Why peace eludes Afghanistan - By Amir Zia - Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=33706&Cat=9

There is a semblance of normalcy in the Afghan capital of Kabul. The battered roads now remain choked with traffic most parts of the day, with glitzy four-wheel drives and cars, while new multi-storey buildings, bill-boards and shopping centres are among the new facets of this conflict-prone city. The head-to-toe veils and long beards of the Taliban era are hardly noticeable in Kabul’s downtown. Many men dress in Western clothes and women can venture out of their homes barefaced without the fear of being flogged. Music and musicians, banished by the former Taliban rulers, are also back with a bang and FM radio stations rule the waves. More than 20 television channels fiercely compete for viewers’ attention. And, yes, glimpses of NATO troops, foreign aid workers and diplomats also remain common in the city, where the local Afghan security personnel appear in charge and huge portraits and billboards of the slain Tajik guerrilla commander Ahmed Shah Masood stare at passers-by at important junctions and roads.

My three-day visit to Kabul this cold, wet and snowy February for a media conference came after 10 long years and contrasts of then and now proved striking. Despite occasional terrorist attacks, which rock the Afghan capital at least twice or thrice every month, life and businesses mostly appear as usual these days. But this visibly carefree attitude should not come as a surprise. The resilient residents of Kabul have seen worse days during their country’s protracted conflict spanning over more than three decades. They can smile and play perfect hosts even during a barrage of artillery fire and these are peaceful times according to their standards. However, to achieve this semblance of normalcy, they have paid a heavy price through their blood and tears. And yet their worries remain far from over.

You scratch the surface a little and the fragility of Kabul’s glasshouse stands exposed, where not just peace but even the infrastructure largely os in a shambles despite the engagement of world powers in its affairs since late 2001. The tenacious Taliban insurgents and their Al-Qaeda allies, hovering within and around this city, remain the key. President Hamid Karzai’s house of cards stands discredited even in Afghanistan’s seat of power, let alone the Pakhtun-dominated regions serving as the hotbed of the armed resistance.

The Karzai administration remains tainted with allegations of massive corruption and nepotism. Even some of the senior non-Pakhtun Afghan journalists admit that the situation remains grim. “The whole government system is rotten with corruption,” said a veteran Afghan journalist. “Now one cannot travel out of the city safely because of lawlessness and crime. No road going out of Kabul stands safe.”

While the sense of insecurity has increased in post-Taliban Afghanistan, with the rampant kidnappings and broad-daylight lootings on highways, the top Afghan officials are often being accused of multimillion-dollar corruption scams. The Karzai government seems unable to rub away this impression.

Almost 10 years after the ousting of the Taliban from Kabul by the US-led forces, the present political setup continues to bank solely on foreign money, muscle and compassion for its survival. Its chances of standing without foreign crutches appear bleak even in the long run. With little organised economic and business activity in the country, the Afghan government could raise only one billion dollars in 2010 from its own resources. The remaining amount of more than 5.5 billion dollars had to come from the United States and its allies, both for civilian and security needs of the Afghan budget. Given the weariness of the NATO countries locked in this decade-long conflict and Washington’s plans to end combat missions here by 2014, the current setup is in a race against time to prove wrong those prophets of doom and gloom who want to write in advance its obituary.

But the trouble is that there are no easy, readymade solutions to the complex Afghan crisis. It is not a simple “them vs us” divide. Afghanistan stands deeply polarised and divided—horizontally and vertically. The Taliban insurgency underlines not just the ideological divide between the modern and fundamentalist forces. It basically remains ethnic in nature with the majority of Pakhtuns having a perception that despite being more than 60 per cent of the total population, they remain denied of their fair share in Afghanistan’s power structure, which they say remain lopsided in favour of ethnic minorities including Tajiks and Uzbeks. Karzai’s Pakhtun credentials and loyalty remain controversial.

For Mohammed Daud Miraki, a US-based and US-educated politician, those Pakhtuns who are working for this government had “sold themselves to the devil.”

“A genocide of Pakhtuns is going on both sides of the border (Afghanistan and Pakistan),” said the clean-shaved Pakhtun politician sitting in Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel, where foreigners and locals brush shoulders discussing all sorts of theories on why peace continues to elude Afghanistan. “The Americans equate the Pakhtuns to the Taliban and the Taliban to Al-Qaeda. There can be no peace until Pakhtun representatives get their share in power, which includes the Taliban and their leader Mullah Omar.”

But the very thought of bringing top Taliban leaders into any reconciliation process remains a big a “no” for many other Pakhtun and non-Pakhtun politicians and intellectuals, who question the worldview and way of life of the religious militia. For them any share of power to the Taliban would mean losing whatever little freedom and modernity they managed to restore in the capital Kabul, the country’s north and small pockets in the Pakhtun belt.

But many of the Pakhtuns living in Kabul, including journalists, appear to be seething with anger against the Karzai regime and the US-backed war which they see as directed against Pakhtuns in the name of the Taliban. The government and its Western allies have so far failed to remove this impression that this war was not directed against Pakhtuns.

Indeed, the war has its own economy and vested interests. The way regional and world powers contributed in making the situation worse in Afghanistan—also is a hard fact. But pointing fingers at this neighbour or that—in which Pakistan remains a favourite target of many educated Afghans—is not going to heal Afghanistan’s festering wound.

As all the Afghan sides engaged in the conflict tend to take extreme ideological and political positions, it is the collective failure of the Afghan leadership that they have been unable to find a middle ground which paves the way for sharing of power and ownership of the peace process among all the stakeholders.

There appears no end to the Afghan tragedy as the main players, including the present Afghan setup and its Western allies, have failed to alienate the Al-Qaeda-linked hardliners from the mainstream Pakhtun resistance. Until this is done and Pakhtuns are brought into the fold of Afghanistan’s power structure, peace will continue to elude this unfortunate nation, let down both by its leaders and foreign friends.

The writer is business editor, The News. Email: amir.zia@gmail.com

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