BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 14.10.01

Film: DAVID GROSSMAN assesses the prospect of the international coalition establishing a government acceptable to all in Afghanistan.

DAVID GROSSMAN: Afghanistan's history is one of conflict and conquest. To call it prone to instability is like describing the Atlantic Ocean as prone to damp. Afghanistan is a sea of instability - just as its mountains were thrust up by the collision of continental plates so its troubled past is the product of colliding empires. To build any kind of peaceful future here a seemingly impossible task. ROBERT TEMPLER Almost every single group in Afghanistan has carried out very serious violations of human rights abuses against other ethnic groups, so it's very hard to imagine an environment in which these groups are going to come together in a trusting manner. GROSSMAN: Since military action started, there's been a shift in the message coming from some western coalition leaders. Tony Blair especially is now talking far more about rebuilding Afghanistan after the conflict, than he is delivering future ultimatums to the Taliban. Everyone agrees that should the Taliban fall, the next government in Kabul must enjoy broad based popular support. That's very easy to say but with so many armed groups and ethnic factions within Afghanistan squabbling for power and so many of the surrounding governments looking to interfere, the prospects for success look very bleak. PROFESSOR MARGOT LIGHT: It would be a very gloomy prognosis to say that it's ungovernable. It's difficult however to see how you can install a government which is a government that is representative of these diverse groups and nationalities that can stick together and retain power GROSSMAN: Afghanistan's position made it vital to the interests of four powerful empires - British, Russian, Persian and Chinese. The RAF in action over the Khyber Pass sixty-four years ago. This rare footage of an attack on a warlord's village, part of the battle for influence in Afghanistan that had been always smouldering and periodically flaring up for over a century. Britain saw Afghanistan as vital for maintaining its overland access to India. The Russians needed safe routes across it to reach the warm water ports of the Arabian Gulf. It was a world of secret agents, bribes and treachery with all around the corrosive whiff of opium. PROFESSOR HALEH AFSHAR: The difficulty is where Afghanistan is situated politically and geographically and the needs of various neighbours at different times to use it either to get through or in order to make alliances or in order to actually attack other neighbours. And the difficulty is that the Afghans are independent people who are divided by tribes, who are divided by religion, who are divided by customs GROSSMAN: Foreign involvement in Afghanistan has not come without a heavy price. In 1979, the Soviets invaded to prop up a failing communist government and ended up being bogged down for a decade. The normally fractious Afghan tribes united against a common enemy. PROFESSOR LIGHT: The Soviet leadership was rather misguided and thought that if they could invade Afghanistan, remove the leader Armin who was very unpopular, replace him with Babrack Karmal that the peace would break out and they would be able to withdraw immediately. In fact ten years later they were still embroiled in the civil war in Afghanistan. GROSSMAN: The west sent huge quantities of arms to the Mujahadeen forces fighting the invader. It became Russia's Vietnam. One of Gorbachev's first acts on coming to power in the late eighties was to begin a Soviet withdrawal. After the Soviets left, the forces that ejected them quickly split into factions and turned their American donated weapons on each other. Trying to bind together all these religious and ethnic groups promises to be about as easy as lassooing smoke. And there are fears that the coalition of groups best placed to overthrow the Taliban - the Northern Alliance - would in fact be the worst at delivering the country a stable peace. The Northern Alliance are mainly ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks. They are Shi'ite Muslims. They're supported by Iran and the former Soviet Central Asian Republics. The Taliban in contrast, draw their support from the Sunni Muslims and Pashtuns of the south, they're backed by Pakistan. Both groups though have committed atrocities and would be unacceptable rulers of the other side. ROBERT TEMPLER: I don't believe the Northern Alliance has the capacity to run all of Afghanistan, it simply doesn't have the popularity, doesn't have the support of the Passion people in the south and east of the country. PADDY ASHDOWN: If you simply alter the polarity of the government in Kabul, so that instead of being Pushtoun its Tajik, you continue the civil war. That means that the peace which we will presumably have to administer and secure, will be far more difficult, because that civil war will continue. GROSSMAN: So worried are western military planners about the Northern Alliance sweeping into Kabul that much effort is reportedly going into making sure that British and American air strikes against the Taliban don't actually help the other side too much. So is there anyone who could unite this troubled country? Nothing perhaps illustrates the poverty of available options more than the fact that an 86 year old, the former King Zahir Shah, may just be the country's best hope for the future. PROFESSOR HALEH AFSHAR: It may well be that King Zahir could come back because he has the authority of age and because he has not been siding with anybody for a very very long time. And he could come back to chair meetings to try and actually hear people. I don't think that anybody including the King himself thinks of himself as coming back and reinstating a kingdom, but it may very well be the case that he could actually chair a forum and have and allow participation on an impartial basis. GROSSMAN: Indeed the King has already been meeting members of the Northern Alliance, trying to pave the way for some kind of traditional council to decide on what to do if the Taliban go. He looks remarkably strong for his age but is he really the answer? M. DAOUD KAWIAN: He has been more about thirty years away from the country and the generation which now they're engaged in war between each other they don't know him. They had, when he left Afghanistan he was abroad, they were just born. Of course, this is..this is disadvantage and also his age. GROSSMAN: The Pakistan leg of Tony Blair's air mile marathon. The Taliban draw much support from Pakistan's population and the Pakistani president General Musharraf is decidedly nervous about the prospect of their fall. Mr Blair though promised that Islamabad would be involved in Afghanistan's future. ASHDOWN: I think it was very worrying that the Prime Minister should have said while in Islamabad, perhaps as a price for Pakistan's support, that Pakistan could have a continuing interest in Afghanistan. I mean that's what started this in the first place. It was Pakistan's blundering in Afghanistan. GROSSMAN: Even if a formula could be found to establish a broadly supported government, there are so many factors that could destabilise it. For a start the Afghan population is well armed and used to war - many make their living either growing or trading in opium and would hardly welcome a strong central administration. As the search for Bin Laden has proved, the Afghan terrain could have been designed with providing cover for guerrillas in mind and history sadly suggests that any group that doesn't get what it wants, will simply take to the hills and start another war. ROBERT TEMPLER: There's no state in Afghanistan I mean in the West we just don't understand how to deal with countries that don't have a state, they don't really have a functioning government. What we're dealing with here is a whole range of different war lords and different fractions, it's very hard to come to grips in that sort of environment. GROSSMAN: Even before this week's military strikes Afghanistan was a shattered country - restoring stability will take a huge effort from the outside world. Many, including President Bush, think this is a job for the United Nations. PROFESSOR AFSHAR: I think that really this is one of the cases where the UN could be tested and could actually be invaluable in the sense that the UN represents the world. It represents everybody, it includes Muslims and non-Muslims, it doesn't have a notion of a divided civilisation and therefore I think that the UN is actually the best agency for securing a measured peace, for securing an environment in which people feel safe to be able to express their opinion. ASHDOWN: There is a real practical problem about a protectorate in Afghanistan. I mean you have to have troops to protect a protectorate. Who would put troops in to Afghanistan and would the Afghanistanis tolerate foreign troops in their country, I very much doubt it. So I think a protectorate may not be practically possible. GROSS: Afghanistan's history isn't necessarily its future - but it should serve as a warning of the problems any post Taliban administration will have to overcome. In setting out to defeat terrorism, Tony Blair and George Bush have clearly given themselves an enormously difficult task. In trying to turn Afghanistan into a peaceful, stable country it may be they'd be taking on the impossible.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.