June 29, 2020
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Hand In Hand On A Steep Hillside

Rivals join in coalition in the fraught politics of Afghanistan

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Hand In Hand On A Steep Hillside
Hand In Hand On A Steep Hillside

There is rarely a glut of good news coming out of Afghanistan, but of late optimism has been in particularly short supply. On Monday, Hamid Karzai handed over the reins of power. The good news is that the transition has been relatively peaceful, indeed the first peaceful handover of power in Afghanistan for many decades. The bad news is that what replaces Karzai is a deeply unstable coalition, led by two men who do not like each other, and whose interests are in many cases directly opposed. Few in Kabul give the new arrangement any staying power, for almost as much divides the coalition partners as brings them together.

The new president, Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, is a remarkable man: a PhD from Columbia, an ex-World Bank official, a John Hopkins professor and former chancellor of Kabul University as well as minister of finance. He has a quick wit and a penetrating and formidable brain. When I was researching my book on the First Afghan War, Return of a King: An Indian Army in Afghanistan, Ashraf was one of the first men I visited in Kabul and the hours I spent with him in his austerely beautiful library house, filled with books, good rugs and beautiful Nuristani furniture, were probably the most revelatory of any in the whole five years’ research project. Although his specialisation in history lies well down his list of interests, coming well after  anthropology and economics, in a two-hour tutorial, he gave me a long list of all the principal Persian sources for the war, many of which he was able to take down from his own shelves. He was also able to point me towards a book-dealer in the old city who had bought up many of the old princely and aristocratic libraries when many Afghans began to flee into exile in the 1970s.

On subsequent trips to Kabul, he sent round any other books or snippets he had found, always refusing any sort of payment. Yet the same straightforwardness, which makes him such a generous host and dedicated scholar, can also cause him to be irritable and irascible. When he disagreed with some remarks I had made in an Aspen lecture in Delhi last year, he steamed straight up to the podium at the end and told me I was speaking “Bullshit! Bullshit!” He is recently said to have thrown an ashtray at a female journalist, and a Farsi video of him describing the writer and British Tory MP Rory Stewart as the “son of a donkey” is still doing the rounds in Kabul. The last one dates back to a decade-old spat stemming from Ghani accusing Stewart’s Turquoise Mountain Foundation of lifting furniture designs from those developed by his wife, the new First Lady, Rouyla Ghani, a formidable Lebanese designer and activist, and a major force in her own right. Ghani’s emotional mention of her at his inauguration is evidence of their closeness and his willingness to break conservative taboos by placing her very publicly in the media spotlight.

When Ghani first stood for election in 2009, he lost so badly he was dismissed as almost a joke by the media. But he learned from his campaigning errors, and has worked hard to make himself more appealing. He already had strong support among the new urban youth vote, and in the east, so he concentrated on winning over rural areas in the south and west. He added the tribal suffix Ahmadzai to his name, stressing his Ghilzai background: the Ahmadzai are one of two rival Ghilzai clans; the other, the Hotaki Ghilzai, are led by none other than Mullah Omar.

He has also made himself look less like an urban technocrat: for the campaign, he grew an elegant pepper-and-salt beard and is now often seen sporting a mountainous Ghilzai turban. But his most controversial­—and arguably cleverest—move was to form an alliance with the alcoholic Uzbek warlord and war criminal General Dostum, who controls huge votebanks in the north. In 2009, Ghani had denounced Dostum as “a known killer”. This time, he offered him the chance to be vice-president: “We need to come to a politics of inclusivity, not exclusivity”, he explained to Christiane Amanpour of CNN.

The new coalition in place of Karzai's government is deeply unstable. It brings together two men who dislike each other. Will they be able to tolerate each other enough to be able to rule?

Like Ghani, his Tajik former rival and now coalition partner, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, is fluent, sophisticated and intelligent; but he is a much smoother, suaver, less acade­mic figure than Ghani. Ghani wears immaculately pressed white salvar kemise; Abdullah Abdullah prefers bespoke Savile Row suits. Ghani’s home is full of low ethnic wooden chairs; Abdullah Abdullah has beautiful Italian furniture. His most recent wife, a brilliant young analyst half his age, is described by those who have met her as “the Penelope Cruz of Kabul—only, much more beautiful than Cruz”. His first wife lives in Delhi, and Dr Abd­ullah is a regular visitor to her house in Defence Colony. In contrast to Ghani’s academic prickliness, Abdullah is witty, charming, and irreverent.  When I last paid him a visit, he expressed irritation that Tom Ford, then head of Gucci, had declared Karzai to be “the chicest man on the planet”. “I liked what Tom Ford did at Gucci,” he said, brushing some dust off his cuffs. “But I would dispute that judgement.”

At the Bonn Conference which followed the defeat of the Taliban in December 2001, it was Abdullah and his Tajiks who supported Karzai for the post of provisional president: “Never before had someone from one part of the country asked someone from another part to rule in their stead,” he told me recently. “It was a historic moment. But I was very naive. I thought under his leadership we would build Afghanistan into a modern state. It was doable, had we not missed so many opportunities. Many of those opportunities will not be repeated. We had so much hope for a new start, and so many worries today. Now a new generation is looking forward rather than looking to the past. But the great golden opportunity of 2001 will never be recovered.” Abdullah was Karzai’s minister of foreign affairs from 2001-5, but they soon fell out when the polls were massively rigged in Karzai’s favour. “I have great respect for his father,” Abdullah told me, “but Hamid? Let’s just say he is one of the greatest actors that Afghanistan has ever produced.” Insiders say that his chemistry with Ashraf Ghani is little better. According to veteran Afghan watcher Ahmed Rashid, “They don’t like each other and they have never got on. I am very pessimistic about them pulling off an effective coalition. It will require both men compromising on every aspect of political life and I just don’t see them being able to do it.”

Yet the stakes could not be higher. The most immediate crisis is economic: Afghan civil servants will not be paid this month as the treasury simply does not have the money to pay them: it holds less than the 6.5 billion Afghanis ($90m) needed to begin processing monthly salaries. Ninety per cent of the Afghan budget is dependent on foreign aid, but now there are real doubts about how much financial assistance will continue arriving. Currently, it costs $45 billion to run the Afghan army, and $9 billion to run the government. Afghan revenues can’t cover more than 10 per cent of this, and no one knows whether foreign governments will continue to finance a country they show every sign of wanting to turn their back on. “No one is talking about Afghanistan in Washington anymore,” says Pulitzer-winning New York Times White House correspondent Mark Mazetti. “It is no longer high on anyone’s priorities. The CIA finds Afghanistan is eating up too much of its resources. Even in the Pentagon, which used to show more interest than most, energy is now waning. It’s not exactly a rush to the exit, but it’s certainly a quick walk.”

Meanwhile, the security situation has never been much worse. The Taliban has lately made large gains in Helmand and Ghazni, and the numbers of fighters spilling in from Pakistan is higher than ever—possibly because the Pakistan army offensive in North Waziristan has driven them across the border, but there are widespread suspicions in Kabul that this is also due to a change in ISI policy. Since India broke off talks with Pakistan in June, and with Nawaz Sharif weakened by the recent face-off in Islamabad, there has been little to restrain those elements in the Pakistan military who wish to re-establish a pro-Pak Taliban proxy regime in Kabul.

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah Abdullah, rivals and allies, take the reins at a time Afghanistan faces a precipitous economic crisis. Washington no longer seems to be bothered.

In Hamid Karzai’s final speech, he went out of his way to thank India for its aid, and he contrasted India’s open-handed dealings with the more mutlabi aid policies of the West and the unhelpfulness of Pakistan. The warmth is reciprocated by New Delhi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently expressed his “special attachment” to Afghanistan, sending Sushma Swaraj to help throw India’s weight behind the building of a coalition. It was one of the subjects discussed in the White House with Obama. India also recently gifted a massive Afghan flag to Kabul, which now flutters on a golden flagpole visible on a mountain top across Kabul. Afghans love it.

No doubt, all this will have been carefully noted in the cantonments of Rawalpindi. The Pakistani army has long been fixated with the idea that it cannot allow a pro-Indian government in Kabul and because of that has long  turned a blind eye to the Taliban operating from bases in its territory, even though the jehadis have brought huge violence and instability to Pakistan. As the former US ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munthe, succinctly puts it, “If you grow vipers in your backyard, you’re going to get bitten.”

In the last 13 years of fighting against resurgent Taliban, the US has spent more than $700 billion, enough to build every living Afghan a luxury apartment serviced by world-class health and educational facilities—and to throw in a top-of-the-range Land Cruiser for each and every citizen too. Yet, at the end of this, Afghanistan remains the poorest country in Asia, the third most corrupt country in the world, boasting the highest illiteracy rate and worst medical and educational facilities outside a few benighted war-zones in Sub-Saharan Africa. Even in the best case scenario, it will take it sev­e­ral decades even to approach the living standards of Pakistan or Bangladesh.

Against this background, it may seem mad to be optimistic about the future. Every Afghan I know well, however patriotic they may be, has an exit strategy in place: a second passport, a secret bank account far away, a small apartment somewhere safe and peaceful­—just in case Kabul does go belly up. And there are a million things that could go wrong: a political vacuum following the fracturing of the coalition and a widening of the Pashtun-Tajik fracture; the withdra­wal of US military and civilian aid; massive Taliban gains in the rural south; the collapse of the fragile Afghan economy.

But a Taliban victory is still far from a foregone conclusion. For all the growing insecurity, few believe there can be a return to the grim years of medieval Taliban rule. Afghanistan has changed beyond all recognition since 2001. It is now the fastest urbanising country in Asia. Kabul alone has twenty times the population it had in 2001—and, people are travelling much more widely. Television, the internet and an ebullient media have opened many minds.  Schools are opening everywhere, and while much still needs to be done, literacy is growing fast. The turnout in the last election was spectacular and Afghans will now not willingly give up the democracy they have won at such cost. The Taliban may be capable of causing widespread disruption but few believe they can roll back over the country and retake Kabul or the north. They remain a rural Pushtun force with few supporters north of Kabul.

Afghanistan is now ruled by two highly educated and capable democrats who are strongly opposed to the Taliban, and are deeply suspicious of Pakistan. Both have huge affection for India. If the coalition can hold, and international support remains strong, all may yet be well.

(Dalrymple’s Return of a King: An Indian Army in Afghanistan—from Bloomsbury, India—is just out in paperback.)

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