Afghanistan Quagmire

Afghanistan is beginning to look like a quagmire rather than a victory, with echoes of the confusion and uncertainty and persistent bloodshedding of Vietnam. Compounding the complications of the U.S. goal of hunting down the Taliban and Al Qaeda while stabilizing a fragile government is the swirl of ethnic tensions in Afghanistan fueled by competing warlords.

The foiled assassination attempt in Kandahar against President Hamid Karzai and two explosions in Kabul that reportedly killed at least ten people are certain to bring the still-unsettled situation in Afghanistan back into the limelight at precisely the moment that President George W. Bush is trying to focus the world’s attention on the alleged necessity of ousting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The two incidents will also give weight to those critics of the Bush administration’s apparent determination to go to war against Baghdad who say that Washington should consolidate its victory over the Taliban in Afghanistan before moving on to other military adventures.

Those critics include German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder who, of all major U.S. allies, has come out most solidly against a U.S. war to oust Hussein even if Bush gets support from the U.S. Congress and the UN Security Council. “My concern is that we have not even begun to achieve in Afghanistan anything that could be called nation-building,” he warned in an interview with the New York Times. “Before we have made any progress there, before we have proved to the disenfranchised masses in the third world that it is worth their while to return to the Western fold…, I would say that military intervention–in whatever terms they may be justified–tend to be counterproductive for the international coalition against terror.”

The first of Thursday’s incidents took place near in a busy shopping area near the Information Ministry. A small explosion was followed by a much larger car bomb that sent debris and body parts flying all across the area. UN sources said more than 20 people may have been killed in the second blast.

It was the worst in a series of recent bomb attacks, which officials have blamed on Al Qaeda and another anti-western faction headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a mujahid chieftain who ironically received the bulk of Washington’s covert aid during the 1980s when Afghanistan was occupied by Soviet troops.

Several hours later, an Afghan security guard reportedly fired on a convoy in which Karzai was riding, prompting the president’s U.S. bodyguards to begin shooting. While Karzai emerged unhurt in the exchange, at least three Afghans were killed in the exchange, while Kandahar’s governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, was reportedly grazed by a bullet in the neck.

Kandahar is the heartland of the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, who have become increasingly disaffected with the U.S.-backed government since the mainly Pashtun Taliban was ousted from power last November. Although Karzai is himself a Pashtun, he is widely seen by the group as a front for the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, which controls key cabinet positions, including the defense and foreign ministries.

Many Pashtuns reportedly believe that the Alliance was behind the July assassination of the only Pashtun vice president, Hajji Abdul Qadir, an incident that markedly increased internal tensions and persuaded Washington to replace Karzai’s Afghan bodyguards from the Defense Ministry with U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) personnel. That move, which was modified last month when the State Department took over security duties, also contributed to the sense that the country’s effective stabilization remains far off.

Hekmatyar is also a Pashtun who bitterly opposed the Taliban, but may now be linked to its remnants as well as Al Qaeda, according to U.S. officials. Earlier this summer, the United States mounted an attack on a convoy that it believed, mistakenly, was carrying Hekmatyar in an apparent bid to eliminate him.

The increasingly high-profile attacks in Afghanistan come as the Pentagon has reportedly reconsidered its opposition to the expansion of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) beyond Kabul and into major other cities around the country, including Kandahar.

For most of the past eight months, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld repeatedly rejected appeals from Karzai, European allies, a number of U.S. lawmakers, and other relief groups operating in Afghanistan to enlarge the 5,000-man ISAF and extend its reach to help stabilize regions in which tensions between rival ethnic militias and warlords occasionally erupted into violence.

The same forces also argued that extending ISAF’s control around the country was the only effective way of asserting the central government’s authority over the warlords. But Rumsfeld steadfastly opposed such an effort, insisting that it would interfere with Washington’s efforts to track down and eliminate remnants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Those efforts have turned out to be largely fruitless and reportedly are causing a drop in morale among U.S. SOF and ground forces assigned to the task.

Instead, the Pentagon concentrated on equipping and training a new, multi-ethnic Afghan army, a process that most observers believe will take years, while pledging to intervene through its air power and SOF personnel. They, in turn, have been attached to key warlords around the country since last November to prevent local conflicts from getting out of hand.

In fact, the latter strategy is increasingly seen here and in Afghanistan as counter-productive, especially in Pashtun areas, which have borne the brunt of deadly U.S. air and commando strikes against civilians or even friendly forces that resulted for the most part from mistaken intelligence or manipulation by rival warlords and U.S. ground sweeps.

More recently, the disclosure that mainly Uzbek forces under the control of Northern Alliance commander Gen. Abdurrashid Dostum, who has received strong U.S. backing, killed hundreds of mainly Pashtun and Pakistani prisoners of war after the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz last November by sealing them in sealed containers has further inflamed Pashtun opinion against the U.S., whose denials of any knowledge of the killings at the time have met with a skeptical reception.

Meanwhile, international reconstruction aid has fallen far below targets agreed upon by donors in Tokyo last January and has been overwhelmed by the return of as many as 1.5 million refugees from neighboring Pakistan and Iran. Many of the returnees are camped out on the dusty outskirts of Kabul and other cities without access to basic services, according to relief agencies.

Rumsfeld has blamed Washington’s European allies for failing to come through with the needed resources.

“One has to wonder how this administration thinks that it can invade and then stabilize Iraq with less international support than it had in Afghanistan, when the situation in Afghanistan itself is bordering on chaos ten months after we went in,” noted one congressional staff member.