The Death Of an Afghan Optimist

By Barnett R. Rubin
Sunday, September 17, 2006

Hekmat Karzai, a cousin of President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, called me from Kabul last Sunday. "Barney," he said. "We lost a friend today." A suicide bomber had blown up the car of Hakim Taniwal, the governor of Paktia province on Afghanistan's frontier with Pakistan, killing him and two aides. The attack took place outside Taniwal's office, where I had gotten into the same car with him five weeks earlier, and where we had our final conversation.

I first met Taniwal in 1985 in Peshawar, Pakistan, where he had joined other intellectuals fleeing the Soviet occupation of his homeland. After the scholar and poet Said Bahauddin Majrooh was gunned down in his Peshawar home in February 1988 by radical Islamists favored by Pakistan and the CIA, these scholars started to disperse. Taniwal left for Australia, and would return to his native Afghanistan only after the Karzai government came to power.

As his name indicated, this bearded sociologist was part of the Tanai tribe, one of Afghanistan's border groups so often depicted as fierce and warlike. But Taniwal, educated in Europe, exemplified another side of tribal life -- the soft-spoken elder who leads and reconciles by wisdom and eloquence.

Hekmat Karzai, who has documented how tactics such as suicide bombing have migrated to Afghanistan from the new terrorist haven of Iraq, told me that after learning of Taniwal's death, he had walked with President Karzai in the garden of Afghanistan's presidential palace. How, they wondered, could they still ask Afghanistan's professionals to help govern the country? Yet without them, the government could not possibly meet popular expectations, could not begin to restore hope to a nation nearly bereft of that emotion.

The last time we spoke, Taniwal repeatedly emphasized that stability was possible only with the support of ordinary Afghans. "We should invest in peace," he said, "not in fighting." He backed military operations based on precise intelligence, but such operations, he believed -- even if they killed, captured or routed some Taliban -- would have little long-lasting effect without popular support and economic development. Elders from 10 provinces, whom I met the day before my visit with Taniwal, had agreed, denouncing corrupt state officials. The people have totally lost trust in the government, they told me.

The Taliban "are slowly neutralizing the people," Taniwal said. "The government can't protect them, so they will go to the other side. They will not help the government to keep security." An elder from the neighboring province had offered a similar conclusion: "If the people were not distressed with the current government, the Taliban could not do anything. If the government starts negotiation with the elders and recognizes them, then we will be the police for the government." A minister in Kabul estimated the annual cost of putting elders in each district on the government payroll at $5 million -- a small price to pay for greater stability in a country where violence such as the suicide bomb that killed Taniwal is increasingly resembling that of Iraq in intensity, if not yet in scope.

Taniwal and I did not debate whether Pakistan was supporting the Taliban. As we sat a few miles from the frontier between the two countries -- the Pakistani tribal district of North Waziristan was a two-hour drive away on a dangerous road -- the answer was too obvious. "All the Taliban were once in Afghanistan," Taniwal said. "Now they are in Pakistan. The Taliban are helped by the [Pakistani] government." As we ate lunch at his home, a call from the police told of a suicide attack against a convoy on that very road to Pakistan.

Taniwal opposed big offensives by the U.S.-led coalition. "They roll over and flatten the whole area," he said. "But the enemy just goes from our side to the other side." The other side, of course, was Pakistan, where Taniwal, like so many other Afghans, had found a combination of refuge and persecution.

Pakistan was then negotiating a truce with Taliban who had gained control of most of North Waziristan. The final agreement, announced four days before Taniwal's killing, ceded control of the area to the militants in return for expelling "foreigners" (Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks and others) and ending infiltration into Afghanistan. According to reports from the region, however, the suicide bomber who killed Taniwal four days later may have been sent on his mission from Waziristan.

Taniwal wanted the coalition to "pressure Pakistan more and more to keep the people there and also arrest and send them to Afghanistan." But for him, pressuring Pakistan was aimed not at destroying the Taliban but at reintegrating them. He wanted them, and all Afghans, "not to solve problems with the Kalashnikov. The Taliban should join with the government, the society, and have their own party," like the Taliban's sympathizers in Pakistan, who run in elections.

Though he asked me to keep this confidential, his death allows me -- indeed, it obligates me -- to reveal that he also advocated settling Afghanistan's historic conflict with Pakistan over the Pashtun territories across the frontier known as the Durand Line, which Afghanistan has never recognized as a border, even under the Taliban. "All the troubles up until now have been because of this problem," Taniwal said. Afghanistan built its army with Soviet aid to counter Pakistan, a U.S. ally. As a result, he said, "we did not gain Pashtunistan, but we almost lost Afghanistan." If international mediators can help resolve this conflict, "then there will be peace, development, business," Taniwal said. "Then Pakistan will be secure, and Afghanistan will be secure."

Taniwal feared that the United States and the current Afghan government would make the same errors as the Soviets and the governments they supported, but he recognized the difference between the two eras. "This is not an occupation," he said. "Afghanistan was a base for terrorists. These bases have been destroyed. Now they are trying again, and we have to fight back. But we should not make mistakes. Afghanistan is slowly going to be like the problem in Iraq if we don't solve these problems."

He put on his turban. We left his office, accompanied by a few lightly armed guards, and walked toward his car.


Barnett R. Rubin is a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company