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Afghanistan: Historian Says Monarchy Is Optimal Solution

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Professor Milan Hauner of the University of Wisconsin was at RFE/RL's Prague headquarters yesterday, where he gave a talk on the prospects for security in Central Asia in light of the ongoing U.S.-led military campaign against the Taliban. The author of several books on the region -- including one titled "What Is Asia To Us?" -- Hauner voiced his hopes and concerns as Afghan delegates meeting in Germany were debating the future of their country.

Prague, 30 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As the net closes on the Taliban, still entrenched in its southern stronghold of Kandahar, delegates meeting in Germany under the auspices of the United Nations are finalizing a series of agreements aimed at shaping the political future of Afghanistan.

The UN is pressing the four Afghan factions present in Konigswinter, outside Bonn, to agree on a future transitional government that should, in principle, avoid ethnic and political rivalries similar to those that plunged the country into a bloody civil war after Soviet troops withdrew in 1989.

The international community hopes this interim government will help promote peace and national unity in a country that has known nothing but war for the past 22 years. But some regional specialists argue that it may be a long time before political stability in Afghanistan is reached.

A professor of history at the University of Wisconsin and the author of many books on Central Asia, Milan Hauner is also skeptical about the prospects for an immediate settlement of the Afghan question. During a 29 November presentation at RFE/RL's Prague headquarters, Hauner voiced his concerns about the outcome of the ongoing UN-sponsored peace talks.

"I think that to achieve all three aims set out in these negotiations -- that is, a transitory government, a kind of constitutional assembly and to set up a peacekeeping force -- is too ambitious," he said.

Delegates attending the Konigswinter conference are discussing nominees for a 200-member interim council and a smaller transitional cabinet of about 15 people that will run the country until a Loya Jirga, or tribal chiefs assembly, decides on who should rule the country for the next two years. The Loya Jirga is expected to convene next March.

The interim council is likely to be dominated by representatives of former King Mohammad Zahir Shah and the Northern Alliance, an eclectic group of politicians and warlords that now controls most Afghan territory.

No final agreement has been reached so far on any of the issues facing the conference, neither on the composition of the interim cabinet nor on the deployment of an international peacekeeping force.

Northern Alliance leaders have said in the past that they do not wish foreign soldiers to be dispatched to Afghanistan, except for limited logistical or humanitarian purposes. The Alliance has finally agreed to allow a 200-strong foreign military contingent to protect the interim government, but the possible composition of this force is still being debated.

One of the main challenges awaiting the future government will be to preserve unity among Afghanistan's ethnic Tajik, Uzbek, Turkmen, Hazara, and majority Pashtun tribes, all of them supported by different foreign countries. Hence the necessity to reach the broadest possible agreement on who should run the interim cabinet.

So far, two candidates have emerged -- ethnic Uzbek Abdul Sattar Sirat, a close associate of former King Zahir Shah, and ethnic Pashtun Hamid Karzai, a former deputy foreign minister and an influential tribal leader from southern Afghanistan.

As for the former king, no agreement has been reached so far on whether he should play a role -- even a symbolic one -- on Afghanistan's political stage. Yet, Hauner believes the restoration of a constitutional monarchy under the rule of 87-year-old Zahir Shah is the optimal choice for the ethnically divided country.

"I think that the royal power -- the royal authority, if you like -- should serve as a kind of umbrella uniting those contrasting elements of Afghan society. I am for the restoration of monarchy in Afghanistan because, given the pains this nation has suffered, we cannot really aspire to any kind of ideal formation. We have to accept the reality."

Hauner believes that, of all Afghan leaders, the former monarch is the most likely to rally the Pashtun tribal leaders who rule over southern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan.

Afghan and Pakistani Pashtuns traditionally observe the "Pashtunwali," a social code whose main principles are the respect for hospitality and the blood feud, or "badal."

Hauner believes populations living in the so-called Pashtun belt -- from which the Taliban originate and which he describes as an "embedded, male ethos of arms-bearers" -- will most likely refuse to hand over their weapons to any authority, whether national or foreign.

But he rules out the possibility of the Pashtuns seceding from the rest of the country, an idea some Afghans suspect Pakistan -- which wants Pashtuns to get the lion's share in the future government -- is supporting.

Arguing that the first Afghan kingdom of Ahmad Shah Durrani, in the 18th century, included most of today's Pakistan, Hauner believes that a separate "Pashtunistan" would herald the end of Pakistan. But he reckons that Pashtuns could create problems in the future.

"I think that Pashtuns will continue to live in two countries, but that what we regard as the international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan will be recognized by the entire world except by the Pashtuns themselves. They will regard it as an open border and continue to cross from one side to another whenever they like. That is part of the 'Pashtunwali,' that is part of their expression of freedom. If we suppress that, if we force them to recognize this as an international border, they might revolt, presumably. I just don't see how else they might react."

Pashtun tribal leaders around Kandahar have turned against the Taliban, siding with the Northern Alliance against their former rulers.

On 25 November, hundreds of U.S. Marines landed near Kandahar in anticipation of a final assault on the Taliban stronghold with the help of Northern Alliance forces. The ground operations started while U.S. planes continued bombing Taliban military targets.

Yet, Hauner warns that the present cooperation between U.S. troops and anti-Taliban fighters might be misleading.

"The Americans are assisting, effectively, and the Northern Alliance commanders applaud if the hits are correct or complain if they are not correct. But I don't see them as really working in [a] team. They are not really allies. I almost feel warning before the illusion that the Americans are there as partners. They are tolerated, but we don't know yet how they will be received."

Hauner says the U.S. should draw a lesson from past British and Soviet attempts to remain in Afghanistan.

He said, "It is very easy to enter Afghanistan. All invading countries have found it very easy. But it is during the retreat, or during the staying there, that you suffer."