WASHINGTON (IPS)–As U.S. officials promise to rebuild and democratize Iraq, the people of that country might wish to consider Afghanistan just a year after President George W. Bush compared U.S. intentions there to Washington’s post-World War II Marshall Plan for Europe.
It must come as a serious disappointment both to Afghans and to Mr. Bush when Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of Afghanistan’s president and his representative in the Pashtun region of southern Kandahar, recently told one reporter, “There have been no significant changes for people. I don’t know what to say to people anymore.”
While no one is predicting the imminent collapse of the interim government headed by Hamid Karzai, he has been unable to extend meaningful control over most of the countryside beyond the capital Kabul, the only part of Afghanistan patrolled by the multinational International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
Without such control, the central government is unable to gain much traction in the effort to rebuild the war-devastated country as promised by Bush, or win the “hearts and minds” of Afghans, particularly Pashtuns who make up about 40 percent of the population.
Indeed, in the mainly Pashtun south there is mounting evidence that the ousted Taliban, allies of Osama bin Laden, many of whom are believed to be based along the border with Pakistan, are making a comeback.
That notion was illustrated dramatically by the recent assassination, apparently by Taliban militants, of one of Karzai’s closest friends and his nephew, Haji Gilani. Gilani sheltered Karzai in the opening stages of U.S. efforts to turn Pashtun leaders against the Taliban just before the Washington-backed military campaign got underway in October 2001.
The killing was the latest in a spate of anti-government violence that includes the murder of a Red Cross worker from El Salvador. It was the first murder of a foreign relief worker since the Taliban’s ouster and prompted a number of agencies, including the Red Cross, to withdraw personnel from much of the south as a precaution, which will further delay the implementation of key rebuilding projects.
In another recent attack, four gunmen on motorcycles ambushed a U.S. military reconnaissance patrol also in the south, killing two U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) soldiers and injuring a third, along with three Afghan soldiers. It was the first killings of U.S. servicemen in the country since December.
Three Afghan guards were also killed at their checkpoint, apparently in an attack by guerrillas of either the Taliban or of forces led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Pashtun rebel chief during the Soviet occupation who joined forces with the Taliban after Karzai was named president by the U.S.
While U.S. military officers on the ground, who have recently conducted a series of ground and air offensives against suspected Taliban mountain hideouts, say they are not particularly worried, most independent analysts have warned that these incidents indicate that Washington and Karzai’s government may be losing the war for “hearts and minds”, especially among the Pashtuns, the largest Afghan ethnic group.
Washington has about 8,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan and provides Karzai’s personal security guard.
“The United States is closely identified with the current situation in Afghanistan,” wrote another of Karzai’s brothers, Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce founder Mahmood Karzai, who, with Chamber vice president Hamed Wardak and Jack Kemp, a former Republican candidate for president, warned in Monday’s ‘Washington Post’ that the regime’s foes are gaining ground.
The major problem, according to most analysts, is that the United States is relying on local warlords backed up by SOF and air power when needed, rather than the ISAF, to provide security in the countryside.
“At best, U.S. cooperation with the warlords serves to alienate the common Afghan citizen,” the Chamber leaders and Kemp wrote. “A worst-case scenario is that Afghans will associate U.S. involvement with tyranny and become vulnerable to political manipulation by the Taliban and al-Qaeda.”
“This is what comes of buying security ‘on the cheap’,” noted one State Department official, who stressed that Washington’s plans for training army and police forces to gradually take over security functions outside Kabul were taking much longer than anticipated, in part due to lack of money to pay recruits.
U.S. commanders have also recently formed provisional regional teams (PRTs) consisting of about 500 U.S. civil-affairs reservists to provide humanitarian and reconstruction help so poor communities can build schools or repair transportation in the central government’s name.
But these too have been dependent on local warlords to provide security and may do little to enhance Kabul’s authority. And in Pashtun areas, some of their work has been attacked and destroyed by Taliban or allied groups, while the use of military personnel to perform humanitarian tasks has only added to the concerns of civilian relief agencies that they too may be targeted.