Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Hurtling down Afghanistan's road to perdition

I WAS taking tea with a former mujahideen fighter pilot in the Safi Landmark hotel in Kabul when a suicide bomber blew himself up in the lobby. My companion remained unperturbed as guests rushed for cover. When a guard said three more bombers were loose in the building, he barely blinked.
By Matthew Green

Such sangfroid is a feature of a city that has endured years of violence. But behind the brave face there is fear - fear for what the withdrawal of foreign troops might mean; fear for what the Taleban will do next; and fear that the country is headed inexorably for a new round of civil war.

The killing of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani last week brought that prospect a step closer. In the best traditions of Afghan hierarchies, he was both elder statesman and warlord, a vainglorious politician and Islamic scholar. His hilltop grave now stands as a milestone on Afghanistan's march towards the next instalment in 30 years of fratricidal bloodshed.

To understand what is happening, it is important to tune out what Nato politicians and generals are saying. Yes, United States special forces are netting Taleban commanders by bursting into Afghan homes. It is true that the army and police are expanding in numbers and scope, quickly, if unevenly. Also, the US will not abandon Afghanistan again, at least not in the way it did after the departure of the Red Army - the Pentagon will have bases long beyond the withdrawal date of 2014.

None of this will stop the coming showdown. With the Obama administration's successive troop surges already starting to recede, it is Afghan and Pakistani players who are increasingly making the key decisions. And, to be clear, there is no chance at all of a peace deal between the government of President Hamid Karzai and the Taleban in the near future. The killing of Mr Rabbani, who was in charge of putting out feelers to insurgents, destroyed once and for all the idea that reconciliation was feasible in the coming months.

The ease with which suicide bombers can infiltrate the Kabul police's so-called ring of steel to attack hotels, lob rocket-propelled grenades at the US embassy or kill prominent Afghans intensifies the increasing impression that this is a city up for grabs. The situation is far worse in provincial towns where senior officials keep being assassinated.

Mr Ahmed Wali Karzai, the President's brother, who once improbably described himself to me as the 'Nancy Pelosi' of Kandahar, was shot dead in July. General Daoud Daoud, a wily police general who with a conspiratorial grin would share his suspicions that Mr Ahmed Wali Karzai was involved in drug trafficking, was blown up in May. Mr Ghulam Haider Hamidi, the mayor of Kandahar, who always cheerfully assured me that security was improving, was also killed in July.

This slow-motion implosion of administration has made the situation even more febrile. Many in Kabul will say that the Taleban is containable and that it is their own government that is out of control. President Karzai has presided over a system of crony capitalism symbolised by the scandal at Kabul Bank: a US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) Ponzi scheme implicating a roster of the city's elite.

Oligarchs who have flourished on Nato contracts careen around the city in convoys of pick-up trucks with masked gunmen clinging to the back. Even these entrepreneurs of the war economy are afraid: One told me his five-year-old son had advised him to stop working with Americans and join the Taleban.

In the vacuum, old loyalties have become primary. Mr Rabbani was a titan of the Northern Alliance of warlords from the ethnic Tajik community. Its leaders have prospered since the ousting of the Taleban, which hails from the Pashtun south. His killing has deepened civil war fault-lines - accelerating a growing polarisation between northerners and Pashtuns.

The trend suits Pakistan's generals, who are stoking the fire by backing the Taleban. A weak Afghanistan is more appealing to them than a pro-Indian Afghanistan. Unbowed by US pressure, Pakistan's spies will continue to back Afghan proxies such as the Haqqani network to protect their interests.

Can the slide to civil war be stopped? Nato has failed. There was nothing more striking about a three-week stint I spent embedded with US 'surge' forces last summer than watching three men with spades, AK-47s and fertiliser calmly plant a roadside bomb while an F-18 Hornet circled overhead. Armoured vehicles were scrambled, but to no avail - the men vanished.

The insurgency cannot be beaten on the battlefield. Nor can the Taleban be forced into a deal. The only hope is that the changes in Afghan society in the past decade can provide an incentive for moderation ultimately to prevail. In Kabul at least, a younger generation is long since disillusioned with the politics of the gun. But as the calls for revenge at Mr Rabbani's funeral showed, Afghan politics is now ruled by fear.

The writer is the Financial Times' Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent.