New Alliance Threatens Karzai Power Struggle in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, an odd, new alliance of Mujahedeen, old communists, and royalists is threatening President Hamid Karzai's leadership. But can the motley crew solve the country's problems?


Two children playing on a destroyed car in front of the ruins of a Kabul palace.

Two children playing on a destroyed car in front of the ruins of a Kabul palace.

Such massive security precautions -- just to attend a national holiday parade -- can hardly be a good sign for the country. First, secret police secure the bridge over the Kabul River. Then armored cars, machine guns protruding from their rotating towers, roll into position as sharpshooters fan out in the ruins of the old city center. A Special Forces unit is perched on the roof of the Id-Gah Mosque to keep a watchful eye on the VIP rostrum.

Finally, at just past 9 a.m., half a dozen police cars speed into the square, sirens blaring. The day's leading man slips almost unnoticed out of a car in the middle of the motorcade. Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, has arrived.

The boulevard between the river and Kabul’s bustling Maiwand Street has seen its fair share of celebrations. In 1919, after the Third Anglo-Afghan War, King Amanullah stood here and proclaimed Afghanistan’s freedom from Great Britain. Rulers have been crowned here; rebels have marched here; the communists demonstrated here.

Today, Kabul’s establishment is celebrating the anniversary of the “Islamic Revolution” here. In Afghanistan, the reference is to the overthrow of the Najibullah regime in 1992 and the takeover by the Mujahedeen; the Karzai government elected to name April 28th -- the day the holy warriors triumphed over the communists loyal to Moscow -- as the fledgling democracy's national holiday. Smoking tanks roll past the rostrum, followed by limping war veterans, and the first fighter jets from the Afghan National Army scream through the sky above.

They Only Serve the Enemy

And the cheering crowds out to celebrate Afghanistan's independence? They are nowhere to be seen; the entire area has been cordoned off. Besides, there is hardly reason to celebrate, a fact that can be easily read from Karzai’s speech to the honored guests. The country, Karzai bemoans, cannot seem to find peace despite the government's invitation to cooperate with the Taliban. The government itself is far from healthy; differences within must be reconciled, Karzai warns, because they only serve the enemy.

A portrait of national hero Ahmed Shah Massoud hangs across from the grandstand. The army he led, the so-called Northern Alliance, chased the Taliban away five years ago. The general did not get a chance to witness his accomplishment, however, having been assassinated shortly beforehand. In his place, his brother Ahmed Zia Massoud stands next to Karzai on the grandstand. He is now Afghanistan’s first vice president.

It is he who is meant first and foremost when the president speaks of “differences.”

Four weeks ago, Massoud staged a putsch against Karzai -- that, at least, is how his detractors describe what happened. Others say it was concern for the country’s future that drove him to action. However one chooses to see it, Karzai was on a visit to India when his vice president -- acting head of state with the president out of the country -- appeared at a dubious event in Kabul’s old luxury hotel, the Intercontinental. It was the founding ceremony of the United National Front of Afghanistan -- and the most bewildering collection of people Kabulis had ever seen together.

Former warlord and Karzai’s current chief of staff General Dostam was there, as was ex-Governor Ismail Khan -- known as the “Lion of Herat” during the anti-Soviet resistance -- whi is currently the minister of energy. Former Minister of Defense and former head of the Northern Alliance’s secret service Marshal Fahim was also there along with retired General Olumi, who was Najibullah’s army chief in Kandahar. Then there were Yunus Qanuni, currently speaker of the parliament, and Sayed Mohammad Gulabzoy, who as a communist lieutenant toppled head of state Daud in 1978. Also sitting there were Prince Mustafa, the favorite grandson of King Mohammad Zahir, who returned from exile five years ago, and -- initiator of the meeting -- Burhanuddin Rabbani, recognized the world over as president of Afghanistan under the Mujahedeen and even during Taliban times -- a radical Islamist and opponent of democracy.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's leadership may be in trouble.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's leadership may be in trouble.

It was a gathering of people who were once bitter enemies and who have been blamed for a number of serious human rights violations. During the bloody civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal, men like Rabbani and Dostam turned Kabul into a pile of rubble, killing thousands of civilians. If they had been born in the Balkans, they and others like them would likely be sitting in a cell at the International Criminal Court in The Hague today.

But in the Intercontinental, they adopted a manifesto calling for the abolishment of the presidential system and for the election of governors. In other words, they were urging nothing less than the overthrow of Karzai and the re-establishment of their former power as tribal chiefs and provincial warlords.

Leadership Installed by Foreigners

The government-friendly Afghanistan Times later joked that the assembly was one of “infidels and traitors,” a meeting of those who had missed out and who now wanted to take advantage of the state’s temporary weakness. Others took the event more seriously -- and rightly so. The National Front represents the founding of the first-ever catch-all for all the political heavyweights who have played a role in Afghan politics over the past decades -- and who are now skeptical of what they see as a leadership installed by foreigners.

The event's importance did not escape Hamid Karzai either. The front is “supported by foreign embassies,” he said angrily after his return from India -- by which he especially meant Iran. Parliamentary voices loyal to the government have demanded that Vice President Massoud and any cabinet members who joined the Rabbani front resign.

Burhanuddin Rabbani, 64, is certainly not unhappy about all the commotion. This professor of theology who so doggedly resisted giving up his office to Hamid Karzai in the fall of 2001 resides in a villa in the exclusive Wazir Akbar Khan district of Kabul. The street entering the district is barricaded by bodyguards.

“Yes,” says Rabbani and sighs, “the government is spreading propaganda about us. But we want the same thing as Karzai: more security in the country once and for all.” Sitting bolt upright, the white-bearded Tajik is imposing in his black turban as he sips at his tea. “More security won’t happen without us -- the national leaders who were pushed aside in 2001.”

After the Tea Comes the "But"

The front isn’t going to jump the gun, assures the smiling former president, it's all a matter of time. But you have to consider that the public supports his alliance and not Karzai. Even members of the royal family have joined his movement.

He is talking about Mustafa Zahir. The prince is like a trophy for the front and he had nothing to do with Afghanistan’s recent wars having been in exile in Rome with his grandfather. “I was special assistant to His Majesty, the father of the nation, and his personal secretary until 2001,” Mustafa says. Now he is “president” of the Afghan agency for environmental protection, “the same rank as a minister,” he emphasizes. His grandfather, the former monarch, lives in the royal palace once again, but the 92-year-old spends more time with his doctors in America or in Abu Dhabi than in Kabul.

Things have gotten better in Afghanistan in the last five years, the 43-year-old prince explains. He is wearing a light-colored blazer over the national dress, and the Tasbih, the Muslim rosary, glides endlessly through the fine fingers bearing a lapis lazuli ring. The people elected a parliament, the currency is worth something again and five million children have begun going to school again. It takes nearly an hour and several pots of green tea before the prince comes to the “but.”

“But as a normal citizen,” he says now, he has been “disappointed” by the Karzai regime. Fully 1,347 deputies out of 1,500, he claims, had voiced their support in parliament for his grandfather as head of state. Who exactly pushed his grandfather aside, he won't say -- what he means is that the Americans wanted Karzai and no one else from the very beginning.

Soldiers marching in front of dignitaries during the celebration of the country's national day in late April.

Soldiers marching in front of dignitaries during the celebration of the country's national day in late April.

But the security situation, he complains, has become atrocious -- so bad, in fact, that the prince doesn’t dare venture past the Khair Khana Pass in northern Kabul when it’s dark. Furthermore, he says the corruption is worse under Karzai than under the communists, the Mujahedeen and the Taliban put together, that the police raid and plunder the city at night and that no one knows what happened to the billions in foreign aid.

“I realized that my joining the Rabbani front would be risky,” says the king’s grandson, whom the Economist already considers a promising heir to Karzai. However, he courageously put national interest before his party, family and personal interests. “We must build bridges to our unhappy brothers and sisters,” he says.

A Government Reshuffle

One of these is Sayed Gulabzoy, 55, once minister of the interior under Najibullah -- a man whose hand Prince Mustafa would not have shaken in the past. After 17 years in exile in Russia, he is back in the country and even a member of parliament.

His tribe and friends from five provinces, as well as many who have were disappointed with the Karzai regime, pushed him to run for office, says the retired colonel general. The narcotics boom and corruption? They were never a problem under “Dr. Najibullah.” The worst, however, is that the new leadership forced 45,000 well-trained army officers into unemployment along with 7,500 men from the ministry of the interior -- if you include their families, that makes a quarter of a million Afghans “who now live in poverty.”

It is this resentment that former head of state Rabbani, the man with the honed instinct for power, channels through his united front. He knows that even generals in the new army support his plan. Hamid Karzai, called the great accommodator by Western observers in Kabul, also tries to come to terms with his critics. Against Western advice, he granted amnesty to all war criminals as demanded by the Mujahedeen. Rumors say he is also preparing for a government reshuffle -- in favor of the Rabbani followers.

The question remains what game Karzai’s deputy, Ahmed Zia Massoud, is playing. “The people must decide about the future,” says the national hero’s brother from his seat in the Sederat, a palace dating back to British times. And of course “everyone has the right to belong to any party,” even a member of the government. He’d rather not speak of the fact that he is Rabbani’s brother in law.


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