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Attacks Signal Afghanistan's Precarious Stability - 2002-09-10

Factional fighting in southern Afghanistan, an assassination attempt against President Hamid Karzai and a bombing that killed more than two dozen people in Kabul last week have raised concerns in recent days about the security situation in Afghanistan. Many Afghans and international observers are warning that Afghanistan is becoming a less-stable place.

Troops belonging to the International Security Assistance (ISAF) force move swiftly through Kabul's busy streets at dusk, conducting spot identity checks and searching for weapons.

ISAF troops are responsible for security in Kabul. The troops, like the city they patrol, are on edge. Last week, a car bomb killed more than two dozen Afghans. Hours later, President Hamid Karzai narrowly survived an assassination attempt in the southern city, Kandahar.

Najib Joseph Shahabi, a 28-year-old Afghan-American from Palo Alto, California, moved to Kabul a few months ago to help run his family's Aria appliance store on one of the busiest street corners in Kabul. The car bomb that killed more than two dozen people blew up just a few meters from his store, slightly injuring Mr. Shahabi. Now, he says, it might be time to return home to California.

"I do not know if I am going to stay here, honestly. It is getting more scarier than it was. Things are not safe anymore," he said. "I came to help my brother with his business, and so, something like maybe start a business - a factory or something with my uncle and stuff, but now I have kind of changed my mind. I will stick it out for a little bit, but if there is another explosion, I am gone, I am not going to stay here."

Najib Shahabi said the car bomb that shattered the peace that Kabul has largely enjoyed since the collapse of the Taleban, also shattered business confidence. He said import orders are down and other Afghans, who had returned home to help rebuild their country, are considering leaving.

Alex Thier is a former U.N. official in Afghanistan who now works as a consultant with organizations involved in conflict-resolution efforts. He believes there will be more attacks from extremists, possibly with ties to the Taleban and al-Qaida. He said such groups have learned they can exploit disatisfaction with the Karzai-led government. As bad as the Kabul car bomb attack was, Mr. Thier said the attempt on Mr. Karzais life is far more worrying.

"I think there is the potential for the government, as it is now, to collapse, if Karzai were to be assassinated," he said. "I think that Karzai is the person who retains the legitimacy of this government, both in the eyes of a lot of Afghans, but also in the eyes of international community. I think that Karzai's absence would make the legitimacy of this government disappear completely. Obviously, the danger and the reason that Karzai may be targeted is obvious to anybody. If Karzai were to disappear from the scene, then you have the potential to destablize the whole situation."

Mr. Thier also says factional fighting of the sort that has erupted in southeastern Afghanistan over the past several days is as dangerous to Afghanistans stability as the car bomb attack in Kabul and the assassination attempt against Mr. Karzai.

"The greater threat to Afghanistans future is through factional fighting, at the moment," said Mr. Thier. "It is not from the forces that were controlling the country before, like the Taleban or al-Qaida. The danger is now that you have [political] fault lines in the north, you have problems in the south. There was shooting recently in Herat. There are obvious significant ongoing problems to the south of here, in Gardez and Khost areas. If any of those conflicts can be pushed to the point where they break out in a large scale way, it is going to force the international community to reckon with the seething conflicts that exist in Afghan society, right now."

Alex Thier says the remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaida know they will not be able to retake control of Afghanistan. He says the best they can hope for is to de-stabilize Afghanistan through factional fighting.

Mr. Thier and others say the challenge for the international community will be to deploy enough force to prevent a domino effect throughout Afghanistan, where factional fighting increases and spins out of control, leaving an opening for the Taleban and al-Qaida to re-emerge.