M. K. Bhadrakumar |
What on earth has brought the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to Afghanistan? The most obvious explanation could be that he is obliged to pay a visit to Afghanistan after assuming office in New York. From initial accounts, Guterres felt devastated by what he saw. He instinctively called for peace and compassion. However, it is unlikely that anyone pays heed to him. Guterres’ clout in Washington is almost zero. The US administrations historically used the UN Secretary-General as a handyman to do odd jobs now and then, but even that has ceased to be the case with the Trump administration, which prefers to be the lone ranger.
Nonetheless, it is tempting to think that Guterres and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi have a back-to-back deal to kick-start Afghan peace talks. Wang is also due to travel to Kabul shortly to pick up the threads of the meeting between Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on the sidelines of the recent summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (June 8-9) in Astana, Kazakhstan. The Advisor to Sharif on foreign affairs Sartaj Aziz told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on Tuesday that Wang will visit Islamabad and Kabul to discuss ways to improve relations and to “facilitate” talks between the two countries. The RFERL reported:
Aziz also mentioned a proposal to “revive” the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), made up of officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States, and China.
Indeed, there is a sense of déjà vu. In the final analysis, Guterres’ visit cannot be anything more than a “familiarization tour”. In reality, this is a twilight zone in Kabul and a long sunset is due. Things are falling apart and the center cannot hold. Something must give way and something else, entirely new, has to emerge. The National Unity Government experiment has run its course. Fundamentally, the curtain is coming down on the Tajik domination of the power structure in the post-Taliban era since 2001. And Afghanistan cannot be at peace until the Pashtuns regain their pre-eminent role in the country’s governance.
But the Tajiks will not walk into the sunset, either. On Sunday, they forced the suspension of two Pashtun generals supervising security in the capital city – Gul Nabi Ahmadzai, commander of the Kabul Garrison and Hassan Shah Frogh, Kabul police chief. Two days later, on Tuesday, the high-flying erstwhile security czar Amrullah Saleh (Tajik from Panjshir) stepped down from the post of Minister for Security Reforms, apparently on a note of dissent. Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani (son of former President Burhanuddin Rabbani) is also on a collision course with President Ghani. And so indeed Jamaat-e-Islami’s powerful commander from northern Afghanistan Atta Muhammad Nur (present governor of Balkh) and late Ahmed Shah Massoud’s brother Ahmad Zia Massoud.
The Jamiat-e-Islami is circling its wagons as a Pashtun-Tajik power struggle is looming large on the horizon. Day by day, as tensions mount in Kabul, it seems that the Afghan war is dramatically changing course once again and the old battle lines are becoming blurred.
The Pashtun-Tajik polarization works fine for Pakistan because it is making strange bedfellows in Kabul. Who would have thought even a month ago that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar would come to the defense of President Ghani – or National Security Advisor Mohammad Hanif Atmar – against the onslaught by the Tajik leadership Jamiat-e-Islami?
What is underway is a momentous consolidation of the Ghilzai Pashtun confederation of tribes? Gulbuddin might not have been a brave military strategist like Commander Ahmed Shah Massoud during the Afghan jihad in the eighties, but he has a brilliant political mind. That was why the Pakistani intelligence spotted him as a promising young man in the Kabul University campus in the early seventies – much before the Saur Revolution or the Soviet intervention – and got him to relocate to Peshawar. No doubt, later on, General Zia-ul-Haq too visualized a great future for Gulbuddin as a towering politician in Kabul someday who would bring about enduring peace between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Today, Gulbuddin’s very presence in Kabul makes a realignment of forces inevitable in Afghan politics. Unsurprisingly, the Tajiks suspect that Gulbuddin enjoys tacit American backing. But then, Gulbuddin is a man of many parts. Pakistan will be pinning hopes that a consolidation of the Ghilzai Pashtuns can be the long-awaited turning point for shifting the locus of the power structure in Kabul – especially in the security agencies and the military establishment – away in a new friendly direction.
M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline.