrorists from organizations like the Lashkar-e-Taiyaba, Lashkar–e-Janghvi, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, and the Sipah-e-Sahiba Pakistan, periodically attack the Shia community.

Pakistan Shias on their part have not remained passive and have armed themselves, are aggressive, and do not lack support from Iran.

(Sunnis as well as Shias in Pakistan condemn villify and call for the elimination of the Ahmadiya community. The Ahmadiyas remain officially notified in Pakistan as non-muslims, prohibited by law from claiming to be Muslims, or referring to their places of worship as mosques, or even using Islamic greetings. Posters and banners on streets in Pakistan call for the wholesale massacre of the Ahmadiyas - as an act of pious Islamic duty by the faithful.)

Wahhabism is a powerful impeller of recruitment for ‘Jehad’ and support for Al Qaeda; and itself spews from Saudi-funded madrassas mushrooming all over Pakistan, and now in Afghanistan, using madrassa-educated clerics to brainwash children and the youth with fanatical hatred and suicidal terrorist motivation.

In Afghanistan, Wahhabism, funded by Saudi money, is gaining increasing ground, even in the northern and north-eastern provinces – from whence, it is penetrating countries adjoining Afghanistan: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kirghizstan, and the Uighur region of southwestern China.

Will the overwhelmingly Shia Islamic Republic of Iran allow unchallenged the ascendance of Wahhabism? Experts discount that possibility, pointing to Iran’s multipronged capability to interfere in Afghanistan, and particularly the leverage Iran has with the Shia Hazara community of Afghanistan’s Central Highlands. Although the odds are heavily weighed against the Shias, there is no dearth of belligerence on their part.

The recent Hazara versus Sunni Kuchi violent confrontation over sheep-grazing lands brought to light the preparations made by the Hazaras to arm and equip themselves for defense as well as attack. Afghan Vice President Khalili, a leader of the community, is reported to have declared at a public meeting in the Hazarajat region, that his will be the first blood to be spilled. This is the intensity of sentiment reached over a matter of usage rights in pasture land. Tempers will no doubt run higher and be the more inflamed if the issue is one of faith, community identity and survival.

Alongside all this is the process initiated by Afghanistan’s astute President Hamid Karzai, of ‘reconciliation’ and ‘reintegration’ – terms understood to have specific meanings in Afghanistan’s official circles. ‘Reconciliation’ is taken to be the process of coming to an understanding with the higher echelons of the armed opposition, for a peaceful dispute resolution. As distinguished from this, by ‘reintegration’ is meant the absorption and rehabilitation of foot soldiers of the armed opposition, in the mainstream of Afghanistan national life abiding by the Afghanistan Constitution and the laws of the land.

In Pakistan’s lexicon however, ‘reconciliation’ is understood to be admission by Afghan authorities of defeat at the hands of the armed opposition; and ‘reintegration’ the take over of governance and power structures in Afghanistan by individuals and groups nominated by Pakistan.

In the National Consultative Peace Jirga in Kabul, delegates reached a consensus in favor of initiating negotiations with the armed opposition towards achieving a peaceful resolution through reconciliation and reintegration.

Subsequent discussions with representatives of the Pakistan government and connected agencies have however revealed crucial differences in Afghan and Pakistani perceptions.

There is conviction (and exultation) on the Pakistan side that the situation in Afghanistan is rapidly evolving in a direction that will make it unnecessary for the armed opposition to make any compromises, and that the US-led ISAF will swiftly erode and will quit Afghanistan, and arrangements made for governing the country as per Pakistan’s choosing.

Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara communities, and a significant section of the Pashtun community, on the hand, are watchful and apprehensive whether Pakistan’s demands in matters of governance, including key appointments and security and foreign policy, are accommodated.

There is hushed murmuring about outbreak of civil war in Afghanistan in the eventuality that withdrawal of international forces leads to domination by Pakistan.

Observers see potential rising in such a contingency (of de facto Pakistani rule over Afghanistan) for a political and security disaster of the first order in this country – which is practically the heart of Asia.

A surreal touch is added by preparations underway for the Kabul Conference scheduled in the last week of July – expected to be attended by government representatives and potential donors of 70 countries -- to marshal financial support for the Afghan Government’s national reconstruction plans and programs.

On considerations of security, there is thinking that the Conference be convened in some other country. Rocket attacks on the National Consultative Peace Jirga are cited to assert that the armed opposition has the ability to pierce through security arrangements to any location.

Aspirants for 12 vacancies in the Cabinet are doing the rounds, canvassing in the expectation that new Cabinet appointments will be announced shortly – towards completing Cabinet formation ahead of the Kabul Conference.

Democracy, it must be said, also seems to be taking roots in Afghanistan. Nominations were completed for elections to Parliament scheduled on September 18 this year. For 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga (People’s Meeting) there are 2577 candidates, including 405 women from Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Seats from Kabul province alone have attracted almost 700 candidates’ applications. The ballot paper here would have to be a book.

The recall of Commander ISAF, the iconic General Stanley McChrystal – who had cultivated a good equation with President Karzai but made remarks critical of the White House (over which he later expressed contrition) – evoked immediate supportive statements from Presidential quarters in Kabul. There has been appreciative comment about McChrystal’s understanding of Afghan culture and his character and competence. Such acknowledgment is rare.

Away from the hurly-burly and dust and din of Kabul, a round of golf at the picturesque Qarga Golf Club – with its backdrop of the snowclad Paghman mountains and cool ozone rich air – is always pleasurable.

(Shrinivas Rao Sohoni is the guest columnist. He works as senior adviser in the Office of the President of Afghanistan)

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