Ismail Khan holds a place of honor in Afghan history. This warlord’s troops fought against the Soviets from 1979 to 1988. Thirteen years later, he led his forces against the Taliban alongside the Americans and the Northern Alliance.
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He was a minister in President Hamid Karzai’s government and is now preparing for the next civil war. He’s mobilizing his loyalists, distributing weapons and coordinating operations with other warlords who fought the Soviets.
The international coalition “has taken away our artillery and tanks and turned them into scrap metal,” he said at a rally in Herat, eastern Afghanistan. “Instead, they have brought Dutch, German, American and French girls to our country, along with white soldiers from Europe and black soldiers from Africa, who were supposed to bring security to Afghanistan. They have failed.”
If Khan’s assessment is accurate, this is bad news for Afghanistan, which began its presidential election campaign this week. Billboards and posters have been put up in the large cities. Bumper stickers with photographs of the 11 candidates are adorning cars as coalitions are being formed.
In April, the 12 million Afghans eligible to vote will be visiting some 6,000 polling stations – ostensibly democracy at its best, especially since Karzai is no longer allowed to run.
But a fierce civil war against the Taliban awaits Afghan democracy, which will need enormous funds for its fight against the drug industry and other efforts. All this comes as its army and police are far from properly trained for this kind of warfare.
In late 2014, all foreign forces are to leave Afghanistan. Some have already left. Pending is the security-cooperation agreement that the United States is pushing for, which would leave several thousand American troops in Afghanistan in an attempt to prevent the country from falling to the Taliban again.
The Taliban’s stance is firm. They will work with all their might against an American presence, oppose any security cooperation with the United States, and do everything possible to muck up the election.
The Taliban website boasts of the killing of Afghan “toy soldiers” and the Americans’ alleged lies and defeat in the country. In the second half of last year, more than 1,300 civilians were killed by Taliban gunfire.
Karzai believes there is only one solution: to prevent an agreement with the United States and reconcile with the Taliban. His stance has led to a deep rift with the Americans, who have invested over $650 billion since 2001.
Karzai told The Telegraph he “saw no good” in the American presence. At the same time, he has been holding talks with the Taliban to remain a player even when he’s no longer president.
This is a kind of retaliation against the U.S. administration, which is in its own talks with moderate Taliban factions and even helped establish a Taliban mission in Qatar. If the Americans can talk with the Taliban, Karzai sees no reason why he can’t.
But the Taliban aren’t the only ones threatening the integrity of Afghanistan, which is split among tribes and loyalties, the army and warlords, Sunnis and Shi’ites. And neighbors such as Pakistan and Iran, not to mention Saudi Arabia and others, are interfering in its politics.
Pakistan has strong ties with the Taliban that formed decades ago and became even tighter when Pakistan “hosted” millions of refugees who fled during the Soviet occupation and the civil war. For all practical purposes, the Taliban began its campaign to reconquer Afghanistan from Pakistan, as Pakistani intelligence funded and trained its people.
Iran has been helping the large Shi’ite minority, based in the Herat district near the border. Saudi Arabia is supporting radical Islamist factions, some affiliated with the Taliban, some independent.
Karzai’s older brother Quayum, who managed a restaurant chain the United States before returning to Afghanistan, is a presidential candidate. Hamid Karzai will use the rest of his term to try to build coalitions to make it hard for the new administration to run the country without the Taliban.
Karzai has plenty of time. It will probably take at least a month and a half for the votes in far-flung districts to be counted.
If no candidate tops 50 percent in the first round, a runoff will be necessary, which could last weeks. So Karzai has at least six months to work for an agreement with the Taliban. The Taliban’s summer attack season, which starts in April, lasts until the first snowfall, so with the election campaign, Khan’s warning of a civil war has some basis.
But even if Afghanistan doesn’t fall into civil war, the country will be neglected like Iraq after the American troops withdrew.
With a GDP around $20 billion and almost no tax revenue, the government is having a hard time paying its employees. Meanwhile, many unemployed young people are going over to the Taliban, which pays them more than the $90 per month they receive from the government.
Only police and soldiers earn more, but they too have tribal loyalties. While the United States can take credit for eliminating Osama bin Laden, that will probably be its only accomplishment in Afghanistan a year from now.