Spinning the web in
Afghanistan By Syed Saleem Shahzad
QUETTA, Balochistan - Three years after the
US-led invasion on Afghanistan, the country stages
presidential elections on October 9 that will be
remarkable more for external interference than internal
considerations in deciding a winner, with Washington,
Islamabad, Moscow, New Delhi and Tehran all muddying the
In this game of manipulation, Pakistan
is at the forefront as it attempts to regain the
strategic depth it had in Afghanistan prior to the
ousting of the Taliban regime in late 2001. And the
southwestern city of Quetta, the capital of Balochistan
province, is abuzz as Pakistan rallies for a decisive
majority of Pashtun votes.
situation Of the 18 presidential candidates, the
current interim incumbent, Hamid Karzai, is the
strongest. He is Pashtun, the dominant ethnic grouping,
and favored by both Islamabad and Washington, the latter
having handpicked him in the first place. But in the
important Pashtun belt on the border with Pakistan,
anti-US sentiment is running high, making Karzai
vulnerable to his main rival, Yunus Qanooni.
Qanooni hails from the minority Tajik community,
and is backed by Iran, Russia and India. He is a former
education minister and a member of the Jamiat-i-Islami
led by the influential Professor Buhanuddin Rabbani and
is believed to have a strong voter bank in the
heartlands - Takhar, Panjsher and Badakshan, apart from
approximately 800,000 Afghan refugees in Iran who are
eligible to vote. He also has some support in the
predominantly Pashtun belt where the Jamiat-i-Islami has
footholds, such as in Jalalabad, Kabul and Logar.
Qanooni is viewed as an Islamist and anti-US.
Karzai's vulnerability is compounded by the
Taliban (defined by the US as "bad" Taliban as opposed
to "good" ones ) calling for a boycott of the elections.
The Taliban movement still holds massive appeal for the
Pashtun population in east and southeastern Afghanistan,
especially in Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Kunar, Zabul,
Oruzgan and Kandahar.
Initially, the majority of
the Afghan adult population refused to register for the
polls. The government then issued special cards to those
who did register, and these cards are a virtual
prerequisite for being a "national". People are stopped
at bus stops and check points and forced to produce the
registration cards, or else face harassment.
Registration figures shot up as a result. However, in
places like Zabul and Hilmand, the Taliban often besiege
areas and beat up people found with cards.
addition to approximately 10 million voters in
Afghanistan, about 1.5 million in refugee camps in
Pakistan can also vote. The Taliban have already
distributed warning leaflets in these camps that those
found voting will have their homes demolished. Some
independent clerics are also preaching to discourage
females from voting. This trend also exists in the
These developments aside, two
powerful candidates, Syed Ishaq Gailani and Ahmad Shah
Ahmadzai, will also deplete Karzai's vote bank. Ahmadzai
hails from the Ittehad-i-Islami Afghanistan led by
Professor Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf. He is influential in
places such as Laghman and Paktia. Gailani comes from a
powerful spiritual family with support in Kabul, beside
some pockets in Kandahar and Jalalabad. Gailani is a
supporter of former Afghan king Zahir Shah.
Concerned onlookers Unlike Qanooni's
stable support in Tajik areas and the Iranian refugee
camps, Karzai cannot count on uniform Pashtun support,
which is of some concern to both Islamabad and
Washington as they certainly don't want Qanooni as the
Although Islamabad does not
particularly like Karzai, it has lost all of its cards,
including the Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan and the Taliban,
and is trying to make the best of a bad job by getting
Karzai and key "henchmen" elected.
the collapse of the Taliban, Pakistan had devised a
strategy under which it promoted former jihadi
commanders of Pashtun origin to form a council headed by
Gailani, a "liberal" and acceptable face for the US, to
replace the Taliban in Kabul. However, Western countries
shot down the idea as a bid to bring jihadis into power.
Nevertheless, after a couple of years three powerful
jihadi commanders (from the same council) have managed
to work their way into Karzai's cabinet - Qazi Amin,
Abdul Waheed Sabaoon and Haji Mengal Hussain, all former
Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan members.
The idea of
"moderate Taliban" was also devised by Pakistan.
Initially it was unpopular in Washington, but as the
Afghan resistance continued the US agreed and has given
the green light for them to provide Karzai with a strong
base in the Pashtun population. Former foreign minister
Mullah Abdul Waqil Mutawakil, Mullah Khaksar and Mullah
Ghous are three prominent people now on Karzai's side,
having changed loyalties from Taliban leader Mullah
Pakistan has recently conducted
countrywide raids to sort out "bad" Taliban, resulting
in a team of "good" Taliban being assembled to help
Karzai. Organizations such as the Jaishul Muslim have
been set up to accommodate them.
Saleem Shahzad, Bureau Chief Pakistan, Asia Times
Online. He can be reached at
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