by Dr. Godfrey Garner
Throughout the year 2013, America’s footprint in Afghanistan will continue to shrink until it is no more than a slight disturbance of the accumulated dust of generations of foreign occupation. America will become another footnote in the annals of countries that were arrogant enough to think that they, by virtue of their might, their money or their democratic lifestyle could change the country and its people.
The only question remaining and it is a question that has surely been pondered by all the occupying nations that preceded America is, “what happens now?”
Afghanistan is an old country populated by an old people as rich and as diversified as any country in the world. It is a country that has survived much and in doing so has drawn on ancient wisdom, the strength of its people and pure will. One would think a simple perusal of the historic record of the country would provide an indication as to how it will reshape itself in a post-America environment, but this would be much too simplistic. The only thing strategists can do is consider the ‘known’ and factor this in to predictions.
We know for instance that Afghanistan will lose approximately 80% of its present budget as America and many of its allies reduce their foreign aid contributions. We can calculate the number of jobs provided to the local populace by virtue of an American presence that will cease to exist. We can calculate the amount of rent payment America and its allies have paid to Afghan landlords for the past ten years that will cease. And though this is debatable, we can assume that a corrupt government will be unable to fill a void in people’s lives, left by the absence of some semblance of control resulting from a physical American presence.
An American hope all along was that when we left, Karzai’s government would have evolved and stabilized to the point that it instilled faith and confidence in the Afghan people. Another debatable point, but conversations with Afghan citizens from all walks of life will add weight to the assumption that nothing could be further from the truth. The level of corruption in government and theft of Afghanistan’s assets is perceived by the populace to have become uncontrollable and this perception has virtually ruled out in the minds of these same people any concept of a stable democratic government.
The desire for stability however is just as strong in the hearts of the typical non-combative Afghan as it is in the heart of any American. I say non-combative because stability is least desired by those who seek to gain power in this country. The Taliban has for years done all in its power to create chaos and to destroy any semblance of stability, for such stability is exactly what they offer to a post-American coalition-occupied Afghan people. The stability they offer however comes with a price. Such stability under Taliban rule will be governed by sharia law but it is, in the mind of the typical Afghan worker, just that; stability; A stability that is so heartily sought by the people and much of the poorer population that they are willing to pay the price.
American withdrawal will most assuredly create a void. Most analysts and many Afghan military commanders fear that this void will not be filled by the Afghan government, “I was surprised with this number and I didn’t expect that 34,000 U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan,” former army Gen. Amrullah Aman, adding that he thinks the Afghan army is too weak to defend the country, “They don’t have the equipment and there is no Air Force.” Military analyst Abdul Hadi Khalid, a former deputy interior minister adds, “America decided to come to Afghanistan, they decided to stay in Afghanistan, and now they are about to make the other decision to leave Afghanistan. Unfortunately, they are leaving us with too many challenges.”
This sentiment is additionally shared by far too many Afghan citizens; Mohammad Nahim, a 45-year-old Kabul restaurant owner, recalled the civil war that followed in the years after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, and said he was worried history would be repeated. “If all the troops leave, the future of the country is dark. I don’t believe Afghan forces can keep security.… There is still too much fighting in the provinces.” If these fears are well founded, and the Afghan Government is not up to the task of governing and providing simple security for its people, the question for America and its allies thus becomes; who will fill this void.
To determine this, as much as it pains some to admit it, the country must be viewed regionally. What works in the north and what has occurred in the north will not work nor will it occur in the south. The people of Northern Afghanistan much like the people of different regions of any country are comfortable with a lifestyle and a type of stability that may not work in the south.
Following the defeat of the Taliban and Taliban withdrawal from the north in the early part of this decade, three major power groups emerged, led by three individuals who were each very appealing to their perspective powerbases. This appeal resulted in fairly intense loyalty to each of these leaders and a stalemate as to who was, ‘king of the hill’.
General Rashid Dostum, leader of the Junbish-i-Milli Islami and considered by most the leader of Afghanistan’s Uzbek community was in 2002 the most powerful of the three. He and his militia, which was nothing short of a small army, had been successful in seizing most of the weapons and munitions left by a retreating Soviet Army. A political party by definition, its military wing numbered approximately 40,000 in the late 80s.
The Jamiat-e Islami party led by Atta Mohammed Noor was not quite as strong and well equipped as Dostum’s Junbish militia, and as a result was often dominated militarily and politically by the stronger Dostum. Atta was a deputy of Dostum in 92 and part of his Junbish party but ideological differences emerged in 93 and Atta left the party and formed the Jamiat party and militia.
An ethnic Tajik, Atta was a high school teacher before the Soviet invasion. When the Taliban took power in late 1996, Atta Noor served as a commander in the Northern Alliance under Ahmad Shah Massoud. He led operations in the Balkh area.
In the early part of 2000 Dostum and Atta fought bitterly over Balkh Province, the most populated area in Northern Afghanistan. Under international pressure they came to a power sharing agreement which left Atta controlling Mazar-e Shariff and most of Balkh Province while Dostum reigned over the rest of the north.
While this fight for power between Dostum and Atta ensued, another militia group began to gain strength. The Hezb-e Wahdat, a Hazara political party led by Mohammad Mohaqiq, never attained quite the strength of the Junbish and Jamiat, but had a formidable army in any case.
Dostum was encouraged to join Karzai’s government in the early part of 2000 in order to give Karzai some control over the north. This on again off again relationship with Karzai has been tenuous. Though Dostum is presently part of the Afghan government his position in defense is seen by most as being purely window dressing with very little power attached. Atta was appointed Governor of Balkh Province in 2004 and has since proceeded to cement his powerbase in the north. Mohaqiq was appointed and later ousted by Karzai from a position of Minister of Planning. He is currently a Member of Parliament.
It is unclear exactly how much weaponry was turned over to the Afghan government by these three leaders during the disarmament period, but most experts, including General Abdul Manan Abed, head of Disbandment of Illegal Arms Group, (DIAG) and Representative of The Ministry of Defense in Afghanistan, agree that all three groups are still well armed; “We have seized 7000 weapons but we have not been able to find the real weapons caches of the Northern Alliance Commanders”. As additionally stated by General Frank Leidenberger Commander Regional Command North, (RC-N) 2010-2011, “DIAG spent over 100 million dollars since 2005 and have recovered less than 50,000 pieces of armament,” and Col Abdullah Khan, military expert in north Afghanistan, “There are still more than 100,000 pieces of weaponry unaccounted for, between Dostum and Atta.”
One thing that unites these three leaders in the north is their hatred for the Taliban and their fear of Taliban reintegration and any potential regaining of power by the Taliban in the north. To this end in late 2011, Ahmad Zia Massoud, brother of the former United Front leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was assassinated in 2001, along with Mohaqiq and Dostum created the National Front of Afghanistan. Generally regarded as a reformation of the Northern Alliance, it is widely seen as a political alliance against potential Taliban control in the north. The National Front strongly opposes a return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan and retains significant military capabilities through its former Junbish and Hezb-e Wahdat militia arms.
These three former strongmen of the north have a history of forming alliances with each other when the need arises. In spite of this, one would be foolish to view them as allies. One would also be foolish to discount their power based upon their age. An old Afghan maxim, “Even the lion is old, people still fear him,” applies well here.
Rashid Dostum has long been viewed by the Afghan people in the north as a hard drinking womanizer and fairly brutal though effective military leader. Since an American withdrawal timeline has been set, he has made attempts to change his image and become a more palatable leader in the eyes of the Islamic community. He has suffered health problems in the recent past. He recently journeyed to Germany for eye surgery. In spite of this, his frequent appearances around the north have demonstrated he has lost little of his leadership ability and loyalty among a large segment of the population. Atta has at the same time attempted to form alliances with more and more powerful individuals in the north and, as stated earlier, Mohaqiq has thrown his Hazara political support behind the new National Front party.
A safe bet and a sensible prediction is that positioning is well under way for the advent of another civil war following coalition withdrawal. The only thing that could stop it is a stable non-corrupt Afghan Government. Complicating this is the fact that many of the armed Afghan militia forces in the north have alliances to one of these leaders. The fear that they will abandon their government service and along with their government issued armament rejoin their former units is very real. The Afghan government hasn’t always been dependable when it comes to paying their forces and one thing all these former militias did was make sure their men were well taken care of.
Another consideration for America and any interest we would have in the north after withdrawal is the character of these three political/militia leaders and their relationship with America or Americans in general. Dostum has a long positive relationship with Americans, especially American Special Forces. He formed an early close friendship with the Special Forces soldiers who fought with him in the early stages of the war in the north. General Dostum speaks and understands English though he doesn’t normally do so openly. He is very open in conversation about matters that are often considered classified by other militia leaders, but has no qualms about lying.
Atta on the other hand has a disdain for Americans and doesn’t mind showing it. He understands the importance of American support but normally doesn’t enjoy socializing with American leaders, and is quick to publicly criticize America and as is common with many Afghan politicians, will blame America for most of the corruption in Afghanistan. Following disarmament and Dostum’s alliance with the Karzai government, Atta gained political and military strength and many in Afghanistan see him and his Jamiat party as stronger than Dostum. Atta would prefer to see a northern Afghanistan completely free of American influence.
Of the three, Mohaqiq is the most responsible in terms of doing that which is best for the country. He is a strong advocate for Afghans and particularly Afghan Hazaras. In conversation he rarely focuses on himself, preferring instead to advocate for the people. Mohaqiq is honest and positive insofar as Afghan’s future. He is practical insofar as Afghanistan’s relationship with America and he has a true respect for the things America has done to support his country. He is quick to publicly condemn the level of corruption in Afghan government. Though his Hazara ethnicity would probably preclude any more powerful leadership in government, Mohaqiq would have a truly positive impact on the country should he be given the opportunity.
In spite of fears on the part of National Front leaders of Taliban resurgence in the north, at this point, diplomats from eight coalition nations, including the United States are pressuring President Karzai to negotiate with Taliban leadership and presumably give them official recognition as a legitimate party. To be sure Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Omar will settle for no less assuming he does entertain thoughts of peace. Karzai himself to the chagrin of many in Afghan government, in his “Peace Process Roadmap to 2015”, indicated that some of the most important government positions would be open to the Taliban should a peace deal be struck. He met in mid-January 2013 with President Obama and committed to have his aids initiate preliminary contact with Taliban leaders as a precursor for talks.
What we decide to do about all this is fodder for another discussion but driving our heads deeply into the sand and pretending that Afghanistan, at least in the north, is not heading for another period of violent civil struggle following our withdrawal, is nothing short of ludicrous. As previously mentioned, leaders in the north including Dostum and Mohaqqiq have a history of forming alliances to fight a common enemy, and the Taliban are the most feared enemy of these men. The civil war feared by all implies a struggle for leadership in the north once such an alliance is no longer needed.
Though many in the north prefer peace, most to one degree or another, are preparing themselves for the possibility of a civil war after 2014, stockpiling weapons and ammunition. If history and current politics are any indication, leaders in the north will not accept an officially recognized Taliban presence on any level. “The Taliban’s views are not civilized views, and until they change their thinking it’s difficult to have hopes,” said Mohammed Mohaqeq.
Armed with at least a potential or partial answer to the question “what happens now?” maybe we can be prepared to respond appropriately this time.