Security Concerns Mount In Afghanistan As Country Enters Critical Reconstruction Phase

Security Concerns Mount In Afghanistan As Country Enters Critical Reconstruction Phase By Ahmed Rashid March 19, 2002 When British soldiers patrolling the streets of Kabul stop their armored vehicles for a moment, there is an instant traffic jam. Hordes of well-wishers–including blue burqa clad women and laughing children–crowd around them. The British are leading a 4,800-strong force in Kabul, drawn from 19 nations, and known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul. It is the most visible sign of the international community’s commitment to help stabilize war-torn Afghanistan. ISAF has helped bring order to Afghanistan’s capital. However, as Afghanistan enters the first of several critical stages in its reconstruction, there is mounting concern among the Afghan interim government and international peacekeepers that the West is failing to address critical issues upon which the success of the political process and future stability depend. These include the expansion of ISAF troops to other Afghan cities, the necessary funding for a new national Afghan army and police force and other security-related matters. “The issue of security is the highest priority facing the international community and the Afghan interim government,” says Major General Sir John McColl, head of ISAF. Many observers say improved security in Afghanistan would greatly raise the chances for the successful Loya Jirga (LJ), or grand tribal council. The first genuine LJ since 1964 is scheduled to convene in June. The LJ will choose a new head of state and transitional government for two years and establish the mechanisms to write a new constitution and hold elections in 2004–after 24 years of war. In late March, former king Mohammad Zahir Shah is expected to receive a mammoth public welcome when he returns to Afghanistan after nearly 30 years in exile. His arrival will kick off intense politicking, as tribes and ethnic groups prepare to select their representatives for the LJ. At present, the reconstruction process remains fragile, as the interim government struggles to contend with myriad security threats. Warlordism remains rampant in several parts of the country, and in the north there have been intra-warlord skirmishes and organized attacks against Pashtun. The vacuum created by the lack of an international presence outside Kabul is encouraging Iran and Russia to provide support different warlord armies. The interim government’s ability to address security issues is hampered by severe ethnic strains within the cabinet. “Everywhere we go, the people’s first demand is that ISAF be deployed to other cities in preparation for the LJ,” says Mohammed Ismail Qassimyar, the Chairman of the LJ, which will set the rules and approve the candidates for the Jirga. Clarifying ISAF’s role in Kabul and elsewhere would strengthen the interim government’s ability to respond to security issues. But several important questions remain unanswered about the peacekeeping force’s future. The UN Security Council mandate for Britain to lead ISAF expires in mid-April. Britain has declined to renew its leadership role, while several European countries, which were initially expected to take on that task, have now backed out. That leaves Turkey as the most likely lead nation. But Turkish leaders appear reluctant to assume the leadership role. McColl said there are ongoing operational meetings between the United States, Britain, and Turkey to satisfy the Turks. Turkey faces acute financial problems and is looking for funding from Western nations before it announces its decision. Turkey also wants continued U.S. air cover for its forces. Many Afghans are nervous about Turkey taking on the leadership role, because in the past Turkey has been involved in supporting the Uzbek warlord General Rashid Dostum. Some also worry that Turkish troops will not be as impartial as the British. Another unanswered question concerns the possible expansion of ISAF to other cities. UN, British, American, and French generals in Kabul now support such expansion. But the idea has not received the necessary support from Western political leaders. “Given the security needs of the country, I am hopeful ISAF will be extended in Kabul and there will be some kind of expansion to other major Afghan cities, but it’s a political decision,” says a U.S. general in Kabul. McColl says: “There is a huge demand by the Afghans to expand ISAF to other cities, but that is a matter for the international community to decide, not for a soldier.” Hamid Karzai, Chairman of the interim government, has been touring Western nations urging the world to pay attention to such warnings. Western governments have so far failed to agree to an expansion, partly because the Bush administration is divided on the issue, and European nations are waiting for the U.S. to take the lead. Government officials are reportedly concerned that expanding the peacekeeping force could be an expensive and risky operation. The UN Special Representative to Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi disagrees. “The expansion of ISAF to other places is necessary and does not require large numbers of troops, it need not be expensive and their presence is not required for long,” says Brahimi. British and U.S. forces are also leading the way in trying to create a new national Afghan army, with the tacit support of Afghan interim Defense Minister General Mohammed Fahim. British officers are training a new 600-man Afghan battalion drawn from 29 of the country’s 32 provinces. “They will act as a Presidential Guard, the central symbol of a new Afghanistan and its security structure,” says McColl. The U.S. military will begin training a brigade of 1,800 men in April. “Our trainers will learn from the British experience before we begin training on April 6,” says the U.S. general. However the critical issue is the lack of international funding for the new army and police force. Once these troops are trained they will have no barracks, salaries, transport, or equipment. Although January’s Tokyo conference pledged U.S. $4.5 billion toward the reconstruction of Afghanistan, no money has been allocated to the country’s security needs. “The funding for a new security architecture is not clear and needs urgent resolution,” says McColl. Congressional aides say that they are hopeful that the U.S. Congress will consider tabling a bill in May for U.S. $250 million in aid for Afghanistan for this year, in addition to the U.S. $296 million already pledged in January. This may include U.S. $50 million for the new Afghan army. “It is clear that if funding is not made available for the central government to build a new army, the warlords will refuse to demobilize and disarm their men,” says a Western ambassador in Kabul. It is clear that a new army cannot be built unless there is an expansion of ISAF because only then will the warlords cooperate with the central government. At present all the warlords see Fahim’s army, which controls Kabul and northeastern Afghanistan, as just another ethnic faction. Fahim, the successor to the anti-Taliban resistance leader Ahmad Shah Masood, commands a largely Tajik army, which helped the U.S. defeat the Taliban, but which warlords from other ethnic groups deeply resent. Masood came from the Panjshir valley north of Kabul and belonged to the Jamiat-i-Islami party. Fahim belongs to the Panjshiri troika within the government–others are Interior Minister Younis Qanooni and Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah–who now wield enormous power in Kabul and are accused by ministers from other ethnic groups of stuffing ministries, the army, and the police with Panjshiris. “If the resources are not there then Fahim will just rebuild his army as he is already doing and call it the national army and he will be backed by Russia and Iran,” says an Afghan cabinet minister. Other ministers say 30 of Fahim’s 32 army divisions are led by Panjshiri commanders, and the police hierarchy is also dominated by Panjshiris–as is the intelligence service and the foreign ministry. Western military officers are suspicious that Fahim’s real intention is to rebuild a Pansjhiri-led army rather than a genuine national army. Fahim strongly denies such allegations. Under pressure from ISAF and the U.S., Fahim called all the warlords and commanders to Kabul on March 5 to discuss the new national army, deweaponization, and demobilization. At the commanders’ conference, Fahim urged warlords to deposit their heavy weapons in depots under their control until the LJ, and then, in a second stage after June, agree to hand them over to the Defense Ministry. Although they all verbally agreed, implementation is unlikely–especially as they still feel threatened by Fahim. The warlords threatened by Fahim are forming different alliances. Uzbek warlord General Dostum and Pashtun warlords in the south are strongly backing the returning Zahir Shah, while General Ismail Khan in western Afghanistan is backing the former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the rival of the Panjshiris within the Jamiat party. “We give assurances that we will make all efforts to stop anyone who tries to push this country to renewed instability and fratricide,” Fahim said at the commanders’ conference on March 5. “We will not allow that and deal with it quickly. I promise that there will never be chaos and war in this country again.” On the ground there is a different reality. Fahim’s commander in the north, General Mohammed Atta, has been trying to regain territory and influence from Uzbek and Hazara warlords, which has led to several serious clashes. All of the non-Pashtun groups have launched attacks aimed at ousting the minority Pashtun population, which was allied to the Taliban, from northern Afghanistan. Meanwhile other Panjshiri commanders are attempting to buy influence amongst the Pashtuns south of Kabul, including installing as commanders in Wardak province those Pashtuns who are known for their loyalty to the Jamiat’s bitter rival Gulbuddin Hikmetyar. Hikmetyar, who was in exile in Iran, is now rumored to be in Afghanistan. Inter-ethnic tension is compounded by the fact that Hamid Karzai has been unable to build a constituency amongst his fellow Pashtuns, where there is political anarchy and rampant warlordism–much of it being fueled by Americans who fund warlords to hunt down al Qaeda fighters, and decline to pressure them to be loyal to the central government. The Pashtun warlords Hazarat Ali in Jalalabad and Gul Agha in Kandahar, who have each built up armies of over 12,000 men courtesy of U.S. largesse, are unwilling to work under Karzai. Every group is trying to pre-position itself to exert the maximum influence in the LJ. Much of the jockeying could be reduced if the international community demonstrated a commitment to the expansion of ISAF outside Kabul. Observers say that only firm international action would place the necessary pressure on Fahim and the warlords to behave. The lack of security outside Kabul is placing additional burdens on ISAF. Royalists are demanding that ISAF protect Zahir Shah when he returns to Kabul and travels to Kandahar and Mazar-i-Sharif in April. And the LJ Commission is demanding ISAF protection both in and outside Kabul when it is holding large public meetings. Despite rising ethnic tensions, no warlord or group is at present prepared to take on the central government, or to attack Kabul. Afghans are still optimistic that with Zahir Shah set to return, and 1.7 million children expected to go back to school under a UNICEF program on March 23, a sense of normalcy will return the country. Afghans also remain hopeful that the LJ will be held as scheduled, and that a new political relationship among the factions will emerge. (Ahmed Rashid is a journalist and author of the books Taliban: Militant Islam and Fundamentalism in Central Asia and Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia . This article originally appeared on Eurasianet < www.eurasianet.org > and is reprinted with permission.) Mail this page to someone you know. Recipient’s Name: Recipient’s Email: Sender’s Name: Sender’s Email: to receive weekly commentary and expert analysis via our Progressive Response ezine. This page was last modified on Tuesday, March 19, 2002 12:49 PM Contact the IRC’s webmaster with inquiries regarding the functionality of this website. Copyright © 2001 IRC. All rights reserved.