By M K Bhadrakumar
The simmering political feud between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and governor of Balk province in the north of the country Atta Muhammad Noor peaked. Ghani sacked Noor and claimed the latter ‘resigned’. Noor cries murder, saying he didn’t resign. Noor, popularly known as the ‘King of the North’, is also the head of the Jamiat-i-Islami, the predominantly Tajik party wielding influence in the eastern, northern and western provinces, which traces its pedigree to Ahmed Shah Massoud and Burhanuddin Rabbani. Noor fought as a Jamiat commander during the jihad against the Soviet army in the 1980s and later was a key figure in the Northern Alliance during the anti-Taliban resistance under Massoud.
Noor is a hugely influential Tajik leader who, Ghani senses (rightly so), harbors presidential ambitions. The elections are due next July (ie., if Ghani chooses to hold them.) The ensuing power play in the recent months has led to this week’s showdown. Ghani is worried that a political alliance that Noor formed a few months ago is gaining traction. The other leading figures in the alliance include influential ‘warlords’ such as the Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum, Hazara leader Mohammed Mohaqiq, Tajik leader from Herat Ismail Khan and so on.
Ghani had thought that the Noor-Dostum-Mohaqiq alliance would unravel, but surprisingly it has not only held together but is also expanding its reach to the southern region. Ghani is determined to stay in power confident in the knowledge that so long as he serves American interests loyally, he has nothing to worry. But all the same, as the election draws closer, he is getting goosebumps. The point is, Ghani is finding himself between the rock and a hard place. On the one hand, a powerful coalition is assembling to challenge his candidacy if elections are held next year.
On the other hand, former President Hamid Karzai has raised the demand that a loya jirga should be convened instead to review the security policies and Afghanistan’s relations with the United States and also to select a new leadership in Kabul. Ideally, Ghani would like to avoid both elections and loya jirga and simply remain in power. But then, Karzai’s proposal is steadily gaining broader acceptance as it becomes increasingly clear that the likelihood of Ghani risking an election is indeed very low.
Of course, Ghani knows that a loya jirga would dump him without batting an eyelid. Which of course is Karzai’s agenda, too. Karzai somehow wants to get rid of the Americans and bring to an end the US occupation of his country. But on the pathway lies Ghani. The Americans themselves are horrified at the very mention of Karzai and loya Jirga, as they know that the groundswell of ‘anti-American’ feelings may surge if they are allowed to have their way. The US agenda is minimal willy-nilly retain the military bases in Afghanistan. An American puppet in Kabul is, therefore, an absolute prerequisite. Ghani has become irreplaceable. The recent Pentagon report to the US Congress beautifully puts across the paradigm “We have a willing and able partner in President Ghani.”
Then, there are sub-plots. Jamiat has taken exception to Ghani’s sacking of Noor. It has alleged that Ghani’s move contravenes the understanding that led to the creation of the present National Unity Government after the disputed presidential election in 2014. The Jamiat has called for ‘civic action’ to protest but has warned that ‘if the aggression and threats increase against us, then we can use other options.’ The big question is where Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah stands in all this. Notionally, he is a Jamiat leader. If Jamiat decides to withdraw its support to Ghani, the decent thing to do is for Abdullah to resign. But will he? For one thing, he is also under the American thumb and if he quits now and brings the roof down on the Ghani government that the Americans built, it will annoy Washington.
Abdullah’s single-minded agenda is to replace Ghani. In effect, he would like to replace Ghani as the next American puppet. So, Abdullah finds himself in a quandary. ‘To quit, or not to quit,’ that’s the question. In all probability, he won’t quit since there is no guarantee either that Jamiat will field him as a presidential candidate when Noor has already voiced interest in Ghani’s job.
Ghani has matured as a first-rate manipulator. His tactic is to divide and rule. He has already caused split in Dostum’s party Jumbish; he is propping up one faction of Hezb-e-Islami, which doesn’t accept Gulbuddin Hematyar’s leadership; he now hopes to create havoc in the Jamiat camp as well. But things can spin out of hand. If these fractures and ethnic tensions get reflected in the Afghan state structures, especially the army and police which they will (if not already) new possibilities arise such as coups and counter-coups and so on.
Meanwhile, the political vacuum in the north following Noor’s dismissal can only work to the advantage of the Taliban and the Islamic State. The developments have been sufficiently worrisome that German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel flew into Kabul today evening to meet Ghani and urge him to hold the elections on schedule next July.
Gabriel offered that Berlin will defray the cost of the elections. The German contingent is based in Mazar-i-Sharif and Noor has been a valuable local ally. Above all, Berlin will have a problem dealing with the government in Kabul beyond July once it loses the last bit of legitimacy it can claim to have to continue in power.
What emerges is that the Trump administration was lying through its teeth when Pentagon presented a rosy picture of the Afghan situation in its six-monthly report to the US Congress in December. The chilling reality is that Afghanistan is heading south in the direction of where the former South Vietnam found itself in the 1960s.