Afghanistan Struggles to Shake Off Foreign Influences and Rebuild National Unity

Although the Taleban are removed from power, they continue to fight the government that replaced them. They are abetted by Pakistani sympathizers, and other foreign countries also complicate life for Afghans and undermine their efforts to achieve a viable peace. In the last of a three-part series, VOA’s Ed Warner describes the outside pressures on a divided Afghanistan and its response.

Overthrowing the Taleban has brought freedom to Afghanistan but a shaky government. A new constitution is being written and elections are scheduled for next year, but underlying forces are shaping events.

Basically, the same groups that fought one another after the Soviet withdrawal and in the process destroyed much of Kabul, are back in power. It is said that only the international presence keeps them at peace and barely that, since fighting recently broke out between two warlords in the north.

There are now plans to expand the international force under NATO to other parts of Afghanistan, which urgently need more security.

Interior Minister Ali Jalali, a former top official at the Voice of America, is in charge of the nation’s police, some 100,000 who are not altogether reliable. Mr. Jalali recently broke up a band of robbers in Kabul who were in police uniforms with police vehicles.

He says there are three basic threats to Afghanistan which are intertwined: terrorist attacks from tribal bases in Pakistan, a soaring drug traffic that was partly suppressed by the Taleban and factional fighting among Afghan warlords.

These threats, he says, reflect not so much the strength of the dissidents but the weakness of the Afghan government.

“National institutions have not matured,” he says. “Some are not there. We have to build state and national institutions that will replace influence by individuals. Unfortunately, in many areas, things are influenced by powerful individuals. So therefore, until we build our state and national institutions, we will have these problems of turf fighting, fight over territory, fight over influence in different areas. These will have to be dealt with very cautiously, and we cannot change things overnight.”

Pressing for change, Mr. Jalali has earned a reputation as the government’s most active minister. He is gradually replacing uncooperative local officials, most recently in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, scene of clashes between rival warlords. President Karzai is regarded as well meaning but slow moving, while some ministers are charged with corruption.

Afghans say if Mr. Jalali chooses to run for president, he could win. But he is not sure he wants to. He is busy enough in his present job, receiving calls night and day from the provinces. Because of the work load and security concerns, he rarely gets to restaurants or ceremonial functions and travels in an armed convoy even to the nearby presidential palace.

He says what makes his job tougher is foreign interference, in particular the zealots who come out of schools or madrassas in Pakistan determined to kill Americans and Afghans working with them. Many of these jihadists fight in Kashmir as well as in Afghanistan, crossing porous borders with little trouble.

Scholar Abdul Shakoor Rishad agrees that enemies from outside are his country’s main problem. “If there were no foreign interference,” he says, “if there were no encouragement of those working against the Afghan national interest, Afghans have the capacity to solve their own problems themselves. Foreign countries control various groups within Afghanistan. If these ties can be cut, there will be national unity in Afghanistan.”

Abdul Kaliq Fazil, a leader of a newly formed political party, the National Unity Movement of Afghanistan, says outside forces could be countered by the revival of monarchy, a rallying point for all Afghans.

“Our royal family is a symbol of national unity,” he says. “They are able to bring Tajiks, Uzbeks, north, south, west all together and create a nation because Afghanistan was a nation. But during the war because of the interference of neighboring countries, this national unity was destroyed. Now we want to rebuild our national unity.”

But King Zahir Shah, now approaching the age of ninety, is largely a symbol, remembered fondly by many Afghans for presiding over years of relative peace from 1933 to 1973.

While Pakistan is a major concern for Afghans, they do not overlook Russia and the brutal Soviet occupation that led to so many of the current troubles.

At a recent hearing of a Kabul human rights commission, director Lal Gul described the plight of young Afghans who were sent to the Soviet Union – sometimes with their parents’ permission, sometimes not – to be educated free of charge. With the Soviet collapse, they were abandoned and left to their fate.

Mr. Gul says they were often exploited, beaten, jailed. “The history of Afghanistan is full of pain,” he says. “One major painful story is the fate of thousands of children – boys and girls – who were sent to the Soviet Union during the invasion of Afghanistan. We want the leaders of Afghanistan and the world to hear their voices.”

Several women attended the hearing whose children are missing somewhere in Russia. One woman said it is 23 years since she has heard from her son. “I do not know where he is,” she says. “I do not have a telephone number or an address. My son was in second grade when I took him to the orphanage because I could not take care of him. From there they sent him to the Soviet Union. I want the Afghan government or the United Nations to bring him to me, dead or alive. I want to know what happened.” How to free Afghanistan from foreign involvement? One notion is to put the government in contact with all Afghan elements, good or bad, including the Taleban and urge them to give up fighting and come home again.

With this apparently in mind, former Taleban foreign minister Mullah Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil has been released from U.S. custody and according to reports, is opening negotiations with other Taleban who are considered to be moderate. That could eventually lead to Taleban participation in the Afghan government and hopefully end or at least reduce the fighting.

Wadir Safi, a law professor at Kabul University, says by shedding foreign connections, a genuine Afghanistan can emerge. “Unfortunately, leaders, parties and members do not have fully the Afghan character,” he says, “and they cannot transfer it to the Afghan new generation because they have been in Pakistan, in Iran, in other countries. Now they are not even themselves aware of the pure Afghan character. Unfortunately, we have lost our Afghani values here.”

Easier said than done to recover these values, says Jila Samee, media director at the Foreign Affairs ministry. The long years of war have taken their toll. She finds Afghans have trouble concentrating, as if they are bracing for the next burst of gunfire. Being on edge leads to distraction.

Though venturing outside more than before and filling jobs in government offices, women, she says, still tend to walk with heads bowed as if they are unsure of their status and wary of the future. Emotional problems, suppressed during wartime, seem to be surfacing in a period of relative calm.

There is an authentic Afghanistan, says Interior Minister Ali Jalali. It will surmount its troubles and hold together.

“Even during the civil war,” he says, “you did not see even a single instance of secessionist movement. People were fighting for Kabul because they thought Kabul is the center of a country. So they wanted to have a share in the central government. Now many international organizations surveyed the country and found the overwhelming majority of the people want a strong central government.”

By way of contrast, you can leave Afghanistan for the Persian Gulf – cities of opulence sprung from the desert. And you think, if only Afghanistan had oil.