By Michael Shari
The scene: The inauguration ceremony of the new Afghan government in Kabul on Dec. 22. When the 500 or so Afghan war veterans and tribal leaders in attendance at the Interior Ministry auditorium stood at attention for the national anthem, about a third of them wept, wiping their beards with the lapels of their heavy leather jackets. Rashid Dostum and Ismail Khan, two powerful warlords who had threatened to boycott the ceremony, showed up after all, and Khan embraced the newly sworn-in President, Hamid Karzai.
For a country that has known nothing but war for decades, this was an encouraging sign. Power had changed hands peacefully. The clatter of AK-47 automatic-rifle fire, which had become as common to Kabulis as the honking of taxi horns is to New Yorkers, has simply ceased. The armed thugs in unmarked military uniforms who had been stopping cars at "road blocks" and collecting "tolls" after dark have vanished -- at least for now.
And then something took place on Dec. 23 that most Kabulis had never seen -- an antiwar protest by academics from Kabul University. They marched past the central bank, demanding over a megaphone that the peace be allowed to hold.
The question is: Just how long will the peace hold? Some diplomats in Kabul are frankly surprised that the calm has lasted thus far. The consensus had been that no agreement could hold together without the support of Dostum's army in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and Khan's army in the western city of Herat. Neither man has hidden his disgruntlement over being excluded from the 30-member Cabinet that the Northern Alliance, which now controls Kabul, negotiated in Bonn in early December.
Despite fears for the worst, Dostum, Khan, and other players appear to be on their best behavior. The reason: Pakistan, Iran, and the Central Asian republics have been using Afghan guerrillas as their proxies since the U.S. abandoned them after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. Now that all the nations in the region have agreed in high-level U.N. meetings to uphold the Bonn agreement that resulted in the new government, opposing the Karzai administration would be impractical, points out Ahmad Fawzi, an Egyptian spokesman for the U.N. in Kabul.
Already, some encouraging signs are surfacing. On Dec. 23, senior U.N. officials met with Dostum to seek his assurances that food-aid convoys would be allowed to pass through his territory to reach refugees stranded in the north. "Dostum pledged that he'd do everything he could to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid," says Fawzi.
Can peace hold? "You can't exclude any particular outcome at this stage," says James Dobbins, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan. In addition to the whims of Afghan guerrilla leaders, much will depend on political will in Tehran, Moscow, Islamabad, Washington, and Central Asian capitals. But so far, so good.
Shari, who is Singapore bureau chief for BusinessWeek, spent Christmas in Kabul
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht