Afghanistan is lurching towards a civil war

Shashank Joshi writes:

If Nato’s strategy in Afghanistan seems familiar, that may be because it increasingly seems borrowed from the Black Knight of Monty Python fame, who, after losing both arms, insists that “it’s just a flesh wound”.

When Afghan insurgents laid waste to government buildings in Kabul last week, the US ambassador explained, perhaps in case we’d misunderstood the 24-hour siege, that “this really is not a very big deal”. A day earlier he’d lamented that “the biggest problem in Kabul is traffic”. Apparently not.

A week on, someone has blown up Afghanistan’s former president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, in the heart of the capital. This is a big deal. It shatters the idea that our enemies are on the ropes, and pushes the country closer to civil war.

Rabbani chaired the High Peace Council, a body tasked with bringing senior Taliban figures in from the cold, but he was always a strange choice as peacemaker. He was a blood-soaked Tajik warlord, who, alongside Afghanistan’s other minorities, had spent the 1990s battling the mostly Pashtun Taliban in a brutal civil war. Rabbani eventually led this Northern Alliance to victory in 2001, helped along by the US Air Force and CIA paramilitaries on horseback. Rabbani’s allies formed a political party, the United National Front, and were given plum ministerial positions.

Years later, with an insurgency raging, Hamid Karzai toyed with the idea of reconciling with the Taliban, perhaps even sharing power. When the US announced that its soldiers would leave by 2014, this became more urgent. Between 2006 and 2010, 80 per cent of the Afghan government’s total spending came from outside. Its choice was simple: reconcile, or die a slow but sure death.

But not everyone saw it like this. The northerners grew frightened. Some had grown fat on Western money in government, while others simply detested the Taliban for the same reasons we do. Last summer, Karzai sacked his anti-Taliban spy chief Amrullah Saleh to ease the way for talks. Saleh railed against this, insisting that “there must not be a deal with the Taliban. Ever”. Along with other veterans from the Panjshir Valley in northern Afghanistan, he’s emerged as a political force against reconciliation, drawing crowds of thousands with his denunciations of the Taliban as Pakistani stooges.

Rabbani’s assassination is so dangerous precisely because it sharpens these fears of minority communities. The northern forces never disarmed, and they’ve probably begun rebuilding their strength to prepare for the worst-case scenario. They would find willing sponsors. In the 1990s, Russia, Iran and India chipped in. Today, a richer and more ambitious India would hit back at the rise of Pakistani influence in Afghanistan that would result from any Taliban takeover. Delhi already sends billions of dollars, and probably sees Saleh and his allies as guarantors of Indian interests.

In short, a civil war is a distinct possibility. It would further destabilise Pakistan’s fragile borderlands, and extinguish all hope of nation-building in Afghanistan. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the US ambassador would prefer to focus on the Kabul traffic rather than intractable ethnic politics.

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