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Afghanistan: Killing Of Pashtun Minister Qadir Leaves Karzai Vulnerable

  • Ron Synovitz

The list of potential suspects in the 6 July assassination of Afghan Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir is a long one. Qadir had enemies in business, in politics, and in his personal affairs. But Qadir also was the man that Afghan President Hamid Karzai was depending on to unite ethnic Pashtuns in the east and south of the country. RFE/RL reports on the early stages of the investigation and the impact Qadir's assassination could have on Karzai's plans to consolidate his power and bring long-term stability to Afghanistan.

Kabul, 8 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Many theories are being bandied about in Kabul about who was behind the 6 July killing of Afghan Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir.

The list of potential suspects named in the Afghan and international press includes remaining fighters of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, numerous business and political rivals in Qadir's native Nangarhar Province, members of the Panjshiri-led faction of the former Northern Alliance, Afghan drug-smuggling cartels, and even Pakistan's ISI intelligence service.

But in an interview with RFE/RL yesterday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said that he must consider such reports mere speculation until he receives authoritative information from a high-ranking government investigating commission. "If it turns out that the commission that we have appointed -- or if Afghan expertise and authority -- is not sufficient, is not enough to deal with this question and find out the truth, then I would be very much inclined to invite help from foreign expertise in police issues and the investigation of crimes to help Afghanistan determine who [assassinated Qadir] and arrest the people," Karzai said.

A spokesman for Karzai said the Afghan government will seek help from the International Security Assistance Force in finding those who killed Qadir.

The spokesman, Fazel Akbar, said the decision to request help from ISAF was made at a cabinet meeting today. Akbar said ISAF aid in bringing Qadir's murderers to justice will ensure the investigation is impartial, just, and professional. ISAF would work in coordination with a special Afghan commission led by another of the transitional government's vice presidents, Karim Khalili.

The commission appointed by Karzai at an emergency cabinet meeting just hours after Qadir's assassination is headed by Vice President Mohammad Karim Khalili. It also includes Interior Minister Taj Mohammad Wardak, Intelligence Services Director Mohammad Arif Sarwari, Rural Development Minister Mohammad Hanif Atma, and former Interim Irrigation Minister Haji Mangal Hussain.

By naming a commission that includes officials from the Pashtun, Hazara, and Tajik ethnic groups, Karzai appears to be trying to strengthen his credibility and avoid the kind of criticisms that have been raised about the still-unsolved assassination of Interim Civil-Aviation Minister Abdul Rahman last February.

In the Rahman case, Karzai had publicly stated that the key suspects were security and Interior Ministry officials from the Panjshiri-dominated Jamiat-i-Islami faction of the former Northern Alliance.

But so far, none of those men has been arrested. What is most disturbing to many Afghans is that the highest-ranking suspect named by Karzai in the Rahman case, Deputy Interior Minister Din Mohammad Jurat, is now himself heading the investigation into Rahman's assassination.

But Qadir's assassination has much greater potential than the Rahman case to cause widespread unrest, particularly among Pashtuns in eastern Afghanistan. Qadir was one of the key Pashtuns in the ethnic balance of Karzai's Transitional Authority. He also was the most powerful and influential public figure in the strategically important eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar.

Even before Karzai had named the investigating committee, ethnic Tajik officials in the Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Defense ministries were telling reporters that the killing had been organized by remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Among them was Haji Mohammad Daoud, a commander of a brigade of fighters from Shura-i-Nazar, the military wing of the Jamiat-i-Islami political party. "It's the work of the terrorists: the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. They want to create instability in the country and to destabilize the situation. We consider it to be an action done by the remnants of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. They want to create such a situation that causes unhappiness for the people of Afghanistan," Daoud said.

It was on the basis of those initial government reports that Turkish ISAF spokesman Colonel Samet Oz told reporters yesterday Qadir's killing appears to be a terrorist attack unrelated to his personal and business rivalries, or to any internal political struggle within the Afghan Transitional Authority. "We believe at this time the assassination was an individual attack made in an attempt to destabilize the transitional government," Oz said.

Indeed, Qadir's death has destabilized the situation in Afghanistan by stoking tensions between ethnic Pashtuns and the ethnic Tajiks from the northern Panjshir Valley.

With memories of Rahman's killing still fresh in their minds -- particularly the way that a Panjshiri spokesman from the Interior Ministry had wrongly blamed Rahman's assassination on a group of frail and elderly Hajj pilgrims -- many Afghans in Kabul are suspicious of the reports that Qadir was killed by Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorists.

Even well-informed sources within the Transitional Authority have told RFE/RL privately that they see Qadir's killing as a possible attempt by the military wing of Jamiat-i-Islami to boost its control within eastern Afghanistan.

Aqil Shah, a Pakistan-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, had been working in Kabul before Qadir's assassination in order to prepare a report on the way Karzai was using Qadir's influence to try to unify ethnic Pashtuns in the east and the south.

Shah said that, although Qadir had been one of the few Pashtun members of the former Northern Alliance during the rule of the Taliban, he had been moving away from Jamiat-i-Islami since the launch of the Loya Jirga last month that confirmed Karzai as president. "Karzai brought Qadir [into the government] so that they could get some sort of a post-Loya Jirga Pashtun unified [tribal council]. That was an attempt and I think the Northern Alliance knew that. And Qadir, because he was controlling Nangarhar, I think this was also seen by the Shura-i-Nazar as an attempt on the part of Qadir to wrest Karzai away, if not from their control, then from their influence," Shah said.

Many Pashtuns say Karzai has lost legitimacy in their eyes because of the way Afghanistan's former king, Zahir Shah, was sidelined during the Loya Jirga.

Karzai's continued support for the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition in Afghanistan, after an errant air strike that killed dozens of people from his Pashtun clan in Oruzgan Province last week, has also angered Pashtuns. It wasn't until 6 July, five days after that air strike and just a few hours before Qadir's killing, that the United States admitted for the first time that innocent civilians had been killed and injured by U.S. ordnance in Oruzgan.

Shah said this combination of events has created a political crisis for Karzai. "Karzai has a legitimacy crisis among the Pashtuns -- the Oruzgan incident, now Qadir. I think he stands weakened. His credibility is not at an all-time high and I think the loss of Qadir must have jolted him," Shah said.

And Shah said that regardless of who really killed Qadir, it is the Shura-i-Nazar wing of Jamiat-i-Islami that stands to profit the most in terms of enhancing its own power and preventing Karzai from uniting Pashtuns across the country. "The Oruzgan incident and, close on the heels of that -- when the Afghan government's credibility and legitimacy was at stake, especially as seen by Pashtuns -- Qadir's assassination, will undermine Karzai's ability to break out of what I think he was attempting to do: to break out of the stranglehold of the Shura-i-Nazar. And I think that has been put to an end," Shah said.

With the United Nations now openly declaring that ongoing factional fighting in parts of six northern provinces has led to the destruction of entire Pashtun communities, there are now grave concerns in Kabul that Pashtun anger in the post-Taliban era is close to the boiling point.

The greatest fear among foreign diplomats and international aid workers on the ground is that Afghanistan's ethnic and political tensions could now very easily lead the country back into civil war.