In the late 1980s, Sahabzada Yaqub Khan, one of the few foreign ministers of Pakistan of international stature, often narrated a remarkably insightful parable for a solution of the Afghan problem. Those were the times when Soviet forces had withdrawn from that country in a haze of ignominy, but there was stern disagreement among the seven main Mujahideen groups on a power-sharing arrangement.
The parable is set in a land ruled by seven warrior princes who had been presented 13 elephants by the potentate of a nearby country. But soon the princes were confronted with the impossibility of apportioning the gifted animals equally among themselves. Tensions soared sky high and war seemed certain. It was then that a wise old man intervened.
The sage, who had entered the land mounted on his own elephant, summoned the princes and heard them out. He then decided to gift his own elephant to them, bringing the number of the coveted animals to fourteen so that they could be distributed equally among the seven princes. The country was thus saved from a fratricidal conflict and the princes agreed to make the aged savant their king on the understanding that his role would only be advisory and they would have unfettered autonomy in their respective areas.
The fabled land was, of course, Afghanistan, the warrior princes were the seven leaders of the Mujahideen factions and the sage was former king Zahir Shah, who, after almost thirty years in exile, returned to his war-torn country in 2002 to be was acclaimed as Father of the Nation. Though the former monarch, who died in Kabul on July 23, 2007, was unable to unify his country, the key to the restoration of sustainable peace in Afghanistan is embedded in that strange parable.
There have been many international conferences on Afghanistan, but all have ended with ponderous reiterations of platitudes. Self-styled experts have churned out fanciful theories built around unworkable solutions for ending the conflict. But the one word, “decentralisation,” without which even a semblance of normality cannot return to that war-ravaged country, has been conspicuously absent in their proposals.
This is what the sage in the parable understood only too well when he agreed to become the titular monarch and devolve actual power to the princes. Decentralisation is integral to the Afghan way of life, whether in war or in peace. Thus, the decade-long struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was a decentralised conflict, fought in many theatres of war through the length and breadth of approximately 647,000 square kilometres of rugged terrain that defines the Afghan topography.
There was no central figure around whom the people could rally. The nationalist upsurge that normally accompanies a successful freedom struggle was, therefore, absent from Afghanistan. Local commanders, who had fought against the Soviet occupation army, established themselves in their respective areas. As a consequence, the prospects of peace became a mirage in the desert.
The conflict that followed transformed itself from a heroic war of liberation to an ugly contest for power among the leaders of the factions. The reaction to the anarchy was the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan till their post-9/11 ouster for refusing to extradite Osama bin Laden to a place where he could be brought to justice.
More than a decade after the UN-mandated invasion and occupation of the country, there are still no indications that the conflict will end under the present circumstances. The first step towards a comprehensive settlement entails acceptance of Afghan, realities no matter how unpleasant these may be.
This has to begin with discarding the notion that the Pakhtun-dominated Taliban first emerged in 1994. They are the products of seminaries or madressahs which have existed in Afghanistan since the coming of Islam into that country. In Afghan history, students from these seminaries have always risen at the time of national crises, either to fight foreign invaders or to oppose unpopular regimes in the country.
Thus, the core of the resistance to the British during the Afghan wars of the 19th century was from the Taliban of the time. Similarly, the struggle to rid the country of Soviet occupation through the 1980s was spearheaded by the Taliban, and, in the second half of 1994, it was again the students from the madressahs under Mullah Omar who sallied forth to restore order in the country.
In previous times, the Taliban had always returned to their seminaries on achieving their objectives. But the course of events did not run along the narrow groove of Afghan history after their re-emergence in 1994. On defeating the warlords, who had created their own fiefdoms where they imposed their arbitrary fiat, the Taliban did not return to their madressahs. They decided, instead, to impose their own harsh rule on the country. Unfortunately, they cannot be wished away and have to a part of the eventual settlement.
When Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf met President Karzai and British prime minister David Cameron in Kabul on July 19, he held out the assurance that Pakistan would do its bit to persuade the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. He may have bitten off more than he can chew because it is uncertain whether Islamabad still wields influence with the obscurantist clerics.
Stabilisation in Afghanistan is unlikely unless two preconditions are fulfilled. First, the Taliban must sever all ties with Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Mullah Omar has to be told that his refusal to surrender Bin Laden and his associates on the ground that this would violate the Afghan code of honour is no longer tenable. His country has been destroyed because of the presence of terrorist groups and it would be a betrayal of his people if these outfits are allowed to remain.
Second, the Taliban have to come to terms with the ethnic heterogeneity of their country, with each of the groups separated and confined to clearly defined regions. This implies that they cannot impose their rule in areas where other ethnic groups are predominant. They were able to capture Mazar-e-Sharif in May 1997, only because of their secret pact with the ethnic-Uzbek warlord, Gen Malik Pahlawan of the Jumbish-e-Milli.
Under this arrangement, Malik instigated a rebellion against the dreaded Jumbish leader Abdul Rashid Dostum and allowed the Taliban to overrun the north. In return the ethnic minorities were to be granted maximum autonomy in their respective areas. But the Taliban acted treacherously and refused to honour this pledge. Within days they were routed and compelled to retreat south of the Hindu Kush.
The lesson in this for the Taliban is that it is not possible for them to control all of Afghanistan. At best, their authority can only extend to the provinces in southern Afghanistan and, similarly, that of the ethnic minorities will have to be confined to the regions where they are preponderant.
There is no alternative to decentralisation of authority with maximum autonomy for the provinces, and only a nominal multiethnic government in Kabul. But under its present constitution, Afghanistan is one of the most unitary and centralised states in the world. A constitutional amendment is needed for devolution of powers to the provinces. Under Article 150, this will require approval by a two-thirds majority in a specially convened loya jirga (grand assembly).
These are but stray thoughts for a possible settlement which can only emerge from the Afghans through dialogue among themselves without external interference. The hackneyed refrain of the international community is that the peace process has to be “Afghan-led and -owned.” But who among the Afghans will lead the process? Is there still a sage, like the one in Sahibzada Yaqub-Khan’s parable, who can provide the proverbial fourteenth elephant, unify the country and lead it to enduring peace?
The writer is the publisher of Criterion quarterly. Email: iftimurshed@ gmail.com