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Unfinished Business In Afghanistan - 2003-04-15


Who lost Afghanistan? That question could well be asked some day if conditions do not improve, say former U.S. congressman Jack Kemp and Mahmood Karzai, brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Writing in The Washington Post, they claim the current Afghan government is hobbled by mismanagement, a confused chain of command and a lack of vision for the future. Meanwhile the warlords, financed by the U.S. military, exercise ever-tighter control of their domain at the expense of the central government.

With progress stalled, enemies revive, says Edmund McWilliams, a former U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan. "As expected, we do see a significant step-up in pressure on U.S. forces and also on the International Security Assistance Force based in Kabul in the form of rocket attacks, almost guerrilla-style attacks against U.S. and international forces," he says.

These assaults have risen along with the war in Iraq, though that have may have more to do with the milder weather, says Larry Goodson, Director of Middle East Studies at the U.S. Army War College. But there is no denying the growing anger at America. "There is, I think, a deepening anti-Americanism that is directly related to the Iraq War, but runs deeper than that and goes back to the general anti-Americanism found among militant Islamists today," he says.

Elections in Pakistan brought Islamist parties to power in provinces bordering Afghanistan. There remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaida have found a home and support. From there they launch attacks on U.S. and Afghan forces, small scale but damaging to security.

Mr. McWilliams says Pakistan, while nominally allied with the United States, does nothing to hinder the revival of anti-American forces in the border area, who have the help of Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. "Once again, there is a quiet agreement to work on behalf of very fundamentalist elements grouped around Hekmatyar and the Taliban, particularly within the ISI, the intelligence service of the Pakistani military," he says. "We now have very conservative Islamic regimes in power in the border provinces, and these administrations are prepared to work much more closely with fundamentalist elements grouped across the border."

Larry Goodson says the Iraq war has energized these various fundamentalists. "Given that these people were angry at American combat operations in Afghanistan, as you can imagine, they are extremely upset about American operations in Iraq, and see this in a general sense as a kind of American attack on the Islamic world," he says. "It is presented that way, portrayed that way, manipulated that way in the border area of Pakistan and Afghanistan for the audience that exists there."

Confronted with these increasing attacks, the Afghan government can’t cope. Mr. McWilliams says an effective national army may be years away, and U.S. forces are largely confined to Kabul. "Essentially, the security problem arises from our failure to expand the security presence established by the ISAF forces in Kabul beyond Kabul. We need security outside Kabul," he says. "We do not have it, and I do not think we have a plan for establishing it."

The U.S. approach was initially flawed, says Mr. Goodson. Not much thought was given to nation building once the Taliban were defeated. "We have gradually come to realize that we do need to have more of a presence on the ground and that security and reconstruction go hand in hand with providing legitimacy for the Karzai government," he says. "The introduction of provincial reconstruction teams has been designed to blend reconstruction activities along with the kind of security to allow that to happen.

Teams of 60 to 80 people, including combat soldiers, have been sent to various parts of Afghanistan to combine security with reconstruction. It is at least a beginning.

Mr. Goodson notes that Iran is actually ahead on road building in the area under its influence in western Afghanistan. The so-called great game continues, he says, with neighboring powers vying for influence in liberated Afghanistan. "In many ways, the regional actors who see Afghanistan as their playing field, all perceive, as do many Afghans, the American presence as being a temporary one," he says. "It is based on previous American behavior in the region, our previous withdrawal and on-again, off-again interest in the region and the cold hard realpolitic expectation that as events in Iraq and elsewhere attract the attention of America’s senior policy makers and citizenry, Afghanistan will simply slip on to the back page."

The Afghan warlords tend to sign up with one or another of the neighboring states, says Mr. McWilliams. That keeps them in power and the central Afghan government at bay. "You have to think in terms of these warlords, remembering that many of them – four or five major ones, but many, many others - have long been at the disposal of these foreign interests," he says. "One will work with Iran. Another will work with Russia and Uzbekistan. There are varying interests that are prepared to use these warlords as proxies, and this is a fundamental problem for the regime and for its national integrity."

If conditions continue to deteriorate, says Mr. Goodson, people may fondly recall the Taliban regime that at least provided security. The Pashtuns, in particular, may be prone to this since they have little representation in government with the single important exception of President Karzai. "For them the Taliban was Pashtun ascendancy, and the fact that they have been frozen out of really having any post-September 11 role, now they see the government as largely headed by northerners," he says. "When is there going to be a serious effort to bring the Pashtuns back into the fold rather than having them as a disgruntled and dominant ethnic group on the outside looking in?"

Mr. Goodson thinks the answer may lie in a federal rather than a centralized Afghan government. He believes this should be embodied in the constitution now being written. "To what extent are we going to have a centralized government, which I do not think fits Afghanistan very well but seems to be the model everyone is following? Or to what extent are we going to have a federal government and accept the reality on the ground that a lot of these warlords are powerful locally, and even if they were not there, the people’s natural political tendency is local."

The Pashtuns would reclaim some power under such a federal system, says Larry Goodson. But all Afghan elements will benefit and get along better if outside aid is generous and security is assured.