Afghanistan is a land of many clans and deadly rivalries. The tribal armies of Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaris, and well-armed fractions of each, control their own strongholds, skirmishing with the others at the margins. The imposition of a notionally national interim government has done little to change realities on the ground beyond Kabul's city limits.
In eastern Afghanistan, disputes over provincial control have already led to serious fighting and scores, perhaps hundreds, of deaths. Even inside Kabul, the recent murder of Civil Aviation Minister Abdul Rahman by former comrades-in-arms within the Jamiat-e-Islami movement is just the latest indication that senior ministers still believe they can manage national policy through personal vendetta and tribal connection.
This is still the scramble for naked power, with little or no attempt to rebuild the shattered economy. And the economy is almost non-existent. The only significant source of domestic revenue within Afghanistan is the heroin trade. The Northern Alliance army that swept south to take Kabul -- essentially a Tajik force supplied by the Russians -- was financed almost entirely by a drug trade that saw Afghan heroin produced by the Northern Alliance shipped via Tajikistan and Russia to Europe.
Throughout the country, in a move that augers ill for any hope of national unity, warlords of each nationality are strengthening their control of local poppy fields, and seeking foreign patrons for the security of their distribution, the revenues of which go to finance the private armies. With northeast routes in the hands of the Tajik-Russian faction, Pashtun traffickers are building bridges with Iran and Pakistan, while the Uzbeks and Hazaris have their own methods.
One of the question marks must be the stability of the pro-American “interim government” of Hamid Karzai. On a day-to-day basis, the new government is protected by the “international monitoring force” under the command of the U.S. surrogates, Great Britain. But this force cannot yet operate outside Kabul city limits, and Karzai’s bargaining power with the powerful warlords who control the bulk of Afghani territory must rest with the United States’ overwhelming military presence.
Defence Minister General Muhammed Fahim, heir to Ahmad Shah Massood’s northern principality, stood beside Karzai for Rahman’s funeral in a show of unity. But it is Fahim and his powerfully-armed Tajik Northern Alliance that is blocking the expansion of western troops. Fahim, with his logistical and material needs satisfied after a successful visit to Moscow last week, has no reason to see Karzai’s reach enhanced.
No more do any of the other warlords, big or small.
The Russians, arms suppliers to Fahim and his victorious Tajiks, and transporters of his heroin, no longer have any need for a united Afghanistan. They are well aware that many Pashtuns hate the Russians, and a Pashtun-majority Afghan government would not be a friendly neighbour. A friendly and susceptible Tajik-dominated buffer zone would seem to be a better alternative.
In broader terms, the Russians know that a successful U.S.-backed government in Kabul would represent a serious strategic challenge with multiple points of potential dispute.
First, the simple strategic challenge of having massive American forces perched on Russia’s southern borders cannot feel comfortable in Moscow. Putin is pragmatic enough to recognize the military superiority of the United States. He is also well aware that, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, America’s strategic concerns have focused on Beijing rather than Moscow; the deals Rumsfeld is making for bases in the Central Asian republics help to encircle China, rather than threaten Russia. Still in all, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan used to be part of the Russian empire, and pride requires a level of umbrage.
A strong and unified Afghanistan would likely become a major American staging post for this new Central Asia imperium. The balkanization of Afghanistan would hamper this effort.
Second, but perhaps of primary importance to the oligarchs of Russian business – as it is indeed to their Wall Street brethren – is the matter of oil.
Washington has long sought access to Central Asian oil reserves; its preferred method of access being a pipeline through Afghanistan to the sea at Karachi, Pakistan. Decades of chaotic civil war followed by the anti-American Taliban government in Afghanistan stood in the way of those plans. Now, with the prospect of stability in Afghanistan, the economic imperialists are moving into high gear on a project that will rob Russia of its traditional exporter role and revenues.
The longer Afghanistan can be destabilized, the further delayed will be the pipeline.
So, if the majority of Afghanis are already separated into autonomous groupings, and the traditional regional power is opposed to unity, who exactly needs a unified Afghanistan? Hamid Karzai obviously, for without it he has no future. Other than him, just the Pentagon and the global oil companies so far as I can tell.
And here lies the rub. It seems impossible for the interim government in Kabul to gain full control of the country without massive American military assistance, and yet the oil companies need the stability that such control would bring. How many body bags can they persuade the American public to accept as the price for their pipeline?