Developments in the Pashtun and Taliban heartland, Kandahar seem ominous for the future of Afghanistan and its embattled President Hamid Karzai. The situation in Kandahar is grim enough for the outgoing American Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen to make an unannounced visit to southern Afghanistan during the week. Head of the Kandahar Provincial Council and half brother of President Hamid Karzai, Ahmad Wali Karzai, was assassinated by his bodyguard at his home on 12 July which was a personal blow to the president as well as to his well knit power structure in Kandahar. Mr Wali Karzai death was claimed by the Taliban.
In a follow up strike on 17 July, unknown gunmen stormed the house of a senior trustee of President Karzai, Jan Mohammad, in Kabul killing him and an Afghan MP representing Oruzgan, Mohammad Hashim Watanwal. Jan Mohammad was a key leader of the President’s Popalzai tribe and had considerable influence in Uruzgan province.
The killings and an upsurge of violence in and around Kabul indicated that even as global attention in May-June focused on the grand American success in assassinating Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, the Taliban and their advisors had put into place a strategy for gaining an upper hand in the country. The two arms of this plan were establishing a stranglehold around the capital Kabul by expanding terrorist operations in provinces around the City such as Logar, Wardak and Gazni while simultaneously neutralizing the political structure in the key southern city of Kandahar. The aim obviously is to geographically and psychologically disrupt the source of power with a view to undermine influence of the present political order and expand their say in the sweep stakes in the years of bargaining ahead till 2014.
The Taliban have also shrewdly exploited the change over in the command of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) with its most celebrated general David Petraeus moving to a new assignment in Washington while the Canadians who had held on to Kandahar gamely for a decade also leaving the country. The President, Mr Hamid Karzai is also vulnerable in Kabul facing a belligerent parliament and corruption in high places including the Kabul Bank. The situation was ripe for rebels to trip the President or at least to put him on the defensive. A direct attack on his source of power, the Popalzai tribal network commanded by half brother Ahmad Wali Karzai was the route selected by the guerrillas. Ahmad Wali was thus assassinated on 12 July following which some of the main supporters of the President were also killed thereby disrupting the covert and overt sources of support for Mr Karzai.
At present it is not clear if these moves are being made in concert with Karzai’s rivals in Kandahar, at the behest of the ubiquitous Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) or are a part of the plan to gain an upper hand in the triumvirate of rebel power structure, the Mullah Omar Taliban, the Haqqanis and the Hizb e Islami. How President Karzai and the new ISAF order in Afghanistan is able to meet up to the challenge remains to be seen. Will these moves be a game changer in Afghanistan or a stream of events which may lead to greater instability in the country in the midst of transition is a question which behooves answers?
A UN report once again raised concerns over Afghan civilian casualties which have increased by 15 percent in the first half of 2011 compared to the same period last year. The increase in civilian deaths in Afghanistan has always been a worrying factor as this has also had an impact of reducing civilian support to NATO operations even though the overall number of casualties alleged by to foreign forces have gone down substantially. On the other hand with 80 percent of civilian deaths attributable to the Taliban they have much to answer to the locals though they have the plea that the IEDs which are causing maximum casualties are due to the presence of foreign forces in the country. This logic is no doubt warped and there is a need for mobilisation of public opinion against the same
With General John Allen now having taken over from General Petraeus in Afghanistan would there be a shift in the Afghan military strategy from counter insurgency to counter terrorism remains to be seen. While the latter has been the proponent of counter insurgency strategy and has been able to implement the same vigorously over the past one year the results have been mixed on the other hand the most spectacular results have been achieved by employing counter terrorism assets thereby not just getting Osama bin Laden but a large number of Taliban and Al Qaeda commanders over the past many months.
On the political front the impasse in the overall discourse between institutions of the country the judiciary, the Independent Elections Commission, the parliament and the President continued with disqualification of 62 MPs. Independent Commission for Oversight of the Implementation of the Constitution (ICOIC) was charged to resolve the issue while the MPs have also appealed to the Supreme court, even as Mr Karzai has been reluctant to present the list of ministers to the parliament. The parliament is also increasingly getting more belligerent as is evident from the stand that it has taken against holding of a jirga to decide on the strategic agreement with the United States therefore reconciliation may be the way ahead.
14 Taliban Members were removed from an international sanctions list of the UN Security Council by the committee overseeing sanctions. This should hopefully indicate to the Taliban sincerity of the international community and motivate them to join the peace process. However those removed are already in the mainstream for instance Arsalan Rahmani Daulat was a Deputy Minister of Higher Education in the Taliban regime but was also a Member of the Upper House (Mashrano Jerga) of the Afghan Parliament and Head of the Education and Religious Committee of the House as of May 2007. Thus there may be mixed reaction from the Taliban as those released may not be having a large say and may be seen as tainted for joining the government.
For President Karzai these are no doubt difficult days, but the President who has possibly seen worse is unlikely to be deterred by these setbacks and is likely to battle on, we wish him luck.