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Afghanistan: Two Years Later, Taliban's Sudden Withdrawal From Kabul Still Affecting Transition

  • Ron Synovitz

Two years ago, the Taliban regime fled Kabul in the face of U.S. air strikes and military advances on the ground by the anti-Taliban militia fighters of the Northern Alliance. Since then, slow but steady progress has been made on the political transition outlined by the Bonn Agreement. But experts say both politics and security in Afghanistan are still being affected by the events of 13 November 2001.

Prague, 12 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Political and security experts say Afghanistan is still living with the legacy of events that occurred two years ago when the Taliban fled Kabul in the darkness of night.

It was then that the militia faction of current Afghan Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim -- an ally of the United States against the Taliban -- moved into Kabul in violation of requests from both Washington and the United Nations.

Officials from Fahim's Jamiat-e Islami political group initially said their advance into Kabul was necessary to prevent anarchy and looting. But in the weeks that followed, Jamiat used its de facto control of the capital to strengthen its negotiating position on the Bonn accords. The group came out of those talks with the defense minister's post for Fahim, as well as control over the Interior Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, several other ministry posts, and the country's intelligence services.

Marina Ottaway is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She is among many experts on Afghanistan who say the continued presence in Kabul of Jamiat's military wing -- known as Shura-yi Nezar -- has allowed the mostly ethnic Tajik group to maintain control over key posts in the cabinet of Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai.

"The U.S. defeated the Taliban. But it defeated the Taliban with the help of armed groups in the country -- the militias of the Northern Alliance. In the U.S. game plan, those militias -- those warlords, essentially -- were supposed to step back into the background and make way for an elected government, a democratic government. That never happens. It is extremely unlikely that an armed group that is victorious, the way the Northern Alliance was, will simply step back and feed the power to a civilian leadership," Ottaway said.

Ottaway also says the ongoing struggle for political power in Afghanistan between Karzai and conservative Islamist militia leaders is typical of post-conflict situations elsewhere in the world. "What happens in the wake of such a military victory is a continuing struggle for power between the groups that have the military power and civilian groups that may have legitimacy at some level, but certainly don't have military power," she said.

The NATO commander of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, Germany's Lieutenant General Gotz Gliemeroth, weighed in on the issue last month by demanding that Fahim's faction remove its tanks and artillery from hilltops and other strategic positions in and around Kabul. "ISAF strongly supports the removal of heavy weapons from Kabul," he said.

Gliemeroth went on to specify that "there should be by no means heavy weapons in Kabul. In line with the Bonn Agreement, ISAF definitely asks for a demilitarized Kabul. The Bonn Agreement is indicating very clearly that Kabul should be demilitarized and, currently, Kabul is not demilitarized."

That statement was the strongest call by any ISAF commander for Fahim's militia to do what Washington and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had asked of it two years ago -- to stay out of Kabul.

So far, like most of the disarmament programs elsewhere in the country during the past year, the call for demilitarization in Kabul has gone unheeded. Fahim has argued that his private militia will form the core of a future Afghan National Army. But that argument is rejected out of hand by UN officials who say the composition of the Afghan National Army must represent the ethnic balance of the entire country, rather than a single minority group from one remote region like the Panjshir Valley.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan, nongovernmental organizations such as the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch warn that fighting between rival militias during the past two years- - and increasingly in recent months -- is creating a climate of fear. The group says that situation could threaten the legitimacy of the next phase of the Bonn process -- next month's Loya Jirga to approve a new constitution -- as well as presidential elections due to take place in June.

Researchers from Human Rights Watch say fighters from various militia factions have been responsible for violence, political intimidation, and attacks on women that are discouraging political participation across the country and endangering gains made on women's rights since the collapse of the Taliban regime.

Other experts note that the overwhelming majority of the Afghan population outside of Kabul has yet to see signs of economic reconstruction -- such as the widely publicized and internationally backed road projects.

Teresita Schaffer, an analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, sees security and reconstruction in the Afghan provinces as a more critical issue than the presence of one heavily armed militia faction in Kabul. "The biggest security issue is whether there is enough safety in enough parts of the country so that reconstruction can take place and the government can begin to assert its authority," she said. "To me, the critical strategic issue is roads. There has got to be enough safety on the roads so that the government can project its authority beyond Kabul. The road-building effort, I think, is very important. But it got started late."

Many experts say Afghanistan would be better served if international officials stopped comparing the situation in the country today to the conditions during the rule of the Taliban. They say that kind of comparison inevitably presents current conditions in a positive light, but ignores potential pitfalls ahead.

The Carnegie Endowment's Ottaway suggests it would be more productive to compare the hopes of Afghans two years ago, when the Taliban regime collapsed, to their expectations today. "There is no doubt there were hopes for a better life, because that's normal. People always hope that things will improve," she said. "And there has not been that much foreign aid going to Afghanistan. I think it's very striking that the U.S. just approved an $18 billion package of reconstruction [aid] for Iraq and what goes to Afghanistan is about $1 billion. To the extent that people in Afghanistan are aware of the difference in the treatment of the two countries, it must be enormously frustrating. They can see that things are not getting much better."

Looking to the future, Ottaway agrees that security outside of Kabul will be critical as the Bonn process moves into its final phase. "What is going to be interesting is what happens after the election," Ottaway said. "I don't think the Constitutional Loya Jirga by itself will cause a crisis. The question is what happens in the election process, because that is where we are likely to see an elected civilian leadership which, de facto, is forced to at least share power with the military leadership. I think everybody will approve the constitution. I don't think that's where we are going to see the problem. It's after the election."

Still, Ottaway defends the Bonn process as the best approach the international community could have brokered on a road map for post-Taliban transition. "What is striking to me is how in Afghanistan the international community, through the Bonn process essentially, has been able to devise a transition process that -- while it's not without problems -- has some chance of succeeding," she said. "What the international community has done -- which I think was very positive -- was to allow a lot of time for discussions, for negotiations. The first Loya Jirga, now we have the second Loya Jirga [next month], and a long process of constitution writing and so on. To the extent that there is any hope of that country finding some political equilibrium -- I'm not saying democracy, but a modus vivendi among the various groups in the country -- this slow process was certainly the best approach."

But Ottaway says she remains critical about unfulfilled international aid pledges and slow progress on rebuilding infrastructure, such as the road network.