A fundamentalist revival

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

President Hamid Karzai. - PAOLO COCCO/REUTERS

President Hamid Karzai. - PAOLO COCCO/REUTERS

As the United States fails to repair the damage it did inside Afghanistan, fundamentalist forces try to stage a comeback and the country relapses into lawlessness.

EVIDENTLY the Taliban and its allies have managed to regroup in Afghanistan. The attacks against the Americans and their military allies have been getting bolder and bolder in the last couple of months. The Taliban, which is now overtly in alliance with Al Qaeda and the Hezb-i-Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has started issuing pamphlets and releasing videos threatening "death and destruction" to the Americans and their allies. The latest video released in the third week of June, warns of impending attacks on Western targets in Afghanistan and elsewhere. In that, a militant, purportedly speaking on behalf of the three organisations, says they claim responsibility for the recent bomb explosions in Saudi Arabia and Morocco. The video also claims that Osama bin Laden is alive and is in Afghanistan.

In June alone there have been many major attacks by the Taliban-led forces. On June 7, an explosive-laden taxi rammed into a bus carrying German peace-keepers in Kabul, killing four of them and injuring many more. Grenade attacks against military targets were carried out in quick succession in the cities of Kandahar and Spinboldak. Small hit-and-run attacks by the Taliban have now become a daily occurrence. In the third week of June, seven rockets were fired into the Bagram airbase near Kabul, which is under the control of the Americans.

After the recent attacks, the Americans helped by their Afghan allies, are concentrating their troops in northeastern Afghanistan in an operation code-named "Unified Resolve". They have said that the present operation is aimed at stopping cross-border terrorism. Tribesmen in the Pakistani side of the border are known to harbour supporters of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

According to the militant spokesman who appears in the latest video, the "Mujahideen forces" are regrouping in Kunar, Khost, Gardez, Jalalabad, Kabul and Logar. The aim, according to him, is to wrest the Pashtun-dominated south and east of the country from the United States-supported regime in Kabul.

There was a pitched battle in Spinboldak in the first week of June between Afghan forces loyal to the Kandahar Governor and warlord, Gul Agha Sherzai, and the Talibs, who had reportedly infiltrated from Pakistan. The bodies of 21 insurgents who died were sent back to Pakistan, but Islamabad returned them claiming that the dead were not Pakistanis. The fight against foreign troops in Kandahar is led by a cleric, Hafiz Rahim. Rahim has targeted American military convoys on several occasions.

According to observers of the Afghan scene, the resurgent Taliban's military muscle has been provided by the Hizb, the most experienced guerilla force in Afghanistan. It is also said that many Pashtun warlords, formally aligned to the government in Kabul, are secretly supporting Hekmatyar and the Taliban. Hekmatyar, and many of the warlords who are now back in power, were allies in the war against the Moscow-backed secular government in Kabul in the 1970s and the 1980s. Hekmatyar is now on the "most wanted" list of the Americans, sharing the dubious honour with Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

Pashtun disenchantment is largely because of the domination of the government in Kabul by the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance, led by the Defence Minister Mohammed Fahim, took the lion's share of the positions of power in the administrative arrangement in Kabul after the December 2001 Bonn Agreements, which were signed by all Afghan factions.

In all, more than 77 international peace-keepers, most of them Americans, have been killed since their deployment last year, making it one of the least costly wars for the Americans in terms of human lives. The Americans had, however, refused to deploy their forces outside Kabul.

Washington still prefers to play down the security imbroglio, and continue to rely on the warlords to keep the peace. In the process, ordinary Afghans are being denied human rights and security. During the Taliban days, Afghans could travel from one end of the country to the other without fear of being waylaid or robbed.

REPORTS of the humiliation and torture that many Afghans were subjected to in the Guantanamo Military Base in Cuba, where the Americans are holding Al Qaeda suspects, have further alienated the Afghan population from the Americans. Afghan prisoners were kept in small wire-mesh cells which, were only 6.5 feet by 8 feet (about 2 metres x 2.5 metres) in size. The cells were covered only by a wooden roof, which is not sufficient to keep the elements out. The prisoners were allowed out of their cells only for a one-minute shower once a week in spite of the tropical weather. Lights were kept on permanently, making it difficult for them to distinguish between night and day. Prisoners who were released have said that many of their compatriots were driven to suicide by the inhuman prison regime imposed by the Americans.

Many observers in the U.S. also feel that Washington is "losing the peace" in Afghanistan. According to a recent study by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the Bush administration's plans to "pacify Afghanistan appear to be unravelling". The report echoes what others have been saying for some time now. The 4,800-strong international security assistance force (ISAF) deployed in Afghanistan is woefully inadequate. Besides, the troops are all deployed inside Kabul. The 7,000 U.S. troops deployed are only interested in hunting members of Al Qaeda and of the Taliban down.

The Americans have also not delivered on their promises of enhanced financial aid or helped in the building of a new Afghan army. After the collapse of the Taliban government, warlordism, with the tacit encouragement of the Bush administration, once again casts its shadow over Afghanistan. Poor pay and low morale have led to defections from the Afghan army to the militias of the warlords. "Without greater support for the transitional government of Hamid Karzai, security in Afghanistan will deteriorate further, prospects for economic reconstruction will dim, and Afghanistan will revert to warlord-dominated anarchy," the study says.

Already the American predicament in Afghanistan is being blamed on "imperial overstretch". Washington has been forced to deploy 140,000 troops in Iraq, twice the number it had originally planned for. U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, on a hurried visit to Kabul in the first week of May, declared that hostilities had ended in Afghanistan and that the reconstruction work would now start in earnest. This statement came at a time when the United Nations staff had been prohibited from travelling out of Kabul for security reasons.

There were indications that President Karzai was trying to get his act together when he got many of the prominent warlords from the border provinces to come to Kabul, in the last week of May. Karzai extracted a promise from them that they would henceforth share customs and other revenues with the central government.

At present, the central government gets hardly any share of the customs levies. However, few people expect that powerful warlords such as Ismail Khan of Herat or Rashid Dostum in Mazhar-e-Sharif will willingly part with customs levies, which they consider their legitimate booty. Many of the warlords were financed and rearmed by the Americans after September 11.

THE situation in Afghanistan today is reminiscent of the early 1990s when warlords ran the country. Law and order had broken down as the warlords fought one another and terrorised the country. This made it easy for the Taliban to find acceptability.

Today, General Dostum and his rival Ustad Atta Mohammad are fighting for supremacy in the area around the northern city of Mazhar-e-Sharif. In Khost and Paktia, the stand-off between government-appointed governors and rebel forces continues. In the west, fighting is raging between the forces loyal to Ismail Khan and the Pashtun leader Amanullah for the control of Shindand province. In northern Afghanistan, more than 100,000 Pashtuns have been uprooted from Tajik- and Uzbek-dominated areas. They have become internal refugees.

The opium trade is booming again. An estimated three million people are dependent on poppy cultivation. President Bush had promised something akin to a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan. As of now, only an estimated $1.2 billion has been given as financial aid to Afghanistan, which as an American observer noted, is the cost of a single B-2 Stealth bomber. Washington spends a comparable sum of money every month in its futile hunt for Al Qaeda and Taliban cadre. Even East Timor and Rwanda got more international aid than Afghanistan for reconstruction.

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