After Afghanistan election, governors seek distance from 'illegal' Karzai

In Panjshir Province, Governor Bahij says he wants to thwart protest of Afghanistan election. But he wants more autonomy.

Ben Arnoldy/Staff
Haji Bahlol Bahij, the governor of Panjshir Province, sits in his government office in Parakh, Afghanistan on Thursday, Nov. 5 2009. The governor says President Hamid Karzai's victory in the Afghanistan election is 'illegal' and calls for more local control over provincial leaders.
Ben Arnoldy/Staff
Photos of slain Afghan war hero Ahmed Shah Massoud are planted alongside old tanks in a soon-to-be expanded memorial near Parakh, Afghanistan. Photo taken Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009.
Ben Arnoldy/Staff
Guard houses lie at the entrance to the Panjshir river gorge, on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009. The gorge has sheltered the Panjshiris from the Taliban in the past and the present.
Ben Arnoldy/Staff
Abdul Kabir, a local teacher in Parakh, Afghanistan, stands in front of his now closed school on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009. The central government has closed all schools and mosques for three weeks, ostensibly because of swine flu. Mr. Kabir says the real reason to prevent protests over the election.

Haji Bahlol Bahij, a hulking former commander who governs one of Afghanistan's most peaceful provinces, serves at the pleasure of President Hamid Karzai. But that doesn't stop him from bluntly calling his boss's election "illegal" and achieved through fraud.

"I am with my people, I don't care if I have this position or not," says Governor Bahij, seated on a wooden throne from which he has run Panjshir Province for nearly five years.

The Panjshiris overwhelmingly voted against Mr. Karzai – and there's volatile anger on the street here about the fraud and corruption surrounding his reelection. But memories of the country's decades of war also run deep. From the governor on down to ordinary citizens, people are tempering their fiery rhetoric out of concern it could lead to the firing of guns.

"We don't know what to do about this government," says Bahij, who rules out street protests. "In America and in other developed countries, if there is a demonstration or a protest, it's going to be peaceful. But here in Afghanistan, I can assure you that if there is a protest, they are not going to do it in a peaceful way."

Many of Afghanistan's most secure and prosperous regions voted for Karzai opponent Abdullah Abdullah. Now, they face the prospect that their provincial leaders – who are appointed by Karzai – will be removed and their regions allowed to backslide by a weak and antagonistic central government. As a result, all eyes are on the governors, who may argue that while stability rests on their willingness to stifle street protests, it is also linked to Kabul's willingness to loosen its grip in their provinces.

"If [the governors] just laid down the gauntlet, and said, 'Listen, I don't care what the Constitution says, your government isn't moving into the province without our say so,' that could have a lot of local support," says Thomas Barfield, an expert on Afghanistan at Boston University in Massachusetts. "If one person does it, it could spread like wildfire."

Bahij says he will take his cues from Dr. Abdullah, whom he doesn't expect to call for anything illegal. At the same time, he singled out Abdullah's campaign platform calling for governors and other provincial officials to be locally chosen.

Meanwhile, Atta Mohammad Noor, another governor who rules over the pivotal northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, is reportedly making veiled threats of street violence if Karzai doesn't agree to decentralize.

Explosions? That's construction, mining

Two hours north of Kabul, armed guards stop and register all vehicles before allowing entrance to the Panjshir River gorge. Barren mountains press in close, leaving room only for the road and the river, which even in late autumn sends mighty emerald swells over the boulders.

The strong natural defenses of Panjshir allowed the late commander Ahmad Shah Massoud and his dwindling Northern Alliance fighters to resist the Taliban right up until he was killed days before Sept. 11, 2001. Nowadays, the same barriers – and the historic grudge – have kept the Taliban-led insurgency out.

Indeed, when an explosion echoed throughout the capital of Parakh on Thursday, a group of uniformed police didn't even look up from their game of volleyball. Dynamite here is for construction and mining, not destruction and death.

And that's the way people want to keep it, despite their short fuses over the election.

"I'm sure if one person starts something against the government, everyone will follow him," says Abdul Kabir, a local teacher. But "if we start to protest, we are destroying our own country."

His school has been shuttered since Sunday. The Karzai government ordered all schools and mosques to be closed for three weeks, ostensibly because of the arrival of swine flu to the country. The order came one day after Dr. Abdullah quit.

"I don't think the government gave three weeks off because of the swine flu. It was about the election," says Mr. Kabir. "If [students] were here at school or university, they might be demonstrating against the government."

Governor Bahij implied the closures were suspect, but nevertheless worries about demonstrations that could be "a very good opportunity for the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden to recruit people."

Rattled by foreign role in elections

Mr. Barfield says the odds are "zero" of Panjshiris – the last, dogged holdouts against the Taliban government that ruled between 1996 and 2001 – joining the Taliban insurgency. He reads Bahij's statement as a plea for international attention to the situation.

Yet Abdullah supporters are clearly rattled by the international community's role in the election. The Taliban's efforts to portray themselves as nationalists fighting foreign occupation may resonate more, even among the unlikely Panjshiris.

"I haven't heard yet that anybody is going to join the Taliban, but it's possible they will, because the elections were not legitimate, they were full of fraud," says Ahmed Zia, a religious instructor at the local madrassah, or religious school. "The Taliban are from Afghanistan, and they are doing these things because foreign countries are here."

A dream denied after Taliban's fall

Just north of Parakh rises Salaar Hill and a stone tower marking the gravesite of the fallen commander, Mr. Massoud. Below the tower lies a collection of tanks, artillery pieces, and signboards with giant National Geographic photos of Massoud.

In one photo, the smiling hero stands in a paddlewheel ferry like Gen. George Washington crossing the Delaware. At his side stands his trusty lieutenant and would-be heir, Abdullah Abdullah.

Abdullah now heads the foundation that is building a museum on Salaar Hill. The provincial culture minister says it will preserve Massoud's clothes, guns, and other personal effects. There will also be an exhibit on Afghanistan's wartime history – an ambitious undertaking even for what appears to be a massive complex.

Massoud remains a polarizing figure in Afghan politics. For his fellow ethnic Tajiks, he is a hero who united Afghanistan's minorities into the Northern Alliance to fight the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. After the US teamed up with the Northern Alliance to rout the Taliban, the Tajiks dreamed of leading the country into a more prosperous future.

However, with the charismatic Massoud dead, the Northern Alliance never made a coherent political transition. For some minorities, particularly the Panjshiri Tajiks, Massoud now represents a dream denied by a US-backed Pashtun government.

Many Pashtuns, meanwhile, mock posters of Massoud around Kabul that proclaim him "the national hero of Afghanistan." They see it as the propaganda of ethnic minorities who – in their view – have overrun the government in Kabul while edging out Pashtuns.

During the election, Abdullah stressed his mixed ethnicity, both Tajik and Pashtun. But he never escaped his close ties with Massoud, and the vote broke down heavily along ethnic lines.

He trounced Karzai in the Tajik provinces that formed the old Northern Alliance strongholds. Abdullah took Panjshir 68-29 over Karzai. Governors like Mr. Atta and Bahij who are now calling for more autonomy are Tajiks and former comrades-in-arms with Massoud – and Abdullah.

"He has changed himself into a very prestigious actor, the most serious leader of the Tajiks in Afghanistan for now," says Waliullah Rahmani, executive director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies.

Election fallout: three-way divide?

The election fallout, therefore, has the potential to send Afghanistan into a three-way divide between the ethnic Tajiks, the Taliban's coalition of insurgents, and a rump Afghan government led by Karzai.

Abdullah, however, has always shown reticence to play either the ethnic card or to call for popular protest. Such moves have the potential to send him and his supporters back to the days of those photos on Salaar Hill, wearing fatigues and holding AK-47s.

"The north has further potential for insurgency, but what I have noticed from Abdullah's position, as leader of this front, he is not willing to go toward insurgency for achieving political power," says Mr. Rahmani.

Restrict Karzai's power to Kabul?

For Barfield, the ethnic minorities remain too divided internally to speak in terms of another ethnic clash in Afghanistan. But regional players could rally around Abdullah to restrict Karzai's powers to Kabul.

The international community might even find a more constructive way forward in Afghanistan by coopting such a movement early.

"I think they can get ahead of the game and tell Karzai, 'no governors go into a province without [local] vetting,' " says Barfield. The strategy outlined by NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal "says you need a reliable Afghan partner, but that doesn't say that reliable partner has to be Kabul. They might reach around and deal with local, regional governments."

Is US strategy in Afghanistan working?

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