The elusive victory in Afghanistan

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 March, 2004, 12:00am

Sunday's murder of a prominent Afghan minister only days after US Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit highlighted Afghanistan's importance in the American political agenda and warns of the difficulty of pacifying a turbulent country. But with many claiming to discern arch-terrorist Osama bin Laden's bloody fingerprints in the Madrid outrage and with Iraq continuing to explode, President George W. Bush badly needs a victory to place before voters in November.

Afghanistan could be the clincher if intensive American and Pakistani operations succeed in capturing bin Laden's high-profile deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. But it could also be 'a running sore', as Spain was for Napoleon. 'The US is in this for the long haul,' Mr Powell assured a relieved Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose shaky regime needs the 14,000 American troops and 6,000 international peacekeepers. '[You] don't have to hope we will be here. We will be here.'

But can the US stay for ever in an Asian country without raising nationalist hackles? The lessons of Vietnam, the Philippines and Iran warn otherwise.

Although a new constitution commits Afghanistan to holding presidential and legislative elections in June, the enormous physical and psychological difficulties in the way should not be underestimated. Afghanistan has not recovered from decades of war, culminating in the devastation of Operation Enduring Freedom. Nor can it be easy to graft the totems of western-style parliamentary democracy on a feudal society without parties, planks or candidates.

Resurgent Taleban units control parts of the south and east. Elsewhere, tribal warlords defy the government's writ. Narcotics production is flourishing as before, and only 1.4 million out of 10.5 million voters have been registered. With more than 100 people killed since January, the United Nations voter registration drive pleads that its job is too dangerous. Even UN representative Lakhdar Brahmini warned: 'There is no rule of law.' It is taking time to disarm 100,000 militia.

A meeting of donor nations, scheduled for later this month in Berlin, may tackle one aspect of the problem. The US has given US$2 billion, and Mr Powell pledged another US$1 billion. But donors are reluctant to commit US$30 billion for 15 years, as Mr Karzai wants.

Of course, things have improved since two years ago when, as Mr Powell recalled, money had to be moved in wheelbarrows. An army and police are being created. Three million refugees have returned from Iran and Pakistan, and construction activity speaks of confidence flowing back. But critics are probably only biding their time.

Important non-Taleban Islamic leaders oppose the constitution's liberal provisions recognising equality of the sexes and freedom of worship even for non-Muslims. The Loya Jirga (Grand Council), which approved of the constitution and of Mr Karzai's elevation, was carefully handpicked. Its predetermined outcome became clear when the Americans persuaded the aged ex-king Zahir Shah to announce in advance that he was not in the running. During his 40 years on the throne, the monarch made himself unpopular with the US and Pakistan with his strictly non-aligned stance and rejection of military alliances.

Like the ex-king, the Northern Alliance, which fought the Taleban, was also more pro-Afghan than pro-western. The demographic justification for its marginalisation is that it represents smaller tribal groups and not the Pashtuns, who comprise 40 per cent of the population.

In spite of these precautions, the constitution makers had to drop the clause for a prime minister, lest this create a rival centre of power. Mr Karzai's office had to be made inviolable. He is a good man, moderate, astute and stylish, drawn from the Pashtun tribe and a clansman of the former king's. But there is little guarantee that the dispensation over which he presides will survive the Americans, which may have been why Mr Powell repeatedly vowed that they were there to stay.

India's leaders were far less sympathetic to US aims during the cold war than Pakistan's. It was precisely for that reason that allied Pakistan - not non-aligned India - witnessed regular attacks on US missions and personnel. The new accolade of 'major non-Nato ally' that Mr Powell has bestowed on Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf can only make him more enemies at home. Next door, Mr Karzai should watch the outcome of the US presidential poll even more anxiously.

Sunanda Kisor Datta-Ray is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. The views expressed in this article are those of the author