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Rivalries Threaten Afghanistan's Stability


In June, Afghanistan held a grand assembly that elected an 18-month interim government. The new government faces a range of formidable challenges, including writing a new constitution and building a multi-ethnic national army. However, political and ethnic rivalries are complicating the government's tasks and threatening its stability.

Afghanistan's interim government has been rattled by ethnic, tribal and political tensions that analysts say threaten to undermine the still-embryonic administration.

A new report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group says that tensions remain high, and the country's stability is far from assured. Real power, the report says, remains in the hands of the same regional warlords who precipitated Afghanistan's civil war of the 1990s.

The Loya Jirga, or grand assembly, elected Hamid Karzai interim president in June. Mr. Karzai is a Pashtun, which is the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. But the Northern Alliance, which is dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks, feels it deserves more power because it played a prominent role in toppling the Taleban regime with U.S. help. As a result, Mr. Karzai had to accept several of these "Panshiris", so called because they come from the Panshir Valley into central positions in the government.

Recently, Mr. Karzai's government was shaken by the assassination of Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir. Following the killing by still-unknown assailants, Mr. Karzai replaced his Afghan bodyguards with U.S. Special Forces troops. Mr. Karzai is also reported to asserting the role of commander in chief. Both moves have reportedly angered the powerful Defense Minister, Mohammad Fahim.

Mr. Fahim, Afghan observers say, is a key leader of the Northern Alliance and a big man with an ego to match. With no national army yet in place, his victorious troops of the Northern Alliance control much of the countryside. Ed McWilliams, a former U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan, says Mr. Fahim is also trying to build up his power in Kabul.

"I have seen Fahim described essentially as a warlord within Kabul, that is to say, unlike the warlords who are holding power outside Kabul, that he basically is building his power base inside Kabul," he said. "And indeed, much of the confrontation between himself and Karzai could well be seen as personal. But I think that its impact is also tribal and ethnic."

The United States and other members of the international community are trying to break the power of Mr. Fahim and other warlords who challenge the interim government by training a true multi-ethnic army. But such efforts take considerable time. Moreover, military recruitment is in the hands of the Defense Ministry.

Alex Thier of the International Crisis Group says Mr. Fahim appears to have different ideas about building an army.

"Unfortunately, control of the Ministry of Defense is in control of very partisan hands," he said. "And unless there is greater balance shown in the upper ranks of the military, in other words, the officers that Fahim has been appointing, then we really run the risk of having a narrow, ethnically controlled army, which of course is going to be unacceptable to most of the regions in Afghanistan."

Both Mr. McWilliams and Mr. Thier say the international community should heed calls for an expanded peacekeeping presence until a trained army and national police force are in place. Mr. McWilliams says to do otherwise risks a return to the unwelcome days of factional fighting and civil war.

"Unless the international community, and there especially I mean the United States, steps up to the plate and begins to provide the kind of funds that this national government needs to make itself felt nationally; and until the international community takes steps to secure the countryside to enable commerce to resume and to enable, for example, even humanitarian operations to begin; I think that this government simply cannot succeed," he said. "And I think what we would see is, once again, a battle among warlords, Fahim being a very important one, for control."

Mr. Thier says the expanding the peacekeeping force would not clash with the U.S. goal of rooting out al-Qaida. "These objectives can and must coincide," he said. "I think that the short-sighted strategy of rooting out al-Qaida without paying attention to what effect that is having on the success of the central government is ultimately going to lead to short-term successes but long-term failure in the country."

And, say analysts, Mr. Karzai must also act more boldly to assert his authority or the warlords will strip him of power.

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