The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 27, 2002
Lead Article

Politics of drugs and jehad
Does peace have a chance in Afghanistan?

What does the future have in store for Afghanistan? Fragile peace for one. War will remain in a state of suspended animation in Afghanistan as long as the Americans continue with their focus on the region. But regrouping elsewhere has started. The Taliban base has shifted to the NWFP and the theatre of action will in all likelihood be Kashmir. The misplaced jehadi spirit mixed with easy money will vent itself primarily on neighbouring India before travelling to other parts of the world, says Ashwini Bhatnagar.

IT is said that Kabul was never too dusty; and if today dust blows like a fine spray through the snow-free months it is because of the five-year-long drought. As a result of the lack of rain, the once- magnificent Kabul river has dried up and a bazaar has overrun its bed. The rains failed, it is said, because the tree cover was indiscriminately cut down during the last 20-odd years. First the Soviet-backed regimes played havoc with the eco system and later the Taliban ravaged it for six long years. The mining of the visible assets continues unabated even today as immediate survival takes precedence over everything else. The dust, it seems, is unlikely to settle in Afghanistan in the foreseeable future.


Part of its dusty existence can be traced to its history. From Alexander to Babur (who loved Kabul so much that, as per his wish, he was buried there), from the Mongols to the Huns and from seasoned campaigners to seasonal looters, convoys of men, animal and machines have moved down its valleys time and again, driving the natives literally up the hills. Afghanistan granted the right of passage to armies easily as they took the beaten path to their ultimate destination—- India. The dust of advancing or retreating armies has, therefore, never really settled down. Twenty three years ago, Russian tanks had moved in. Six years back Pakistan, came in masquerading as the Taliban. The Americans are now in control..

Unmarked graves of soldiers who died while fighting the Taliban
Unmarked graves of soldiers who died while fighting the Taliban

True, an internationally recognised government is in place in Kabul. Its writ is supposed to run through the country as it prepares to return Afghanistan to peace and democracy. That, it is said, is the mandate of the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan, which was formed at the Grand Council, Loya Jirga, in June this year. However, this is only one part of the story. The other part concerns the politics of peace that will prepare the ground for what is described as a ‘return to civil society.’

As of now, Afghanistan’s civil society is akin to its terrain — rough and rugged with its bold heights interfaced with shallow depths of river plains. It is also inaccessible in most parts to foreign gaze. Within its folds the ancient mountains hide primitive societies that are unreachable. The only contact can be when such communities themselves decide to make contact. It cannot be the other way round. History and the personal experience of the present –day generation have made them wary of efforts to inject non-traditional lifestyles into their lives. The Soviets tried this for nearly two decades and failed. The Taliban came closer to success for it drew sustenance from its local base. It failed because it was monitored by the Pakistanis —- people who the Afghans knew well but were nevertheless not their own..

It is said that the Afghans are fiercely independent. They have never been subjugated for any reasonable length of time. Also true is the fact that despite several attempts by the British and the present King Zahir Shah dynasty, Afghanistan could never effectively be turned into a cohesive political entity. Large segments of the country continued to be ruled by the local warlords who accepted the Afghan king only in name. Even during the Soviet occupation, the heights were dominated by warlords and Kabul’s writ ran only in major towns.

Tanks and anti-aircraft guns stand guard near the mined Kabul golf course
Tanks and anti-aircraft guns stand guard near the mined Kabul golf course

"Who is bothered about the government?" asks the middle-aged Yousuf Khan, " My family lives beyond the Panjshir while I live here. We are by ourselves. We do as the Pathan sahib tells us to do. He is my government." So Khan, who has a couple of acres near Kabul and also runs a shop in the city, answered his Sahib’s call and went back to his village to become a mujahideen against the Soviets. When the war was over, he came back to cultivate his land again and run his shop. Later, he received another call. This time to fight for the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. He dug out his Russian- made gun and fought again. "Hamara sher tha Massoud," he says in halting Hindi of Commander Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir.

"There cannot be a government here until all our big men are there in it," he opines, perhaps putting the whole political jigsaw in place. "I will fight again if they are not given their due." Khan’s Pathan sahib is not known even in the informed political circles of the country’s capital. But he wields enough clout to make people like Khan die for him. There are many steps in this power ladder and occupying the top rungs are people like Marshal Fahim, currently Afghanistan’s Defence Minister, and General Ismail Khan of Herat, who between them command a personal army of over 50,000 heavily armed men. Though the two are playing their due role in the transitional state, there are scores of others who run their fiefdoms cocking a snook at all those who want them to answer to a central authority.

Apart from the "fiercely independent" nature of the Afghans that repels political cohesion at more than a regional scale, the fruits of independence are many. Politically, it makes them much sought after. Economically, it means easy money through poppy cultivation. Perhaps, it is the money that flows from this illicit enterprise that motivates the warlords to guard their territory zealously. According to UN estimates, the drug trade fetches about $ 10 –15 billion annually in illegal revenue. This is 25 times the annual fiscal budget of the country. Every bit of this activity is in the hands of the warlords. Their power stems from it.

A copybook example of what drug money can fetch is the story of Afghan Vice President Haji Qadir who was gunned down in July this year. According to informed Kabul resident, the Haji was a truck driver who very quickly went on to become the richest man in the country. It is alleged that he was the principal transporter of drugs and used his trucks for this purpose. Later, he purchased two aircraft and ran his empire like a "medieval king." The US and its allies had protested his inclusion into the transitional government but to no avail. The Haji rose to be the second most important person in the country before he fell to the assassin’s bullet.

Tribal affiliations that are said to be very strong in this part of the world also do not seem to matter when it comes to trafficking in drugs. Kunduz lies in a Tajik area but the local warlord is a Pushtun. Poppy cultivation binds the two otherwise hostile tribes together. Furthermore, the trade is clearly demarcated. While the southern and southeastern areas are into poppy cultivation, the refineries and the processing units are located in the east and in the northeast part of the country. The location of these units ensures easy exit into Pakistan from where the drugs are smuggled all over the world. The politics of peace is hence subject to the politics of drug money. And drug money is closely linked to Pakistan.

"We hate Pakistan," says a taxi driver, "That country is responsible for all the atrocities that were committed by the Taliban. In fact, the Taliban was nothing but Pakistan. The road to Jalalabad and thence to Peshawar used to be full of Pakistani trucks carrying goods looted from us. Their army officers used to enter houses and take away valuables at gunpoint. If India starts a war with Pakistan, we would like to join in. We will squeeze the Pakistanis from both sides and finish their country." The taxi driver’s ire is understandable as is that of scores of people on the street who cannot stand Pakistanis. However, it is also a well recognised fact that an overwhelming majority of community leaders who fought the Russians and then went on to side with the Taliban are in Pakistan after the Northern Alliance moved into Kabul. They have very strong roots in rural as well as urban areas of the country and continue to operate by proxy. Currently, Afghanistan survives on international aid and its own wealth is stated to be $100 million in cash and $120 million in gold. These are the assets that had been frozen by the Clinton administration during the Taliban rule. The rich countries have so far pledged $ 4.5 billion towards reconstruction but the money is yet to come in. Furthermore, Afghanistan has no banking system. President Karzai had to carry the $10 million grant each given by India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in suitcases a few months back.

However, despite the aid and pledges of aid, there is not sufficient money going around in the country to feed its millions. The drug cartel, on the other hand, has enough of it. The process of peace therefore becomes tricky.

Stability does not suit the drug mafia. A well-run government that is answerable to the international community effectively tolls the death knell of the powerful. The powerful are either based in Pakistan or have strong "trade links" with it. Pakistan itself has a large political interest in Afghanistan. Post- 9/11 it had to pull back more than 20 years of its military investment in Afghanistan. It would like to revive this investment and not write it off as a dead loss. The rise of the right wingers in the North West Frontier Province is also an indication that the legacy of the Al-Qaida has survived the American onslaught and has taken root in not-too-distant a soil.

The transition to a "civil society", therefore, promises to a long and arduous journey. Drug money may not dry out in the near future. Everybody needs it —- the people, the politicians, the warlords and the jehadis. The corridor for funneling drugs is now in the hands of the "democratically elected" people of the NWFP whose anti-West and pro-Taliban stance is well known.

So what does the future have in store? Fragile peace for one. War will remain in a state of suspended animation in Afghanistan as long as the Americans continue with their focus on the region. The Taliban base has shifted to the NWFP and the theatre of action will in all likelihood be Kashmir. The misplaced jehadi spirit mixed with easy money will vent itself primarily on neighbouring India before travelling to other parts of the world. And as the West gets busy with its fire-fighting operations across the globe, a loosely held Afghanistan may rise again under another anti-West, pro- Islam cloak. The dust may not settle even temporarily and the Kabul river may not flow ever again.

(Photos by Ashwini Bhatnagar)