On April 8, 2004, U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in her testimony before the commission on the 9-11 attacks in the United States, spoke of “a new strategic approach to Afghanistan.” She went on to say that “instead of the intense focus on the Northern Alliance, we emphasized the importance of the south – the social and political heartland of the country”(CBSNews.com). This relatively simple and benign statement, if put fully into practice, could have enormous implications for Afghanistan’s future structure of government and its relations with regional powers. It is also being seen as a strategic shift, one in which the so-called regional warlords are seen as falling into disfavor with the Kabul government and the U.S.- led coalition forces.
The United States, in its efforts to gain a foothold in Afghanistan and to topple the Taliban and pursue its hunt for Al-Qaeda fugitives, relied on the Northern Alliance. When the U.S.-led coalition forces first entered Afghanistan, it was in the north and – to be exact, in Dara-e-Suf district – which was then the headquarters of Haji M. Muhaqqeq, one of the last two remaining anti-Taliban resistance fronts. The U.S. special forces then proceeded toward Balkh province, the stronghold of another warlord, General Rashid Dostum. Later on, when the northern part of the country was cleared of the Taliban presence, the Northern Alliance forces took Kabul and Herat. The U.S. forces managed to drive its enemies, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces, from much of the country with the help of the Northern Alliance and its allies in the western and eastern parts of the country. The operations in the eastern mountains of Tora Bora in pursuit of Bin Laden and his cohorts was mainly carried out by fighters of Hazrat Ali, another non-Pashtun warlord.
Now that the United States seemingly no longer needs the Northern Alliance, it is presumably shifting its focus to the south, as Ms. Rice put it: “the social and political heartland of the country.” Whether it is “the social and political heartland of the country” or not is a matter of debate, but the fact is that it certainly is the heartland of the Pashtuns, the dominant tribe in Afghanistan.
This possible shift in U.S. strategy focuses its attention on the warlords, who have been recent targets of a barrage of criticism for abuses, some genuine, some imaginary. The existing warlords are all non-Pashtun. Ismail Khan of Herat is a Tajik and so is Marshal Qassim Fahim, the Afghan defense minister. General Dostum is an ethnic Uzbek, Haji M. Muhaqqeq is a Hazara and Hazrat Ali, a Pashai. They are from the ethnic minorities, which collectively constitute the majority of the population. One by one, these so-called warlords are being put on notice that their days are numbered. The process started with the weakest link, Muhaqqeq, who is militarily not so formidable. He was removed from the cabinet, denying him the legitimacy and the security he enjoyed as the minister of planning.
Next came Ismail Khan of Herat, who was the target of an assassination attempt and whose son, the aviation minister for the Kabul government, was killed, reportedly by a general appointed by Kabul. Ismail Khan was also reportedly warned by coalition forces not to make any trouble for Kabul. Dostum was the third warlord whose authority was challenged by Kabul-appointed officials. When he moved in to secure his domain, he was rebuffed by government forces, who were also accompanied by U.S. troops. There were also instances of intimidation in which, Dostum alleged, jet fighters flew at low altitudes over his residence in Shiberghan.
Hazrat Ali, the fourth non-Pashtun warlord, is located in a strategic region that is close to the border with Pakistan. He, therefore, is still needed in the war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. (Part II of this article will appear in tomorrow’s EDM)