The West still has a chance in Afghanistan -- if it toils for an indigenous solution to the conflict and prevent Pakistan from spoiling everything.
An interview with Ehsan Azari Stanizai on the future of Afghanistan
Q: How much can we expect from the presidential election on April 5?
A: We have experienced two elections in the past, which were marred by extensive fraud. However, expectations this time have been high. It was demonstrated in the huge turnout across the country. Still, there have been two pitfalls as well. First, new political elite as well as power brokers in the country controlled most of the polling stations in the Afghan capital, Kabul and most of the provincial capitals. They might have forced locals to vote only for their own favourites. Second, in those areas where Taliban were in control or influential, people were unable to exercise their right to vote, for obvious reasons. There have been generally a mixed feelings of optimism and premonition.
It is also clear that President Hamid Karzai is transferring power unwillingly, as he has no other option. His reluctance to relinquish power is evident from his desperate meddling in the elections by backing up Zalmai Rasoul, his feckless ex-foreign minister, from behind the scene. Karzai's departure from power is similar to Babrak Karmal, who under duress from Russians stepped down from power in 1980s. Karzai shows no intention of leaving Kabul, however, Karmal was forced by Russian to leave Kabul for a Dacha in Moscow.
Except for Ashraf Ghani, most of the main presidential candidates are string-puppets of the old Northern Alliance and very close to the seat of power in Kabul. If Ghani wins at the ballot box and Afghans accept his legitimacy, he can open a new chapter in the Afghan politics for bringing peace and reconciliation after decades of bloodshed and destruction. As an academic and intellectual, he knows better than anyone else that the presidency should be about salvation of Afghanistan. He also understands Afghan political history and knows that nothing can be done in a war-torn country, unless peace is restored first.
With a genuine support from the West and having a truly expert working team, he could be a transformational leader and bring an indigenous solution to the Afghan tragedy. He gave voice to such a sentiment by his slogan of "renewal and change." He is a charismatic leader and enjoys the support of the majority in the country, including disgruntled Afghan intelligentsia. His alliance with a notorious warlord, Rashid Dustam may be a skeleton in the closet, however, many Afghans see this union tactical and necessary at this juncture. However, this will be seen and my optimism about Ghani is cautiously optimistic.
Q: Will a non-Pashtun president urge the Pashtuns to join the Taliban as they did in the 1990s?
A: Pretty much so. For the past decade or so, Afghan ethnic minorities have been propelled to rule over the majority. The United State and its Western allies generated a ruling elite of warlords of old Northern-Alliance and Karzai's family. The Northern Alliance was a motley collection of warlords and proxy militia who helped the American forces topple the Taliban regime in 2001. Leaders of the NA and coterie around it have ever since changed the Afghan political centre stage into a Russian roulette by using Karzai as a Pashtun façade, by opposing the emergence of a legitimate Afghan national leadership.
This created a radical discontinuity and imbalance in traditional Afghan power structure. This also increased susceptibility in the country for a rampant sectarianism, which, causing lasting damages to the ethnic and social fabric of Afghanistan. With Western incontrovertible support for the NA, marginalization of the Pashtuns escalated. Today, the Pashtuns identify their fate equal to the Roman Homo Sacer in Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas.This marginalization on its part has been invigorating the Pashtun-based insurgency.
If Abdullah Abdullah, a blue-eyed boy of the American media win the election, he will, no doubt, stir a new wave of ideologically motivated anti-Pashtun sectarianism in Afghanistan. Abdullah's is committed to change the presidential system into a parliamentarian one, which is in fact an covert agenda for giving autonomy to some provinces by guaranteeing direct election of the governors. He has a penchant for expensive Western designer suits and ties and as a long-time Karzai's foreign minister, hoarded huge illegal riches. In fashionable suits and ties, he looks more like a caricature of a Hollywood actor rather than a political leader. Another candidate, Zalmai Rasoul represents the business-owning faction of the NA and Karzai's family. Abdullah or Rasoul in power would spark civil war in Afghanistan and worsen security situation throughout the country, especially now that the US and NATO forces prepare to leave the country.
Q: How would the new leadership deal with Karzai's legacy?
A: In my view, Karzai's legacy could be summed up in one word: an abject failure in every front. With his distinctive chapan coat and a karakul hat, he will be remembered as a colorful political leader installed by the West in 2001. Afghans and those who are familiar with the Afghan culture, understand that his clownish outfit symbolize his loyalty to the Northern Alliance. Karzai has always been a follower not a leader. He showed exceptional skills and proficiency in promoting a single bond between his supporters and cronies, and that is cash. This way he managed to hold together strong power-brokers and his family members. Corruption, kleptomania, demagogy and the world's biggest heroine industry epitomize Karzai's legacy. This legacy calls for a herculean task to be fixed.
Q: The NATO combat troops are evacuating Afghanistan while there is no sign of reconciliation and peace with the Taliban. Does this mean that NATO is sacrificing its one decade gains in Afghanistan?
A: If NATO just cut and run, I think that will be an obvious outcome. The Western forces haven't been succeeded to bring a national discourse in Afghanistan for peace and reconciliation. Most importantly, they failed to take the war to its source. It is now an open secret that the Pakistani military and its intelligence organisation (ISI) are playing a double role in Afghanistan. From President Obama to Pentagon's generals, journalists and experts have been repeating this for years.
The truth is that Pakistan doesn't want to see a stable Afghanistan and knows very well that a stable Afghanistan will ask Pakistan to leave the stolen Afghan land, I mean Pashtunistan. Undeniable historical evidences suggest that Pakistan has no lawful sovereignty on this Portugal-size land. This territory which is now the hotbed of international terrorism was given by the departing British Raj from Indian subcontinent to Pakistan's military in 1947.
In relation to the Afghan war, Pakistan has successfully created two narratives. For the Taliban, it is a powerful supporter of the global Islamic Jihad and for the Americans; it is fighting on the front line of war against terrorism. Pakistan is ramping up to use them as proxy forces in Afghanistan once the United States and NATO leave.
On the other hand, it is both bizarre and funny when the United States is ceaselessly rewarding Pakistan with more than $2 billion each year. This money is part of Kerry-Lugar bill that the U.S. gives Pakistan in return for the latter's assumed fight against terrorism. If this sickening policy remains unchanged after the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, the West has to brace itself for a grand strategic defeat in Afghanistan and the region.
Q: How do you view the Taliban and ISI bond and its future?
A: I think the opening of the Taliban's political office in July 2013 in Qatar was a political milestone. Taliban celebrated this as their great victory, but it was the beginning of their isolation among the Afghan people and international community. They raced to Qatar with genuine Pakistani passports and a heavy Pakistani accents. Pakistan officially claimed to be the doorkeeper of the Taliban and also took credit for prodding the Taliban for negotiation. The Afghans sees ISI and Pakistani military as their greatest enemies and anyone who work with them as the ugliest traitors. I believe, the Taliban can get nothing from the ISI and they will be sold as cattle if ISI and Pakistani generals think they are no more needed as proxy.
Dr Ehsan Azari Stanizai is an Adjunct Fellow with Writing & Society Research Centre, University of Western Sydney.