Afghan Anarchy Fears

If Afghan parties, meeting next week for talks about the future of their country, fail to achieve a speedy political settlement there could be a return to the anarchy of the early Nineties.

Afghan Anarchy Fears

If Afghan parties, meeting next week for talks about the future of their country, fail to achieve a speedy political settlement there could be a return to the anarchy of the early Nineties.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

For the majority of Kabulis life returned to normal the day after Northern Alliance troops moved into the city last Tuesday - although, of course, some things have changed.

Music is legal again; the length of a man's beard is once more his own business and not subject to government decree; women may go back to work; and, when the new school term begins, girls will return to the classroom.

But, apart from these changes, it will take a lot more than the defeat of the Taleban to drag this country into the modern world and to end its 22 years of war.

Above all, the country needs one representative government, peace and security.

For the moment, the war is not over. Northern Alliance forces have taken over most non-Pashtun areas of the country. Kunduz remains under Taleban control but negotiations are taking place for its surrender.

The stumbling block remains the fate of the unknown number of Arab and other foreign fighters who might not expect mercy from the Northern Alliance nor from their own governments if caught and deported.

Many of them were left behind as the Taleban retreated and cannot, unlike the Afghan Taleban, simply melt away. How many there are and how serious a threat they pose is unclear.

The corpses of two of these foreign fighters, stoned to death by locals on the road from Kabul to Bagram at the end of last week, shows that at least some of them remain.

A far more long-term problem is that of the Pashtun-dominated south.

Although there have been reports that Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taleban, was prepared to surrender his stronghold, Kandahar, it has still not changed hands. So far there are no reliable reports on the situation inside and outside the town.

Despite Mullah Omar's clear reluctance to give up the struggle, few predict that he will be able to hold out for long.

The main question, then, is what will follow the Taleban in the Pashtun south. While several towns and provinces have passed peacefully into the hands of Pashtun tribal elders, there have been worrying developments in other places.

For example, the city of Jalalabad was taken over by Haji Qadir, its pre-Taleban governor, a man who is formally part of the Northern Alliance - and the brother of Abdul Haq, the Pashtun leader who was killed by the former Kabul regime after he infiltrated into Afghanistan to foment rebellion soon after the US bombing of the country began on October 7.

But ten armed groups are now vying for control of the rest of the region and there are fears that the anarchy that plagued the country between 1992-96 may return.

Already, bandits have now emerged along the roads to and from Jalalabad. They are robbing journalists and on Monday they murdered four of them together with their Afghan translator.

Following the deaths of the reporters, General Ahmad Fahim, the Northern Alliance military chief, is believed to have dispatched troops to deal with the problem. But the bandits are operating in territory controlled by Pashtuns who may not welcome Fahim's ethnic Tajik soldiers.

At the same time, Kabul's electricity supply, which originates from this same area was cut off for 24 hours. This fuelled speculation that the same people who killed the journalists were now sending a threatening message to Kabul itself.

It is of course in a bid to prevent just such a return to anarchy that the UN has now convened a conference of four of the major Afghan parties. The meeting was announced in Kabul by UN special envoy Francesc Vendrell on Tuesday evening. It is due to open in Germany next Monday. The exact location of the meeting has not yet been announced.

Attending the talks will be the Northern Alliance and its various components; delegates representing Zahir Shah, the former monarch, a Pashtun who lives in Rome; and two other major, Pashtun-dominated groups.

Vendrell hopes the talks will end by December 7. The idea behind the meeting is that it should lead to the formation of a council, which, in turn, will propose people to run a transitional administration. Once this is in place, an emergency Loya Jirga, or National Council, will be called to authorise the preparation of a new constitution.

Once a new constitution has been drafted, a second Loya Jirga will be called to approve a formal government which will eventually call elections. It is envisaged that this process should take some two years.

It is also possible that the process will be backed by the deployment of a UN-mandated multi-national force, which could ensure that roads are kept open for humanitarian deliveries and indeed all other traffic.

For the moment, though, this remains within the realm of speculation, despite the fact that the UK for one has 6,000 troops on 48-hour stand-by for Afghanistan - but without anyone knowing what these troops would actually do if deployed.

With the Taleban not yet fully defeated, it is too early to predict whether the UN conference has any chance of success, but Afghans, tired by 22 years of war, are certainly pinning their hopes on it. They also hope that unlike after the mujahedin takeover in 1992, the Western powers will not abandon the country.

"Inshallah (God Willing) we will have peace!" said Ruhollah, a 27-year-old hotel receptionist.

Shah Mohammed, Afghanistan's leading publisher, was a little more sceptical. "People are very hopeful," he said, "but the US, the UN, Britain and the others must do something. They should decide who should be the government and then support it. If they just let them talk this conference will be worse than useless."

Asked whether he believed that Afghans would support a UN-mandated multi-national force or oppose it as a foreign occupier, he replied, "People would welcome those forces. They are just fed up with those warlords who have destroyed this country."

Tim Judah, author of Kosovo: War and Revenge (Yale University Press), is a regular IWPR contributor.

Kosovo, Afghanistan
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