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Afghan Assessment

June 11, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Joining us for an update on the new Afghan government are Barnett Rubin, director of studies at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University — he was in Afghanistan last month — and Michael Zielenziger, the Asia correspondent for Knight Ridder newspapers. He was in Afghanistan in March and April.

Mr. Rubin, tell us about the significance of this loya jirga.

BARNETT RUBIN: Well, first, this is part of the process that started with the Bonn talks, which put the Karzai government in power under U.N. sponsorship. This loya jirga is supposed to put in place a transitional government, which will be more representative and have more legitimacy, and therefore be able to carry out the tasks of government, leading to the augmentation of a constitution in 18 months’ time, and elections in two years.

GWEN IFILL: Supposed to do this. However, with 1,500 delegates from traditionally warring factions from around the country, what are the chances that’s what’s going to happen?

BARNETT RUBIN: First, the delegates are not chosen by factions. They’re chosen two-thirds by election and one-third by the independent commission that was set up to run the loya jirga.

And of course, like any… like anybody that’s large and makes decisions, they don’t start from scratch. There are proposals that are put to them by political leaders for them to approve. I think that a number of the negotiations leading up finally to the decision yesterday that you reported in the by the former king has put in place a number of key things.

Nonetheless, there are a number of very contentious issues about the ethnic sharing of power, still over the role of the former king, and the rule of warlords and gunmen over much of the country, that I’m sure will be aired thoroughly in the discussions, if the chair allows it.

But I think that almost everyone there is committed to making this meeting successful and having a peaceful outcome.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Zielenziger, let’s talk about the role of the former king. You’ve interviewed the former king, and it was kind of a remarkable moment yesterday when he decided to step aside, essentially. How significant was that?

MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: Well, I think it’s remarkable but not completely unexpected. I think the king has signaled for a long time that while he wants to give some power to the Pashtuns, he wants to be a symbol of leadership. He is not really able to run the country.

The problem is that there are people who support him — people who are in his entourage who would like to find some influence and power for themselves. They’ve been very influential in trying to keep the king, so to speak, in the game.

The fact remains though that arbitrating a balance between Tajiks and Pashtuns in creating a new government is at the center of focus of this loya jirga. And in that, the King has a role to play. But it’s really difficult to underestimate how high the expectations are in Afghanistan that when this process is done, as kind of difficult and wobbly as it may seem to us outsiders, that the Afghans in their own way will come up with a way to run their own government, with a little support from those of us in the outside.

GWEN IFILL: With the King out of the game, to use your words, how perilous does it make this exercise now trying to form a new government?

MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: I wouldn’t say the King is completely out of the game. The key here is that the king says, “I can’t possibly run the country.” Remember, when he came home, which was a signal moment that really sparked the sense that Afghanistan was on its way back, in April– and I was there when he arrived– he said at the time, “I basically do support Karzai.”

Karzai and the Tajiks have created this balance which has allowed the government– difficult under the circumstances, but nevertheless– to function. I think there’s still a lot of deal-making and discussions that have to go on. One of the key announcements today was that the interior minister, Yunus Qanooni, a very powerful member of the Tajik Northern Alliance Group, has indicated a willingness to step aside. I think that, in combination with the King’s acknowledgment that he doesn’t really seek to be monarch, is the beginning of a positive process that will lead to hopefully a peaceful resolution by week’s end.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Rubin, let’s talk about Hamid Karzai for a moment. He did an unusual thing in declaring victory before the votes were cast. Do you have any understanding of how that happened, and whether that is a bad signal for how organized this loya jirga will be?

BARNETT RUBIN: I don’t have any inside information about how it happened. I think it just indicates that no one is very clear about the procedures. Of course there haven’t been any democratic institutions in Afghanistan actually ever. There were some semi-democratic institutions in Afghanistan in the decade from ’63 to ’73 under Zahir Shah.

So there was just… that is one of many misunderstandings among participants about how the meeting was to be run, and the chair seemed to have misunderstood it at certain points too, from what I heard.

But at least his spokesman corrected it, and there will be a vote by, I believe, secret ballot, though even that is not quite sure, in the coming days. And I also heard that originally Hamid Karzai seemed to be running unopposed, since his opponents have withdrawn, but now it was reported today that a woman named Massouda Jalal had put herself in the running too. So there may be other unexpected things ahead as well.

GWEN IFILL: And what role, Mr. Rubin, does the United States play in this? We just heard Colin Powell say they had not used an unusually heavy hand, but it’s clear that the U.S. envoy had some role in urging the king to step aside. I wonder whether you think they’re going to have some role in what happens next.

BARNETT RUBIN: Well, on your film, you showed the loya jirga, and Zalmay Khalilzad, the special envoy, was there. But what Colin Powell actually said is that the U.S. did not exercise undue influence, which of course is a judgment call.

And of course, Zalmay Khalilzad spent several hours with the king and his entourage in order to convince them to those decisions, and he has been in the country for quite a while and has been participating in these discussions on almost a daily basis.

But bear in mind that at the same time that Mr. Khalilzad was upstairs in the Zaher Shah’s residence trying to convince him to make clear he did not want an official position, downstairs there were a number of Pashtun warlords from southern Afghanistan were armed and funded by the United States Defense Department and CIA, who were saying they would start a civil war if the king was not a candidate.

So I think that the question about U.S. policy is not just are we exerting pressure, but are we exerting our power and influence in a consistent way? The answer right now is that we are not.


MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: We sort of want it both ways. I’m sorry.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Mr. Zielenziger about that, because I am curious about the power- sharing issue, which is how does one figure out how to share power in this kind of situation when, as Barnett Rubin was just saying, folks downstairs have a different goal than the folks upstairs?

MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER: Well, the Americans sort of want it both ways. This administration, of course, doesn’t want to nation-build. On the other hand, we really don’t want a civil war breaking out in Afghanistan when our war effort, our search for al-Qaida still isn’t finished.

So that’s the first set of issues that they have to deal with. The second part is the Pashtuns are a plurality of Afghan society, but the Pashtuns are fighting among themselves. Remember, some of them were very loyal to the Taliban. Some of them have left the Taliban and want to work with Karzai, who is an ethnic Pashtun but viewed by many of the Pashtuns as being too soft on the Northern Alliance, so they want to exert more influence.

If you go into the interior defense ministry even today in Kabul, all the bureaucrats, all the sub-level ministers, all the apparatchiks, if I can use that phrase, are all Tajiks. And the Pashtuns are very sensitive to that. They’re sensitive to the fact that what little government is running seems to be running without much of their influence.

So there has to be a way to bring them to the table, to give them more of the pie, so to speak, without also destabilizing the north/south broader arrangement that the Americans very much want to keep going to keep Afghanistan basically stable.


GWEN IFILL: Mr. Rubin, taking a look at what has historically happened in Afghanistan when there have been efforts to form stable governments, this does not bode well when you take into account the things that Mr. Zielenziger was just talking about.

BARNETT RUBIN: Well, I think that taking into account that Afghanistan has been at war, one way or the other, for almost 25 years, and that the major states in the world have spent billions and billions of dollars in order to fund that war and thus destroying what little economy infrastructure and institutions were there before, it’s not really very surprising that Afghanistan has a difficult path ahead of it.

But I must say that people there are more hopeful, more determined to find a peaceful settlement, and more sincerely tired of war– including many of the warlords themselves– than I have ever seen in the 20 years or so that I’ve been working on the country. So it is difficult, but there are plenty of reasons still to be hopeful.

GWEN IFILL: You just talked about the money that’s involved sometimes in carrying out wars and in trying to rebuild democracies in this case. What happens… there’s a lot of money at stake here for Mr. Karzai or someone to administer. Is that going to create its own problem?

BARNETT RUBIN: I think you’re referring to the….

GWEN IFILL: International aid.

BARNETT RUBIN: The money that has been pledged for assistance. Of course there is money at stake in the sense that the money is only likely to flow if there is a stable, legitimate government and if it establishes security.

However, there are a couple of things to bear in mind. First is the Afghan government has repeatedly asked for help in establishing security, and the U.N. has supported that through expanding the international security assistance force, and the U.S. has refused that, as have the other major powers.

Second, the historical record of pledges of assistance like this is that usually less than half is actually delivered, and that seems to be being repeated in Afghanistan now.

Finally, most of the money in fact does not go to the government. It is not going to the Afghan government. It’s going to the nongovernmental organizations and the agencies of the countries that are giving the aid, which means it is much more expensive.

Now the U.N. is trying to sponsor a different kind of operation, which has much more Afghan ownership and focuses more on strengthening the Afghan institutions themselves, in which case the money would flow to the new government. But many of the donors are reluctant to support that in more than words.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. We’ll have to leave it there for tonight. Barnett Rubin and Michael Zielenziger, thank you very much for joining us.