Afghan and U.S. officials say remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaida terrorist network will likely try to exploit tensions over Iraq, and possibly step up their activities in Afghanistan, if there is a new Gulf war. But the Afghan and U.S. governments say they do not expect the overall security situation in Afghanistan to change significantly.
Over the past few weeks, there has been increased fighting between coalition peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan and remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaida. A number of Afghan civilians have also been killed near the southern city of Kandahar, a former Taleban stronghold.
There are also indications of a new recruitment and training drive by Taleban and al-Qaida fighters, who have reportedly joined forces with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former Afghan warlord intent on ousting U.S. and coalition forces from the country.
The fighting, attacks on civilians, and reports of resurgent Taleban and al-Qaida, have raised fears that, if war breaks out in Iraq, Afghanistan could suffer increased instability, as these forces look to exploit public anger and discontent over a war against Iraq.
Speaking to VOA, Afghanistan's Foreign Minister, Abdullah Abdullah, says Afghans - as Muslims - certainly sympathize with the plight of Iraqi civilians. But, he says, he expects there will be no increase in support for extremist elements in Afghanistan, if U.S.-led forces attack Iraq. "The terrorist groups, the remnants of al-Qaida and the Taleban, might try to provoke and make provocations, and to utilize that atmosphere, which will be a little bit different from the atmosphere of today," he said. "But I am absolutely sure about the situation with our people - they have no sympathy with the regime in Iraq. They do have sympathy with the people of Iraq, which have suffered for so long. But our people do not have sympathy with the Iraqi regime."
Foreign Minister Abdullah says coalition forces are prepared to counter renewed actions by remaining Taleban and al-Qaida, and, therefore, the overall security situation in Afghanistan should not change much in the event of war with Iraq. "The terrorist groups - al-Qaida - its strategy is the destabilization of Afghanistan," Afghanistan's foreign minister. "They will try to do it. Only as a result of that atmosphere [war with Iraq], they might find it easier at that time. That will be the only change, but that is a risk we should be ready to face. That will not mean there will be a big change in the security situation in Afghanistan. The course of the events in Afghanistan after September 11th has changed, and it has been reversed, and that cannot be brought back."
Foreign Minister Abdullah says he also is not worried about a diversion of combat resources away from Afghanistan to Iraq. On the contrary, he says, coalition forces have actually increased their support for his government recently, stepping up training for a new national Afghan army.
Colonel Roger King, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, says he, too, is aware of reports that Taleban and al-Qaida forces might try to exploit tensions over Iraq. However, the U.S. Army colonel says coalition forces have long prepared for any such development. "We have had intelligence reports that say that several organizations that are against us here have tried to say that they are going to tie their activities to the starting or beginning of hostilities somewhere else," said Col. King. "We have seen in the past that these organizations will try and pick an anniversary date; they will try and pick a mark on the calendar as a call to arms. So far, they have done that with limited success, and I do not expect anything different this time. However, as I said, we have intelligence that says that is a possibility, so we will prepare for that eventuality. If they do act, for whatever reasons, we are ready for them; we will deal with it."
Colonel King says operations in Afghanistan are minuscule compared to the forces being deployed for possible action against Iraq. Coalition forces, he says, number about 10,000 - about the size of one U.S. Army division. There are no plans, he says, to divert any resources away from the coalition, until the war against terrorism in Afghanistan is over, something he says will not happen anytime soon.