Friday, April 8, 2011

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Pastor Jones and a dreaded ghost
By M K Bhadrakumar

Broadly speaking, successful United Nations diplomats rise up the greasy pole at headquarters in Turtle Bay either by playing safe and allowing the good life to remain unruffled or alternatively, living dangerously. Staffan de Mistura, the Swedish-Italian who represents the UN secretary general in Afghanistan, belongs to the second category. His previous assignments included Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Lebanon and Iraq.

De Mistura's main qualification for the assignment in Kabul, however, was that he was very unlike the brilliant Norwegian diplomat whom he replaced, Kai Eide, who turned out to be "a disappointment" (to borrow the description from a New York

editorial) as far as Washington was concerned.

De Mistura - appointed just over a year ago - lacked a stellar international stature, but Washington wanted him in Kabul, given his previous working experience with both General David Petraeus, US commander in Afghanistan, and Karl Eikenberry, American ambassador in Kabul.

The late US special representative for AfPak, Richard Holbrooke, confided with The Cable, "I [Holbrooke] had a very good talk with him [De Mistura], quite a long talk, we went over every aspect of the relationship. He wanted to discuss how he could relate to us ... I assured him that the US government and the US Embassy look forward to working with him ... De Mistura has the unanimous support of the US government."

The above long-winded introduction becomes necessary for comprehending the alchemy of the explosive violence that shook the northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-i-Sharif last Friday afternoon that led to the killing of five Nepalese guards and three UN employees at the UN compound.

Accounts vary as to what happened. Following the Friday Prayer, a crowd that was leaving the famous Blue Mosque found another set of religious leaders in a Toyota Corolla fitted out with loudspeakers urging people to join them at the burning of the effigy of a militant fundamentalist Christian pastor in the US by name of Terry Jones who oversaw the burning of a copy of the Koran at his church in Gainesville, Florida, on March 20.

The crowd then turned and started walking the one-kilometer journey toward the UN compound. The Gurkhas who provided security for the UN were somehow overwhelmed and killed while a larger group apparently broke into the compound. In the violence that followed, all Afghan national staff and the Russian head of the UN office were spared, while the crowd went for Westerners, namely, three workers from Norway, Romania and Sweden.

What stands out is that the victims were deliberately murdered rather than killed by an out-of-control mob. Meanwhile, agitation against Jones has spread to Kandahar and the violence in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar has somehow become coalesced, as if originating from one vast reservoir.

Afghan authorities and De Mistura have instinctively blamed the Taliban for the violence in Mazar-i-Sharif. The Taliban flatly rejected the imputation. Indeed, there are intriguing questions as to what really happened.

As the London Observer noted:
If the glimmer of popular sympathy for violence in Mazar is disturbing, so too is the fact that such a terrible attack on Western civilians should have happened there at all. Mazar is a highly secure city of ordered streets, where cars are regulated by traffic lights, which, almost uniquely in Afghanistan, not only work but are obeyed. When Liam Fox, the [British] defense secretary, toured Afghanistan [in January], he made a point of adding Mazar to the usual British itinerary of Kabul and Helmand. "It was a totally unthreatening environment]," he said at the time. "It's a city the size of Bristol and it felt just like any safe city in Central Asia." ... The newly opened US consulate, which has taken over an old hotel, does not even have a razor wire along its not particularly high walls.
Indeed, anyone familiar with the Amu Darya region would know that the walk from the Blue Mosque to the UN compound itself is as eternal a walk as the footsteps that Neil Armstrong, the American astronaut, took on July 20, 1969, under the close monitoring of the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. Not a bird can fly across that one kilometer without the three lords of the northern Afghan manor noticing it (or permitting it to happen) - Rashid Dostum, Uzbek strongman; Mohammed Mohaqiq, Hazara Shi'ite leader; and Atta Mohammad Noor, currently governor of Balkh province and an erstwhile Northern Alliance leader.

Dostum, Mohaqiq and Atta might have had ups and downs in their mutual often-acrimonious equations, but one thing that unites them for a lifetime is their visceral hatred toward the Taliban and their existential fear of a return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan. They do not need to be told that the Taliban and them simply cannot co-exist within one Afghan political entity.

In sum, De Mistura has completely misjudged the signal from Friday's bloody violence in Mazar-i-Sharif. The city simply cannot have any Taliban presence. The weekend's violence in Mazar and Kandahar is of different kinds, although they are joined at the hip insofar as they are an explosive manifestation of a dangerous threshold of Afghan alienation with Westerners.

A ghost steps out from shadows
The fact is that not only Dostum, Mohaqiq and Atta but the entire city of Mazar-i-Sharif - nay, the entire northern and western regions of Afghanistan - have taken stock that under a shroud of great secrecy, something of momentous consequence for their lives and that of their families and friends and ethnic compatriots may have commenced on March 28 at a faraway place - the Federal District Court on Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC - and they have no say in the matter.

The hearing has finally begun on a case concerning a former high-ranking Taliban official who has been held at the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for the past eight years. His name happens to be Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa.

The very mention of that name curdles the blood of any citizen of Mazar. There is a 14-year history behind it when mere anarchy was loosed upon the world, and indignant desert birds searched for carcasses to feed on in the ransacked city streets.

What Khairkhwa's name evokes is within living memory, a happening of 1997-1998. Briefly, to cut a horrendous story short, Khairkhwa was the chief of intelligence under Taliban leader Mullah Omar who headed the operations to capture Mazar in May 1997 through treachery in a trade-off (masterminded by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence - the ISI) with some of Dostum's renegade commanders. The attempt backfired and in the resistance that followed by the Hazara Shi'ites and Uzbeks, who form the bulk of the city's population, thousands of Taliban soldiers were butchered and the rout almost finished off the Taliban and Khairullah's future.

But then, the ISI didn't let misfortune overtake their favorite Taliban official and Khairkhwa regrouped and returned to first lay siege to Mazar and then bombard it for several months and thereafter storm it in August 1998. This time, Khairkhwa and the ISI took no chances. The Hazara Shi'ites were massacred in their thousands in revenge and for the next six days after entering Mazar, Khairkhwa ordered his men to go from door to door looking for male Hazara Shi'ites and summarily executed them.

Thousands of Uzbek prisoners were packed into transport truck containers to be suffocated or to die of heat stroke so that Khairkhwa could spare ammunition. Among those who managed to flee the city were Dostum, Mohaqiq and Atta. Mohaqiq was evacuated in the nick of time from Khairkhwa's clutches by a helicopter.

An Amnesty International report of September 3, 1998, chronicled unemotionally: "Taliban guards deliberately and systematically killed thousands of Hazara civilians ... in their homes, in the streets where the bodies were left for several days, or in locations between Mazar-i-Sharif and Hairatan [on the Oxus River]. Many of those killed were civilians, including women, children and the elderly who were shot trying to flee the city."

Every little child in Mazar knows the epic story of that bloodbath, which reached an historic scale the city had not seen since Genghis Khan and his Mongol army passed through in the 13th century. That is to say, nothing has been forgotten, nothing forgiven. And there is fury, anger, fear and frustration building up among the Uzbeks, Hazaras and Tajiks of northern Afghanistan that a Pashtun conspiracy is afoot in Kabul with the covert blessings of the "international community" to rehabilitate Khairkhwa.

The case in the Washington federal court aims at getting an injunction that Khairkhwa's continued detention is "unlawful" and that the US government should release him. Afghan President Hamid Karzai backs the move, while the stance of the Barack Obama administration remains extremely ambivalent, to say the least. Karzai said, "If he [Khairkhwa] wants to talk, we welcome him. We would talk to him, we would arrange his release."

Significantly, the US government allowed a delegation of the Afghan High Council for Peace (Karzai's nominees) to visit Guantanamo Bay in February to meet Khairkhwa. A spokeswoman of the American Embassy in Kabul said that "the United States supports the work of the High Peace Council", but

refrained from specifically commenting on Karzai's calls to release Khairkhwa. Karzai has suggested, on the other hand, that his government would be able to secure Khairkhwa's release. All indications point toward Kabul and Washington working in tandem.

The case is being steered ostensibly by a self-styled Center for Conflict and Peace Studies (CCPS) based in Kabul and which has links with US and Pakistani intelligence and operates as a "backchannel" between Karzai and US - and with the ISI - on the sensitive issue of reconciliation of the Taliban.

The CCPS's contention is that Khairkhwa's release "will be influential to the peace process". Its director, Hekmat Karzai, who is incidentally testifying as an "expert" witness in favor of Khairkhwa's release during the hearing, has been quoted as brazenly estimating that "Mr Khairkhwa is well respected amongst the Taliban and was considered a moderate by those who knew him. We believe he can help in creating the address for the Taliban that is needed in thus peace process."

The CCPS director's contention is that the international community should "incentivize" the Taliban to cajole them to dissociate from al-Qaeda, and measures such as making Khairkhwa a free bird on the Afghan political landscape are precisely the sort of bold, imaginative steps needed at this juncture to create an "address" for the Taliban at the negotiating table. Hekmat Karzai recently asked in exasperation: "But not enough has been done to build confidence for the Taliban to dissociate themselves from al-Qaeda. What do they leave all that for?"

Tread softly on dreaded memories
A very good question, indeed. Except that that is not how the non-Pashtuns see the state of play. First, the non-Pashtuns say that Afghan-American Pashtun activists from the diaspora who appeared on the Kabul scene in the downstream of the US invasion in 2001 have no clue to the current Afghan history and ground realities and are dangerously and cavalierly butting into sensitive domains of the Afghan ethnic problem, either out of sheer innocence or as playthings of quarters interested in the hardcore Taliban leadership's rehabilitation.

Indeed, a huge schism is developing in Afghanistan on the issue of the reconciliation of the Taliban, which could have profound consequences for the unity of the country. The violence in Mazar is a wake-up call that if pushed against the wall, non-Pashtuns will take recourse to violence and even take up arms if necessary to counter the return of the Taliban to Afghan political structures.

The opinion all over the Amu Darya region is hardening even as the Kabul government's efforts - with backing from Pakistan and an increasingly-war weary Obama administration - to reach out to the Taliban intensify. The non-Pashtun groups are peeved that Karzai no longer voices any direct criticism of Taliban atrocities against civilians. They scoff at the simplistic contention that the Taliban have changed their ideology and political agenda. They apprehend that if returned to power, the Taliban will prove as oppressive as before. Powerful voices in northern Afghanistan have begun to question Karzai's credentials and personal agenda of reconciling the Taliban.

From all appearances, De Mistura has missed the plot. He seems to blame the Taliban for the attack on the UN office. But Obama chose to speak philosophically: "Now is a time to draw upon the common humanity that we share. The desecration of any holy text, including the Koran, is an act of extreme intolerance and bigotry. However, to attack and kill innocent people in response is outrageous." Obama avoided making judgments as to why UN took the hit in Mazar.

For the Obama administration, a pot is boiling. The verdict by the Federal District Court in Washington will provide just the right fig-leaf to release Khairkhwa. Interestingly, Obama's predecessor in the White House, George W Bush, also seems to be keenly following what the Oval Office is up to. In an extraordinary public outburst on Friday, Bush posted a strong warning that the Obama strategy of reconciliation with the Taliban was going a bit too far, too fast. He said:
My concern of course is that the United States gets weary of being in Afghanistan and says "It's not worth it, let's leave" ... We don't believe that's in the interest of the United States, or the world, to create a safe haven for terrorists and stand by and watch women's rights be abused. We've seen what it is like under the Taliban.

Even though it was a decade ago, surely we can remember the fact that - for example - young girls couldn't go to school and women were jailed in their own homes. If they expressed themselves publicly in a way that irritated the Taliban, they were brutalized. That is not in our interests to see that kind of behavior. We liberated Afghanistan from the Taliban ... I believed then and now we have an obligation to help this young democracy in Afghanistan survive - and thrive.
The debatable point that Bush raised is as to how far the push to reintegrate hardcore Taliban leaders like Khairkhwa is justified. Probably, US intelligence has got through to Khairkhwa, as Hekmat Karzai's rosy remarks seem to suggest.

True, the Taliban's priority has always been to negotiate directly with the US. However, by making Khairkhwa a test case, the Obama administration is pushing the envelope. Another list of Taliban "dignitaries" in Guantanamo Bay to be released is also on the consideration zone, including Abdul Haq Wasiq, former deputy head of Taliban intelligence, Mullah Morullah Noori, the Taliban's supremo for the entire northern Afghanistan region, and Mullah Mohammad Fazl, former Taliban army chief of staff.

Noori, Fazl and Khairkhwa - the trinity also figures in the UN's list of dangerous Taliban terrorists. Will the Obama administration get court injunctions for their release and then approach the UN for approval for removing them from the terrorism watch list, overruling objections from countries such as Russia, on the plea that the US judicial system does not allow their continued detention? It's all turning more and more into a farce. And the farce could turn overnight into a first-rate tragedy as the Mazar incident underscores.

The UN has had to take the brunt of the attack in Mazar because it is being seen as the convenient handmaiden of the Obama administration. And in the process, three Europeans have been killed although they had nothing to do with Khairkhwa's impending release from Guantanamo Bay.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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