Like ninepins the Afghan cities fell from a band of principled barbarians (the Taliban) to a band of unprincipled barbarians (the so-called Northern Alliance):
first Mazar-e-Sharif where ex-communist general Rashid Dostam’s once ruled (at least his authoritarianism allowed for such institutions as Balkh University, where almost two thousand women studied), then Herat where Hazara leader Ismael Khan’s writ once ran (and where the Taliban ruthlessly took on the radical democracy of the Shi’a), finally Kabul.
CNN pundits told us that the military campaign overran the diplomatic initiatives and that there is no established procedure for a post-Taliban regime. We must now, it seems, await the inevitable wisdom of the State Department and its diplomatic efforts in a political quagmire. Poor State Department, we are expected to sigh.
From Rome one hears occasionally about an elder’s council, one entirely male thus far much to the chagrin of the women’s organizations (notably the Maoist RAWA, Revolutionary Afghan Women’s Association, who had welcomed the return of the aged and unpopular monarch Zahir Shah).
Mr. Shah, of course, has not strayed from his own illiberal past – for if Afghanistan was once a model of Central Asian modernity this was because of the cosmopolitanism of its populace and also the man who overthrew Zahir Shah, his cousin Sardar Mohammed Daud (whose own modernity was enforced in an alliance with the leftist armed forces and the Parcham wing of the Communist Party led by the ill-fated Babrak Kamal).
This elder’s council, by all indications, is to be the most attractive puppet regime for the United States, but it will not be countenanced by Iran or many in the Northern Alliance if the package includes the return of Mr. Shah to the throne.
The Northern Alliance, we hear, cannot rule alone because it is mainly of the north, mainly Tajik, Uzbek, Turkmen and Shi’a (from the western provinces). Since the majority population in Afghanistan is Pashtun, there must be some representation from them.
Abdul Haq got himself killed in the mission to create a Southern Alliance, and others like him are few and far between because many of them are not trusted by the population (such as Gulbuddin Hikmetyar, the brigand much reviled for his bombardment of Kabul in early 1994 and subsequent brutal blockade of the city).
The Northern Alliance has no love for Pakistan, another reason why they will not be allowed to rule without supervision. The Pashtun speakers straddle the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan and any neglect of this population may lead to a renewed call for Pashtunistan, further secession from a reluctant (and nuclear-armed) state.
In time what we will find is that the US government will pressure the Northern Alliance to allow “moderate” Taliban to enter a government of national unity even as the Taliban continue its guerrilla war in the plains around Kandahar and the southwest of Afghanistan.
So the US would have fought a war to overthrow the Taliban, only to let them rule again with the Northern Alliance.
So what has changed in Afghanistan?
Bin Laden may be dead by then, but the networks of terror, we already know, operate independently of him and they breed due to circumstances that Bin Laden himself does not create (namely the Saudi regime).
The only real change will be a permanent US military presence in Central Asia, both in Uzbekistan and in northern Afghanistan. The war was fought, then, not just to get Bin Laden, or not just to undo the rule of the Taliban, but, crucially, to establish a military presence in this region and to undermine the process of Iranian-Chinese-Russian unity fostered due to their joint action against the Taliban.
Indeed, after 9/11, why did the US government not allow these three states and the Central Asian republics to run the anti-Taliban campaign? In Bishkek (capital of Kyrghyzstan), there is a counter-terrorism unit that was set up in July 2001 to undermine the Taliban.
Why did the US not allow that office to conduct a regional campaign against the Taliban? There can be at least two explanations for this: first, that the US government’s arrogance did not allow it to see the importance of a regional solution in the long run, and second, that the US government deliberately undercut the regional process that created the Bishkek office in the first place.
What was that process? It begins with Iran, a state born out of a radical anti-monarchical revolution that led to the Islamic regime.
The Islam of Iran is Shi’ism and it is generally opposed to the types of Sunni fundamentalism that one sees in Saudi Wahabbisim and now among the Taliban, in Chechnya, and elsewhere (bear in mind that the Ayatollahs brought the Athna-’Ashari form of Shi’ism to bear on the Iranian population after 1979, and its regime of clerico-fascism degraded the complexity of both everyday Shi’ism and the radical nationalism of Ali Shariati, one of the ideological forebears of the revolution).
Interested in an entente against Sunni fundamentalism, Iran turned to Russia as early as 1989 (when Khomeni died) to forge an alliance that was given an important push when the Russian foreign minister visited Iran two years ago, and when the reformist President Mohammed Khatami visited Moscow in early 2001.
Meanwhile, the Russians and Chinese signed the Good Neighborly Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in July 2001 to signal their alliance against US hegemony (especially the missile defense plan).
In June 2000, Iran’s President Khatami was the first Muslim head of state to visit Kashgar (Xianjiang province, PRC) where he met Islamic scholars at the Grand Mosque (the 12th Century Iranian poet Sa’adi once said prayers there) and where he indicated his opposition to fundamentalist forms of Islam.
This act singled the seriousness of the regional powers to tackle the scourge of Bin Laden style instability. Iran-China-Russia began to create an anti-imperialist regional compact for Central Asia that could, perhaps, have led to some measure of popular stability in a crisis prone region.
The media tends to see the Russian, Chinese and Iranian support for the US-UK bombardment without any sense of the separate interests of these countries in the region. The Russians and Chinese joined with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrghyzstan to establish the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in June 2001.
The SCO passed a resolution in opposition to the US anti-missile plans, to Sunni fundamentalism, and to US plans to dominate the oil and natural gas in Central Asia.
The Uzbek government later joined this alliance, and it seemed, at the time, that the SCO would undermine the US-sponsored GUUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova) group. Even as the Uzbek government has been in a military pact with the US since 1995, it appeared in June-July of 2001 that the Asian alliance would play an independent role in world affairs.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev said, after the June summit, “the threat facing Central Asia is a threat facing the whole of Eurasia. The source nourishing terrorism and extremism is the instability of Afghanistan.” Afghanistan was at the top of the SCO agenda, with the counter-terrorist unit of the SCO placed strategically in Bishkek.
The ground for a solution to the problem of Afghanistan was being prepared regionally, outside the heavy hand of US-sponsored globalization. But before anything could proceed in a regional and rational manner, the bombardments in the US highjacked reason. The terror of 9/11 and the war have now put that regional process into disarray, as powers in the area capitulated to the “realism” of being on the side of the US (namely, President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan).
Uzbekistan was the first to join the US, as Karimov eagerly sought to shield his authoritarianism behind the sort of arrangements that the US has provided the Saudis since the Eisenhower pact of 1957 (you do your thing, and we’ll keep the UN off your back if you be our boy).
Russia, eager to occlude its acts in Chechnya, seems to be all aboard with the US, but this is a short-lived alliance as the problem of Central Asian energy reserves and the direction of the pipeline will trouble the Putin-Bush camaraderie for the cameras.
And as Teheran University’s Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh writes “the United States is pursuing such a manifestly anti-Iranian strategy in Caspian-Central Asia regardless of the fact that geography dictates a natural role for Iran in the region.” Khatami’s “dialogue among civilizations” is a non-starter, as Bush seems to follow the fallow Huntington line of a “clash among civilizations.”
There are alternatives and the Left needs to fight for a minimum of the following things:
(1) No US bases in Central Asia. Immediate withdrawal of all US troops once the Bangladeshi-Indonesian-Turkish force arrives under UN command.
(2) No return of a monarch. No Zahir Shah.
(3) Immediate entry of women in the discussions over an Afghan future, notably those organizations in the various refugee camps and RAWA.
(4) A central role for the SCO and Iran in any deliberations on the region. This is as much a national problem as a regional one, and we need to inculcate a notion of regional sovereignty as much as we have as yet the idea of national sovereignty.
Vijay Prashad Associate Professor and Director, International Studies Program 214 McCook, Trinity College, Hartford, CT. 06106. 860-297-2518.