Kabul Riots A Wake-Up Call

June 14, 2006

In springtime, Afghanistan comes to life: the snow melts, the green sprouts, the bugs wake up from their winter-long slumber, and the farmers get to work.

So do the Taliban.

And that is reason enough to dampen the spirit of Nawrouz, the celebration on the first day of spring with which the people of Afghanistan welcome their new year -because this has been one bloody spring for the people of Afghanistan. Since the beginning of the new year on Afghanistan’s solar calendar, there have been several suicide attacks, foreign and Afghan National Army troop deaths, kidnappings, beheadings, a bloody citywide riot in Kabul, and several large-scale operations mounted by the US and coalition forces -all with the attendant “collateral damage” that the public conscience has come to accept as normal in such events.

There have been many attempts to explain away the significance of last week’s riots in Kabul. The usual banter of the central government responding to anything undesirable has stood in this case too: that this is the work of that formless, nameless, mysterious, and amorphous entity that can only be referred to using the codeword “enemies of Afghanistan.” This constantly-evolving monster can apparently accommodate within its cavernous belly varying and even antagonistic forces: from the Taliban in the south to supporters of their arch-nemesis the Northern Alliance who were mostly behind the Kabul riots. But then we are speaking about Afghanistan, and here the same could be said of the government itself. (The new parliament being a case in point.)

To the US government and an American public used to seeing Afghanistan only in the same context as the much sorrier state of Iraq, the rioting and its flagrant anti-Americanism has been somewhat of a shock. This ought to strengthen the image of people of Afghanistan (and Muslims at large) in the American mind as an ungrateful and unpredictable bunch given to momentary frenzies of flag-burning and stone-throwing. I suspect, however, that there are also those out there who are realizing that not all the good news they have been fed about Afghanistan since 2002 has been true.

One of the people who has taken clear note of the rapidly deteriorating situation of Afghanistan is Susan Rice, Senior Fellow with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. and an expert on security matters. Dr. Rice, who was speaking recently at an event about Global Attitudes Toward US Foreign Policy, cited Afghanistan as a “serious” concern for US foreign policy. In answer to a question I posed to her about recent developments in Afghanistan, Dr. Rice described the situation there as “extremely fragile” and “arguably on a steeper downward trajectory …than Iraq.” (Read transcript of the event, comments appear on page 34.)

All of these developments have clearly alarmed the authorities in Afghanistan, and particularly in the aftermath of the riots, they have embarked on a new course of action. This includes a sweeping overhaul of the interior ministry and the country’s famously incompetent police force. Furthermore, the Defense Ministry recently announced plans to expand the size of the Afghan National Army from the initially planned 70,000 force to over 200,000. (It goes without saying that there is also an evident need to make both the police and the armed forces more ethnically inclusive.) Such changes reveal that despite its rhetoric about “enemies of Afghanistan” orchestrating the riots, the authorities are realizing that the riots were partly also a vote of low confidence in the government, and particularly in what many people perceive to be an ethnic imbalance and the domination of the governmental apparatus by Afghanistan’s historically dominant ethnic minority. Alleviating such fears and addressing these perceptions, therefore, ought to be among the government’s top policy and public relations priorities.

Shockingly enough, the latest announcement from the government does the opposite. The Washington Post reports that out of desperation with the deteriorating security situation, the government is considering the formation of an ethnic militia in the Pashtun-populated south of the country. If actualized, this decision will prove extremely divisive and will inflame members of Afghanistan’s other ethnic groups who have been systematically disarmed under the DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration) program over the past few years. While the DDR program is still ongoing in other parts of the country, legitimizing ethnic militia and sanctioning weapons possession in the south and east will further erode public support for a government that is fast losing the hearts and minds of the rest of the populace.

The Washington Post report correctly points out that similar tactics of arming ethnic militia in the north adopted by Afghanistan’s last central government eventually led to its downfall, as most of the northern militia turned against the government. The open-handed arms distribution to the militia (along with massive US-financed imports from China, Pakistan, and Egypt) also helped make AK47 a household item in the most remote of Afghanistan’s villages. Eventually the tribal militia and various other anti-Soviet forces soon organized along ethnic lines and turned on each other, so that by the time the Taliban rose as a force in the south promising a return to order, most people in Afghanistan welcomed them.

A glance at Afghanistan’s history since the colonial era reveals a surprising number of occasions where history seems to have repeated itself. But I have never been a fan of historicism, and still believe that we can be optimistic. I am hoping that this time around the new government of Mr. Karzai has learned the lesson that is still fresh in the mind of most people of Afghanistan. Arming tribal militia, distributing weapons, legitimizing weapons possession outside the country’s armed forces, and adopting policies that are widely perceived as motivated by the interests of one ethnic group as opposed to the milieu of Afghanistan’s peoples are proven mistakes that this government cannot afford to make at this point. Nor can the US government, as a major stakeholder in Afghanistan, let the government of Mr. Karzai make these mistakes.

While they are still publicly in denial about it, the new government has taken the riots as a wake-up call. But distributing weapons left and right is the wrong thing to do first thing in the morning while still rubbing your eyes.