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Afghanistan: Instability Remains as US Eyes Attack on Iraq

17 August 2002

As the United States starts preparing for the next round in its 'war on terror', this time against Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan - where this campaign began - remains unstable and shows no signs of settling down.

In early August alone, U.S. troops came under sniper attacks and were engaged in firefights with Taliban and al Qaeda remnants. There have accidents and explosions resulting in the deaths of American soldiers and Afghan civilians.

On Aug. 7, in the deadliest clash since the Taliban's ouster in November, al Qaeda fighters attacked an Afghan army outpost near Kabul, resulting in 15 casualties.

A day earlier, an American soldier was killed in an incident involving U.S. troops and Afghans close to the border with Pakistan.

A U.S. attack on Iraq would have an impact Afghanistan as well, given that the neighbor of Iraq and Afghanistan happens to be Iran, high on the U.S. 'enemies list' as part of U.S. President George Bush's "axis of evil".

The expectations of a new order of stability emerging in the post-Taliban phase, particularly after the June Loya Jirga or grand consultative assembly, a mechanism for making decision in Afghanistan's tribal society, have not been met.

The Loya Jirga sought to prepare a road map for the transition to a democratic Afghanistan. It established a transitional administration under Hamid Karzai, one entrusted to prepare a new Constitution and hold a free, fair election in the next two years.

However, the Loya Jirga was caught between the conflicting demands of the warlords who assert their own suzerainty in their respective domains versus an administration in Kabul, which wants to exercise centralized authority and control.

Then the American-led 'war on terror' has failed to stamp out al Qaeda and Taliban remnants, since Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar still remain at large and have eluded the American forces pursuing them.

Given this scenario, three kinds of conflicts can be envisaged in Afghanistan.

First, the lurking conflict between the so-called 'Tajik troika' and President Karzai.

This troika, representing the ethnic Persian-speaking Tajiks, manages to control the foreign and security policies since Gen Qasim Fahim is defense minister while Dr Abdullah Abdullah is foreign minister.

The third member of the troika, Younis Qanooni, has been relegated from his previously powerful slot as interior minister to the politically less influential education minister's post.

The majority of Afghanistan's population is Pashtun, who like the 20 million Pashtuns in Pakistan, speak Pashto. Tajiks make up some 25 percent of the population, with an ethnic affinity with Tajikistan and a linguistic linkage with Iran.

Reports of tensions between Karzai and Fahim have also surfaced, and last month's assassination of Vice President Haji Qadeer, who like Karzai was a Pashtun, has upset the delicate balance of power in Afghan politics, particularly in Kabul.

His assassins have not been found and remain unidentified. Recently, Karzai replaced his security detail provided by Gen. Fahim's defense ministry with the U.S. Special Forces, a move that shows concerns over his own personal security.

Last week's demonstrations in Kabul extolling Ahmad Shah Masood, the famous Tajik commander known as the 'Lion of Panjsher', who was assassinated on Sep. 9, 2001, have been viewed as an attempt by the Tajik Troika to assert control by building a personality cult around their slain leader.

According Ahmed Shah Masood a status of a 'national hero' may be an aspiration not shared by all Afghans, particularly Pashtus.

Second, the role of the warlords is still significant. Afghanistan sometimes manifests itself as a multi-ethnic, de facto confederation of tribes and linguistic groups led by warlords, who often have camaraderie and rapport with neighbors who share an ethnic linguistic or ethnic affinity with them.

For instance, there is Pakistan with the Pashtuns, Iran with the Shiite Hazara and Farsi-speaking Tajiks and Uzbekistan with the Uzbeks.

Until an Afghan National Army is constituted, warlordism will remain a key political factor in Afghan politics with their infighting and rivalries.

Aggravating the problem is American reliance on the warlords and their forces to track down remnants of al Qaeda and Taliban in particular parts of Afghanistan.

The warlords' role was underlined during the recent visit of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami to Kabul, when Karzai ensured that the pro-Iranian warlord who controls Herat, the main city of western Afghanistan close to the Iranian border, Ismail Khan, was present in the parleys held between the two presidents.

Similarly, in Mazar-e-Sharif, chief warlord and deputy Defense Minister Gen. Rashid Dostum, who is Uzbek and Turkish-speaking, is close to Uzbekistan as well as Turkey.

The third conflict could emanate from the Iran factor especially after the Jul. 12 remarks of Bush, when he virtually incited the Iranian people to 'rise against the oppressor regime', making "regime change" in Tehran as much of a goal as is regime change in Baghdad.

American media reports quoted U.S. government officials as saying that they have given up on Khatami, earlier praised in Washington for being a 'moderate reformist'.

In effect, like Iraq, Iran too is being presented as next in line for what the Americans term "regime change", although Washington is probably oblivious of the Iranian clout and capacity to influence western Afghanistan through their friend, Herat's warlord Ismail Khan.

Interestingly, during his Aug. 13 visit to Kabul, Khatami belied American claims that Iran was undermining Karzai.

Not only did Khatami pledge 560 million U.S. dollars in humanitarian and economic aid to Afghanistan through the central government of Karzai, rather than their favorite warlord Khan. He announced that in no way will Iran be abused or misused by the terrorist groups who have been in Afghanistan .

A day before Khatami's visit, the Iranian Foreign Ministry confirmed that 16 al Qaeda fugitives from Afghanistan, who managed to cross into Iran, had been handed over to Saudi Arabia, their country of origin.

With war against Iraq increasingly likely and the war in Afghanistan yet to be wrapped up as the United States marks the first anniversary of the Sep. 11 attacks, stability for Afghanistan remains an elusive dream.

But what is positive is the revival of faith in Afghanistan's future, despite fears of instability and violence, among returning Afghan refugees and exiles. The international community, ranging from the United States to Iran, is pledging support for reconstruction and rehabilitation.

The revival of this faith in Afghanistan's future may be the single most important achievement for the country since the Sep. 11 tragedy spawned the U.S. 'war against terrorism'.

Mushahid Hussain, Islamabad, Pakistan
Published by the Inter Press Service © 2002 lPS

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