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A power struggle is brewing in Kabul

June 16, 2017 09:26 IST

'Afghanistan cannot be at peace until the Pashtuns regain their pre-eminent role in the country's governance,' says Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar.

IMAGE: An Afghan soldier keeps watch as chaos continues to descend on Kabul. Photograph: Omar Sobhani/Reuters

What on earth brought United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to Afghanistan?

The most obvious explanation could be that he is obliged to pay a visit to Afghanistan after assuming office in New York.

From initial accounts, Guterres felt devastated by what he saw. He instinctively called for peace and compassion.

However, it is unlikely that anyone pays heed to him.

Guterres' clout in Washington is almost zero.

US administrations historically used the UN secretary-general as a handyman to do odd jobs now and then, but even that has ceased to be the case with the Trump administration, which prefers to be the lone ranger.

Nonetheless, it is tempting to think that Guterres and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi have a back-to-back deal to kickstart Afghan peace talks.

Wang is also due to travel to Kabul shortly to pick up the threads of the meeting between Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Afghan President Asharf Ghani on the sidelines of the June 8-9 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Sartaj Aziz, Nawaz Sharif's advisor on foreign affairs, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on June 13 that Wang will visit Islamabad and Kabul to discuss ways to improve relations and to 'facilitate' talks between the two countries.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported Aziz also mentioned a proposal to 'revive' the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, made up of officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States and China.

Indeed, there is a sense of déjà vu.

In the final analysis, Guterres' visit cannot be anything more than a 'familiarisation tour'.

In reality, this is a twilight zone in Kabul and a long sunset is due.

Things are falling apart and the centre cannot hold.

Something must give way and something else, entirely new, has to emerge.

The national unity government experiment has run its course.

Fundamentally, the curtain is coming down on the Tajik domination of the power structure in the post-Taliban era since 2001.

And Afghanistan cannot be at peace until the Pashtuns regain their pre-eminent role in the country's governance.

IMAGE: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani with warlords Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abdul Rabb Rasool Sayyaf attend a ceremony at the presidential palace in Kabul. Photograph: Shah Marai/Reuters

But the Tajiks will not walk into the sunset either.

On Sunday, June 11, they forced the suspension of two Pashtun generals supervising security in the capital city -- Gul Nabi Ahmadzai, commander of the Kabul garrison, and Hassan Shah Frogh, the Kabul police chief.

Two days later, on Tuesday, Amrullah Saleh -- the high-flying erstwhile security czar, a Tajik from Panjshir -- stepped down as minister for security reforms, apparently on a note of dissent.

Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani's son, is also on a collision course with President Ashraf Ghani.

And so also Atta Muhammad Nur -- the Jamiat-e-Islami's powerful commander from northern Afghanistan and presently the governor of Balkh -- and Ahmad Zia Massoud, the late Ahmed Shah Massoud's brother .

The Jamiat-e-Islami is circling its wagons as a Pashtun-Tajik power struggle looms large on the horizon.

Day by day, as tensions mount in Kabul, it seems that the Afghan war is dramatically changing course once again and the old battle lines are becoming blurred.

The Pashtun-Tajik polarisation works fine for Pakistan, because it is making strange bedfellows in Kabul.

Who would have thought even a month ago that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar would come to President Ghani's defence -- or National Security Advisor Mohammad Hanif Atmar -- against the onslaught by the Tajik leadership on the Jamiat-e-Islami?

Of course, our pundits in India who view Afghanistan exclusively through the prism of 'terrorism' do not realise that the interplay of Afghan loyalties on tribal/clan lines can be crucial to the ebb and flow of Afghan politics.

What is under way is a momentous consolidation of the Ghilzai Pashtun confederation of tribes.

Gulbuddin might not have been a brave military strategist like Commander Ahmed Shah Massoud during the Afghan jihad in the 1980s, but he has a brilliant political mind.

That was why Pakistani intelligence spotted him as a promising young man on the Kabul university campus in the early 1970s -- much before the Saur Revolution or the Soviet intervention -- and got him to relocate to Peshawar.

No doubt, later on, General Zia-ul Haq too visualised a great future for Gulbuddin as a towering politician in Kabul someday who would bring about enduring peace between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Today, Gulbuddin's very presence in Kabul makes a realignment of forces inevitable in Afghan politics.

Unsurprisingly, the Tajiks suspect that Gulbuddin enjoys tacit American backing (external link).

But then Gulbuddin is a man of many parts.

Pakistan will be pinning hopes that a consolidation of the Ghilzai Pashtuns can be the long-awaited turning point for shifting the locus of the power structure in Kabul -- especially in the security agencies and the military establishment -- away in a new friendly direction.

M K Bhadrakumar