A deadly new front opens up

14 Sep 2006

With the assassination of one of its best provincial governors, Afghanistan could be on the brink of a fresh disaster, writes William Maley

LAST week, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf struck a remarkable deal with religious extremists in the tribal areas of the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, involving a truce in their stand-off with the army in exchange for their ending armed attacks in the country.

In Afghanistan, the reaction was less than enthusiastic, with the Governor of Paktia Province, Hakim Taniwal, warning that “if they are not being bothered, they will have more time to infiltrate here and do what they want”. On Sunday, only three days after these prescient remarks were published in the Washington Post, Taniwal was assassinated in a suicide bombing for which the Taliban promptly claimed responsibility.

The shock waves from Taniwal’s slaying are unlikely to settle down any time soon. Unlike some of his fellow governors, Taniwal was a man of substance. By training he was a sociologist, with a masters degree from the University of Munster in Germany. An Australian as well as an Afghan, he had returned to Afghanistan in 2002 after living in Dandenong, in Melbourne, for years. He had accomplished the near impossible by easing out an obnoxious militia leader and establishing an effective local administration in the face of serious resource shortages. When I last saw him, in 2003, he was obviously care-worn, but his commitment to aiding the reconstruction of his homeland was undiminished.

Since 2003, the situation in Iraq has been so grave that it has been all too easy to overlook the fragility of the situation in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was the obvious theatre in which to confront al-Qa’ida and its allies; obvious because world opinion strongly supported robust action and Afghan opinion yearned for an international intervention, too. Yet the momentum of transition was lost early - in March 2002, to be precise - when the expansion beyond Kabul of the UN-endorsed International Security Assistance Force was blocked by a Washington already mustering airlift assets for use against Saddam Hussein. This colossal blunder had a corrosive effect on the other elements of Afghanistan’s transition.

This is where the loss of Taniwal is so tragic. President Hamid Karzai, a thoroughly decent man with outstanding communications skills, has never been strong in the area of policy-making and he inherited from the 2001 Bonn conference a dysfunctional state structure in which ministries had been dealt out as prizes to various political leaders, who turned many of them into warring fiefdoms.

With the state not performing effectively and faced with international backing that was stronger at the rhetorical than the practical level, Karzai has increasingly resorted to a politics of bargaining and deal-making, seeking to secure local stability by pacifying potential spoilers. Thus, some of Taniwal’s fellow governors are at best pygmies, and several are profoundly unappetising, creating crises of bad local governance.

Add to this three other problems. The first is one of governmental legitimacy. Here, it is easy to misread the implications of Karzai’s comfortable victory in the October 2004 presidential election in which, with 55.4 per cent of the vote, he outdistanced his nearest rival by nearly 40 percentage points. Alas, in countries such as Afghanistan, electoral victory does not mean what it does in consolidated, institutionalised democracies such as Australia and the United states, where it confers legitimate authority until the next election is held.

In countries emerging from decades of disruption, an electoral victory confers a provisional mandate to attempt to rule, but a ruler who cannot meet popular expectations in the spheres of governance and security will likely see his authority disintegrate. There are alarming signs that this has begun to happen to Karzai.

The second problem is that of the ethnicisation of politics, which often occurs as weakening leaderships seek to shore up their support. The electoral system used in last year’s parliamentary elections worked directly against political parties, but with the result that those who wished to craft a bloc in the parliament to promote new legislation then resorted to ethnicity as a basis for mobilising support. This has left at least some ethnic groups feeling marginalised, an apprehension that formed part of the context for the riots that engulfed Kabul on 29 May.

Karzai is increasingly isolated as a result, and those whose fortunes have been rising, namely secular Afghan nationalists from the large Pushtun community, are the people who set Pakistani nerves jangling by reminding the Pakistan military of the “Pushtunistan” border dispute that poisoned relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan from the 1940s to the ’70s.

The third problem, and probably the most serious of all, has been Pakistan’s support for the Taliban’s renewed campaign to destabilise Afghanistan. President Musharraf has admitted that the Taliban have been crossing into Afghanistan from their bases in Pakistan but has denied any official involvement. This is belied, however, by the sophistication of the Taliban’s equipment and tactics, by Pakistan’s proven ability to turn the Taliban off like a tap (as it did under US pressure during the 2004 election) and by the sheer audacity of past Pakistani lying about its interference in Afghanistan.

Now, with the Taniwal assassination, we may be witnessing the opening of a new, deadly eastern front for the Karzai government to manage.

William Maley is director of the Asia-Pacific college of diplomacy at the Australian National University and author of Rescuing Afghanistan (0) , published in APO’s Briefings series by UNSW Press. He recently visited Afghanistan and the subcontinent.

Photo: Arlene Gee/

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