Arena: Afghanistan – the missed opportunity

Lucy Morgan Edwards

Credit: U.S. Army photo / Sgt. Russell Gilchrest CC BY 2.00

Despite enormous resources spent on the Afghan war over the past decade and the loss of life on all sides, the outlook for the USA and NATO is nothing less than a major strate­gic failure. The US decision to scale back joint operations with na­tional forces in response to the spate of attacks by Afghan soldiers on their foreign mentors has been yet another sign of this failure.

In essence, mistakes that were made in 2001 have been compound­ed over the past decade in the Afghan war. The theoretical handover to Afghan forces of security for the Kabul government is due in 2014 but, with the government facing a severe crisis of legitimacy, this so-called ‘transition’ is discredited. It is seen by many Afghans as the West’s way of trying to prop up the increasingly unpopular regime (effectively, a government of unindicted strongmen) that was hastily installed after 9/11. The performance of the government of President Hamid Karzai has been lamentable, and the state exhibits a crisis of impunity in terms of clientelism and corruption.

The current political challenges stem from the fact that in 2001 the West effectively intervened in an ongoing civil war in Afghanistan, backing one side, the (mostly Tajik) Northern Alliance, against the (mostly Pashtun) Taliban. Since then, there has been little attempt by the West to heal the fissures resulting from the wrong-headed policy and military strategy adopted in 2001-02. Crucially, Pashtuns, who comprise the largest ethnic group, were effectively cut out of the po­litical settlement that followed the fall of Kabul, and since 2001 have found themselves (despite having the Pashtun figurehead of Hamid Karzai) as effectively associated with the Taliban. This has been a huge strategic mistake since it is the Pashtuns who need to be brought ‘on side’ rather than alienated.

I worked in Afghanistan both pre- and post-9/11 and was involved, during the first five years of the war, in various jobs that gave me direct experience of the post-9/11 intervention. It soon became obvious that the West was ignoring the issue of Afghan political legitimacy, and my particular interest became the West’s failure to recognise and support an Afghan initiative to overthrow the Taliban. This became the basis of an investigation that resulted in my book, The Afghan Solution: The Inside Story of Abdul Haq, the CIA and How Western Hubris Lost Afghanistan.

The Afghan solution in 2001 was based not on a Western military intervention but on an internal implosion of the Taliban and the re-establishment of an alternative regime that would likely have had a great deal more legitimacy than Karzai’s foreign-backed government. The commander who was to have brought this about was Abdul Haq, who was well known to Washington insiders during the 1980s for his very effective operations against the communist regime in Kabul.

Though from a historic family of Ghilzai Pashtuns (who were tradi­tionally in competition with the Durrani Pashtuns of Kandahar), Haq understood the necessity of bringing back the ex-king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, as a rallying point for the various tribal, ethnic and fac­tional groups. The former monarch would have been a symbolic unifying figurehead in providing an alternative to the Taliban, especially in the inherently conservative and somewhat trouble­some Pashtun belt.

During the late 1990s, Haq was working for an alternative to the Taliban regime, because it had already alienated many Af­ghans. He understood that the Taliban movement was stratified, the extremist element being like a thin layer on the top but with most of the movement made up of Afghan moderates who had initially seen the Taliban as a stabilising force following years of inter-factional fighting. Many of these men were command­ers whom Haq himself had fought with in the 1980s against the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul.

By 2001, Haq had engaged men from across the country. Some were corps commanders, others provided the bodyguard to the Taliban’s spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, or were even Taliban ministers. The trust that Haq established potentially included the Haqqani network in greater Paktia and across the border in North Waziristan. Haq had been trained in guerrilla warfare by the net­work’s leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani, during the early 1980s. Today, the Haqqani network is one of the most significant problems for NATO in Afghanistan, particularly given its ability to act across the border and with its safe havens in Pakistan. Despite its his­toric relationship with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and with al-Qaeda, the network has traditionally been in favour of the Afghan monarchy as well as motivated by the desire to re­move ‘invading infidels’ from Afghanistan. If anyone was going to bring the Haqqani network ‘in from the cold’ and into a new, post-Taliban order, it was Haq.

By July 2001, Haq’s plan was supported by the key commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, whom Haq had met in Dushanbe in July 2001. Even Massoud foresaw the necessity of the return of Zahir Shah as a figurehead and had agreed to work with him. Both Mas­soud and Haq were ultimately assassinated, in September and late October 2001 respectively. By this time, with the NATO bombing campaign already begun, the window of opportunity for the plan was closing rapidly.

In October 2001, Haq went to eastern Afghanistan with a small group and, soon after meeting some elders in Tezeem, was cap­tured by a group of Taliban of non-Afghan appearance, most likely Arab or Pakistani. He was then taken to Kabul where the extremist Taliban interior minister – Mullah Razzaq – killed him. Later, when asked why they had murdered him so fast, the deputy Taliban interior minister, Mullah Khaksar, told me it was because “everyone bought into his plan, even in Gardēz, Ghazni, Jalala­bad and Kandahar”. He added that if they had put him in jail “he would have begun a revolution”.

Both Haq’s plan and Afghanistan itself were let down by the prevalence of Western myths and ignorance about the country and by the determination to fashion a nation state out of – what re­mains essentially – a tribal society. After 9/11, the warlords could have been sidelined and Haq’s plan involving more genuine Af­ghan local leadership allowed to fly. The decision not to subject many notorious characters to a process of accountability for the gross human rights violations many had committed in the civil war era of 1992-96 has meant Karzai has had to constantly horse-trade with them to maintain their loyalty. This has also involved sharing in the spoils of the state, including much of the interna­tional aid money.

About the author:

Lucy Morgan Edwards is former political advisor to the EU ambassador to Kabul and author of The Afghan Solution


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