A tale of two Afghan Leaders, before and after 9/11

Ten years ago, a horrific suicide bombing carried out by Algerian al-Qaeda operatives posing as journalists snuffed out the life of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the great Afghan Mujahidin leader and among the few Afghans who could have hoped to unite the country against the Taliban. Massoud told journalist Sebastian Junger that he opposed the religious totalitarianism of the Taliban just as he opposed the ideological totalitarianism of the Soviets, and wanted to work for an Afghanistan, and a world, that was free. Since that act of horror, Afghanistan itself has gradually fallen back into ethnic and religious warfare, which US and NATO troops either inadvertently fanned or at the least proved unable to halt.

The Bonn conference of late 2001 ensconced Hamid Karzai in the interim presidency of Afghanistan. Karzai, from Uruzgan, was one of a very few credible leaders of Pashtun background who had neither been Taliban nor absolutely hated Pakistan. He was acceptable to the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban coalition that had held out in the northeast of the country, comprising fighters from the Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek ethnic groups. (Tajiks are Dari Persian-speaking Sunnis, Hazaras are Persian-speaking Shiites, and Uzbeks are Turkic-speaking Sunnis with a relatively secular outlook).

This tale of two leaders– the heroic, beloved and upright Ahmad Shah Massoud, and the erratic, paranoid and increasingly power-hungry Karzai — is the story of Afghan political decline. Karzai won a relatively free and fair presidential campaign in 2004. But his run for the presidency in 2009 was marred by allegations of widespread ballot-stuffing.

At the same time, scandals broke around him, as his brothers or high officials were mired in the Da Kabul Bank scandal. The bank appears to have been looted by its own investors and money used to by villas in Dubai. Norway, along with some internaional hosts, has suspended aid to Afghanistan until the mystery of the Bank’s missing funds is resolved.

Not only were there charges of widespread irregularities in the 2009 presidential election, but the parliamentary elections of a year ago were likewise attended with accusations of ballot fraud. At length, a special presidential tribunal on the elections disqualified 62 of the members of parliament elected in 2010. The ruling was viewed with suspicion, since these 62 were political opponents of Karzai, so in essence he was attempting to turn out his opposition.

The ruling so infuriated parliament that it opened discussions on whether to impeach Karzai.

A more independent body, the Independent Election Commission, in contrast, said that only nine MPS needed step down. Karzai attempted to mediate between the two rulings by presidential decree, but the decree issued was so vague and ambiguous that no one could understand what he was driving at. The controversy has paralyzed the workings of parliament, and yesterday provoked a small demonstration of some 600 in downtown Kabul. They chanted not only against Karzai but against the US and NATO.

As a result of these financial and electoral scandals, Karzai increasingly lacks legitimacy. This outcome is important because the new Afghan army being trained by NATO can only hope to succeed in counter-insurgency if its troops and officers believe in the government for which they are fighting. There isn’t good evidence as yet for the army being able to fight large-scale engagements independently, or for its loyalty to Karzai or the (disputed) parliament.

Usama Bin Laden knew what he was doing when he knocked off Ahmad Shah Massoud on the eve of 9/11. He deprived the anti-Taliban Afghans of a unifying, competent figure. The old terrorist’s legacy to Afghanistan was one of continued instability.

15 Responses

  1. An excellent demonstration of how, so often in History, small eddies of a larger whirlpool continue to have significant effects of their own right, whether the larger disturbance grows, declines or remains stable/stagnant.

    Every thought every person has, every action every person makes, is a part of human history. It’s up to all of us, in our function of continually creating and distributing explanations, continually creating and distributing philosophy, science and religion, to decide which thoughts and actions may be more significant than others.

  2. Juan, I suggest what is missing here is that Karzai was obviously a corrupt person before; being involved in corporate oil deals in that area. So he was obviously chosen by the US as a pliant person to do our bidding. Further, leaders are not born they are made. And if the stupid US had not forced Karzai on the Afghans, and instead had allowed the initial national Loya Jirga to produce a leader through their process, we may have ended up with an entirely different situation.

    But once again, the US acts in its foreign policy like the most despicable of tin pot dictators, and a royal mess is created. I remember reading “The Ugly American” decades ago, realizing that book was exposing to the public how absurd was US foreign policy back then. And it is truly amazing it still operates in the manner. Which is, from my view, mostly quite different from what is considered standard operating procedures here in the US. I never understand how Americans can go to a foreign country, and develop and act on assumptions they would consider insane if an official tried to implement the same process back in the States.

    • Indeed, Warren.

      The difference between Bush’s handling of Afghanistan and Obama’s handling of Libya cannot be more dramatic.

      If I had a nickel for every time I’ve read the words “We don’t even know who TNC leaders are!” I’d be a rich man.

      I still don’t understand why people who consider themselves anti-imperialist would consider that to be a compelling argument.

  3. How do we know that the bad situation in Afghanistan (the Taliban, the opium trade, warlordism, US occupation, etc.) wouldn’t have corrupted Massoud and/or have driven him to be power-mad? We don’t.

  4. One has to remember who is running the operations in Afghanistan, from the beginning to the present time. Also, who is the presumptive head of the C.I.A. today! This has been perhaps the most profitable adventure in its [CIA] operations of all time, even when Air America operated in the Vietnam era. Of course, as the saying goes, “they never looked back”. Far easier to get away with corruption in other countries, though the U.S. has made gigantic strides in catching up. Today, there is just too much money involved, along with the fact that no one is going to prison.

  5. It’s called spreading democracy. Why should the installed democratic governments be viewed by their populations any differently than the installer governments be viewed by their populations: corrupt financial sector [U.S. 2008]; questionable elections [US 2000]; widespread corruption among the pols in the capitol [Washington]. I imagine I am missing other parallels. There are degrees of differences but its the same road to ruin.

  6. In this interview Michael Scheuer ex CIA bin Laden hunter blames US economic malaise on al-Qaeda link to abc.net.au

    Seems like he’s drawing a long bow to me. Some of the deficit maybe, but not the toxic mortgages, crooked ratings agencies, banksters, car maker & bank & insurer bailouts etc. Nor did al-Qaeda create the Euro problems, they’ve been coming since Maastricht was signed in ’92.

  7. My understanding is that after the Soviets left Afghanistan, there were several years in which warlords fought each other, while plundering, raping, and killing the people at will. The Taliban’s rise was a response to this chaos. Most of the Northern Alliance were both fundamentalist and criminal, while the Taliban were “honest” brutal fanatics. If Massoud was really upright and freedom-loving, his killing was indeed a great loss. —- At the Bonn Conference, US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilizad and others pressured the popular old king, Zahir Shah to stay out of the new government. They put in Karzai, and created a legislature filled with warlords and war-criminals. —- In “Bleeding Afghanistan” by Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls, they say they found no evidence of the common belief that Karzai was involved in the oil business. Zalmay Khalilizad,on the other hand, did have a connection to Unocal.

  8. Dear Professor Cole

    I wonder if there is a link between the looted and empty arms warehouses in Libya and this report of Taleban MANPAD.

    link to atimes.com

    Bit of a gamechanger if the reports are true.

    Ho Hum. Law of unintended consequences again.

    • From you link: in the past six months.

      The spate of downed aircraft began months before the Free Libya Forces started capturing arms warehouses.

      And why would a rebel force that was desperately short of arms ship those it captured out the country?

      • Joe

        Anyone with a pickup truck can make himself a small fortune by selling the arms to the dealers.

        It is just good old free enterprise. None of this government nonsense about End User Certificates.

  9. I thought some of the Tajiks in Afhanistan were Nizari Ismailis. Am I mistaken? If so, which ethnic group does have an Ismaili presence in Afghanistan. I remember reading a website (before 9-11) about Ismaili Afghans living in the area held by the Northern Alliance.

  10. If Dr Cole had been aware of Massoud’s war crimes during the Afghan civil war, he would not speak in such glowing terms. Nor does he seem to know that Massoud signed a peace treaty with the Soviets allowing them to travel through the Panjshir Valley unharmed, when, as a Soviet General remarked, his men could have destroyed Soviet convoys just by throwing rocks from the mountain tops. Knowledgable experts of Afghan history such as Eric Margolis have written about these lesser known truths about Massoud.

    • Find me an Afghan leader of the 1980s and 1990s of any consequence with no blood on his hands and then we’ll talk. The question is what will happen to poor Afghanistan under Karzai, a decidedly lesser man.

  11. Well, Professor Cole, what do you say about these less than stellar representations of Massoud? I don’t ask this cynically. I too mourned the missed opportunity for peace and stability that the death of the Afghan war hero seemed to snuff out. He was certainly portrayed romantically by the American press and others.

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