Part 4: Return of the royalists
MIRANSHAH, North Waziristan – Over the past several decades of Afghanistan’s tumultuous history, the country’s warlords have operated under a simple maxim: today’s enemy can be tomorrow’s friend.
This was particularly true in the power vacuum created following the withdrawal of Soviet troops after their decade-long occupation in 1989. Ever-shifting alliances between mujahideen commanders and warlords of all political persuasions brought Afghanistan to a state of bloody anarchy, a situation the Taliban exploited to their full advantage by seizing power in 1996.
When the Taliban in turn threw in the towel in the face of the US-led invasion in late 2001, once again a political vacuum was created. Seemingly unmindful of the lessons of history, the US turned to these same fractious warlords to help shore up the administration of Hamid Karzai that it had placed in Kabul.
True to form, the warlords resorted to their old tricks, building up their spheres of influence in pockets across the country, and at the expense of the central government’s writ in the countryside, and in many cases at the expense of the US occupation: some openly now support the resistance.
The US has thus been forced to rethink its strategy, and came up with the idea of creating a force it could use to counter the recalcitrant warlords. This it is doing by rebuilding the shattered network of old royalists.
Zahir Shah’s rule as monarch ended in 1973 after 40 years on the throne. He was deposed in a coup by his brother-in-law Mohammad Daud Khan, who proclaimed Afghanistan a republic with himself as president.
Now, Hamid Karzai – he is from the Popolzai clan, the Pashtun tribe to which the royal family belongs – and Khalid Pashtun in Kandahar are high-profile manifestations of the royalist trend. Yet these are token rulers, and the real power is still in the hands of former jihadi commanders.
Nevertheless, with many new US bases under construction across southern Afghanistan, Washington seems obsessed with installing ideologically and politically pro-Western elements, a very rare breed in today’s Afghanistan. The plan is to increase the US presence in troubled regions, and then extend maximum support to these pro-Westerners, who essentially only exist in the shape of the royalists.
The Taliban, meanwhile, are looking to forge alliances and partnerships with those warlords who are no longer prepared to dance to the US tune.
Warlords at war
Afghanistan has been the playing field of jihadi warlords since the Soviet invasion of 1979. To put them under a single coherent strategy, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) grouped them in 29 organizations, which was later reduced to six, and then all six merged into one alliance.
When the Soviet-sponsored communist regime in Kabul fell to the mujahideen in the early 1990s, there was a feeding frenzy between power-hungry commanders. The ISI, using US-supplied money, tried to influence events, but all that happened was Afghanistan became hopelessly divided in warlord fiefdoms. They fought each other purely to further their own ambitions and vested interests, to which ideological and religious beliefs came secondary.
Thus the Hezb-i-Islami (HIA) led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (who is still active in the resistance) was locked into a fight with Ahmed Shah Masoud’s Jamiat-i-Islami (JIA) . Hekmatyar had an alliance with the Hezb-i-Wahdat (a Shi’ite sect) , but Masoud’s forces eliminated the Shi’ite militia in Kabul.
In the meantime, the Taliban movement emerged from Zabul, and reached the HIA’s stronghold in Kandahar in the south. On the instructions of Masoud, the JIA commander there, Mullah Naqeebullah, helped the Taliban against the HIA, which was forced to hand over the city to the Taliban. Then the JIA+Taliban alliance fought the warlords belonging to the HIA and other parties in the south and southeast until it reached Kabul. From there they issued a religious ruling against all heads of warring factions, including the JIA, as they were blamed for the country’s bloodletting.
This laid the foundations for a union of nearly all warlords. Hekmatyar’s HIA and Masoud’s JIA joined hands, along with Professor Abdul Rasool Sayyaf’s Ittahad-i-Islami and many other former jihadi organizations to fight the Taliban. But they were soon defeated and the Taliban took over in 1996.
During the Taliban regime, warlordism was completely suppressed in Afghanistan, and most of the famous leaders went into exile in places such as Iran, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.
September 11 changed all this. As the US’s bombers began their business in Afghanistan in retaliation for the Taliban harboring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, apart from Hekmatyar, the warlords began returning to place themselves at the service of the new invaders of their country.
The result is that today many federal cabinet positions are held by former jihadi commanders or hardline Islamic zealots. Many local administrations of provinces and districts are in the hands of commanders associated with the HIA. Afghanistan’s loya jirga (grand council of elders) is dominated by HIA members, at 25 percent of the total representation.
On the one hand the US reasoning cannot be faulted. Who better to replace the Taliban than their former arch enemies? Unfortunately, the US overlooked the warlords’ dictum: today’s enemy can be tomorrow’s friend.
Royalists to the rescue?
So having been let down by the warlords, the royalists are now being given a run. The US is pushing people loyal to former monarch Zahir Shah in the regions around Herat, Kandahar and Khost. But in Kandahar, the former stronghold of the Taliban, major arm wrestling is under way between former HIA commanders and royalist forces supported by the US, apart from Taliban attacks on pro-government and US targets. In Herat, several royalists have been hanged following the murder of governor Ismail Khan’s son, and a major tug-of-war is going on between royalists and former jihadi commanders.
Badshah Khan Zadran, a former truck driver, was installed as governor of Khost, Gardez and Paktia when the Taliban retreated. However, a loya jirga for these provinces dominated by jihadi commanders refused to accept the appointment of a “royalist” and Badshah Khan was kicked out by the local warlords.
Hakim Taniwal, an anthropology professor at Kabul University before going into exile two decades ago, was then installed as governor. However, he was unable to curb growing insurgency and the US is once again promoting Badshah Khan to replace him (in the absence of anyone else sufficiently pro-Western, it would appear).
Badshah Khan retains a mansion near Miranshah, equipped with all the luxuries of life, including the latest DVDs, VCRs, air-conditioners, double-cabin jeeps, and a huge stockpile of ammunition.
Badshah Khan’s son informed him by satellite telephone that Asia Times Online would like an interview, at 9pm. Right at 9pm, Badshah Khan called back.
Asia Times Online: The governor of Khost has been removed. You are once again being considered to fill the vacuum.
Badshah Khan: I am not interested in being governor of Khost. I want to be the governor of all three neighboring provinces – Khost, Gardez and Paktia. Since Kabul has not agreed to this proposal, I have put forward the name of my brother, and a committee has chosen him, Amanullah Khan Zadran, as governor of Khost. I aim to contest in the next elections, and then nobody can stop me from becoming governor of all three provinces.
ATol: Since your brother and your forces will be in power in Khost, which is the main playing field of the Taliban, will your forces be able to contain them?
Badshah Khan: I have mass support. I do not want to speak about the Taliban. I would say that if they want to be in power, they should take part in elections. If they do not want to, it’s up to them, but we will not allow them to destabilize Khost. I do not see any future for the Taliban.
ATol: You sound very optimistic about the next elections [due in September] , but so far there has been minimal registration of voters in south and eastern Afghanistan.
Badshah Khan: That’s true. Because of the poor law and order situation, work for the registration of voters has been delayed, but now fresh committees represented by local influentials have been established and I hope this task will be achieved well before the elections.
ATol: What future do you foresee for the forces loyal to former king Zahir Shah.
Badshah Khan: The king has returned to Afghanistan, and the elections will determine who keeps the real strength.