AS the Americans were raining missiles and bombs on the people of Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan was taking a turn for the worse. The Bush administration had promised a “new Afghanistan” after the ouster of the Taliban from Kabul and other major cities. However, it has become evident that the writ of the U.S.-backed government hardly runs beyond Kabul. More and more Afghans now see President Hamid Karzai as nothing more than a puppet of the United States. Karzai was among the few leaders internationally who backed the U.S. war of aggression against Iraq.
In recent weeks, the Taliban and its allies have been getting more and more audacious in their hit-and-run attacks against U.S. military targets in the country. Unfortunately, those opposed to the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan are also targeting aid workers belonging to various international agencies.
By the end of March the American forces had completed yet another major military operation, code-named “Valiant Strike”, to root out the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Afghan soil. From available indications, the operation was not very successful.
The financial bonanza promised to the Afghans by the Bush administration has also not materialised. President George Bush has not earmarked any funds for the reconstruction of Afghanistan in this year’s budget.
Ahmad Wali Karzai, the Afghan President’s half-brother, recently said that the Americans had not delivered on their promises after the collapse of the Taliban regime. “What was promised to Afghans with the collapse of the Taliban was a new life of hope and change. But what was delivered? Nothing,” he told a Western news agency. Soldiers have started deserting, as salaries are not paid. Most of the country has reverted to the control of the hated warlords.
In western Afghanistan, fighting has erupted in the province of Badghis, where the authority of Ishmael Khan is being challenged by Gul Mohammed, the local Governor. In the eastern province of Nargar, there has been violent resistance by farmers to the government’s campaign to eradicate opium poppy crops. International agencies have found that the rates of poppy cultivation and opium production in Afghanistan have increased significantly in recent times. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said recently that he expected Afghanistan to be the leading producer of opium in 2003.
Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his close associates such as Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden meanwhile continue to evade the American Special Forces. Immediately after the U.S. invaded Iraq, Mullah Omar issued a statement urging his countrymen “to fight like Iraqis” to get rid of the Americans in Afghanistan. At that time the Iraqis had seemed to be putting up serious resistance in Basra, Najaf and Nassiriyah.
Gulbudin Hekmatyar, another Pushtun leader, has also become very active. His forces have been credited with killing two U.S. Special Forces officers in Helmund province. Twelve people were killed when a bus carrying civilians was blown up as it crossed a bridge in western Afghanistan.
An expatriate employee of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is among the latest casualties. Ricardo Munigia, travelling with his Afghan colleagues in an area near Kandahar, was ambushed by the resistance fighters. They let off the Afghan workers after warning them that they would be shot if they continued working with international aid agencies. Then they shot and killed Munigia. The orders for his killing were apparently given to the insurgents by a “commander” based in Pakistan.
Many Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders are said to be in Pakistan. Some Western newspapers have said that sections of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) support the Taliban insurgents who have been attacking U.S. troops inside Afghanistan. However, there is no doubt that the Bush administration is grateful to the Pervez Musharraf government for the support for its war against terrorism. Robert Oakley, former U.S. Ambassador to Islamabad, said recently that the U.S. “could not possibly have done what we’ve accomplished against Al Qaeda and the war on terror without the ISI”.
BY targeting civilian aid workers, the Taliban and its allies are sending a signal to all Westerners that their presence in the country is unwelcome. The U.S. Defence Department, while trying to extend the Karzai government’s writ beyond Kabul, had started a project involving coalition soldiers in civil and humanitarian work. Provincial reconstruction teams comprising U.S. and allied soldiers have been sent to Kunduz, Gardez and Bamiyan. The military coalition led by the U.S. has announced plans to deploy additional teams to Mazhar-i-Sharif, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Herat. The teams will support reconstruction activities and help extend the central government’s authority to the provinces.
This move has made it difficult for the insurgents to distinguish between genuine aid workers and military combatants. Many non-governmental organisations and foreign aid agencies have reduced the presence of or stopped using foreign aid workers in Kandahar, the stronghold of the Taliban. The Taliban has reportedly declared a “jehad” against foreign workers. Organisations such as the ICRC have been working in Afghanistan for a quarter of a century. Their personnel have been targeted despite the onerous and selfless humanitarian work they are doing. The ICRC has said that it will suspend work for some months in places where its personnel have come under attack.
The assassination of Mullah Jailani in the first week of April came as yet another setback for the Karzai government. Jailani was a close political ally of the President and had sheltered him when he returned to Afghanistan during the conflict with the Taliban, in 1991. Jailani played an important role in the events leading up to the ouster of the Taliban. He was killed by gunmen near his village, Derawud, about 100 km north of Kandahar.
In response, the Afghan Army, with American aerial support, launched a combing operation in the mountainous regions north of Kandahar, not far from Spin Boldak. The combined Afghan-American effort was evidently not successful. “When we send our troops to the mountains, the Taliban disappear, and when we leave, they return,” the Kandahar police chief, Gen. Mohammad Akram, was quoted as saying. Interestingly, Gul Agha, the Governor of Kandahar, had recently made a bid to disarm the police under the command of Gen. Akram.
Kofi Annan reported last month that “security remains the most serious challenge facing the peace progress in Afghanistan”. Annan pointed to the increased activity by elements hostile to the government and the international community in Afghanistan.
In the second week of April, an American warplane once again “mistakenly” bombed a house in Shkin, near Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, killing 11 civilians. The air strike was in response to a guerilla attack on a military checkpoint jointly manned by Afghan and U.S. forces. According to U.S. officials, a Harrier attack jet, while pursuing the fighters, dropped a 450-kg laser-guided bomb which missed its target and hit a house. The last major incident involving civilian casualties took place in July last year when a bomb dropped by a U.S. plane killed 48 civilians in the Uruzgan province. There have been several rocket attacks on U.S. troops near Shkin, a key transit point for rebel groups crossing over from Pakistan.
The same week, clashes broke out between the forces of General Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord, and General Atta Mohammad, his Tajik rival. Soldiers loyal to the two warlords had clashed in Maimana, the capital of Faryab province in northern Afghanistan. In May 2002, the two had promised the international community that they would refrain from using violence to settle their disputes. However, fighting has been occurring intermittently in the area. Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. Secretary-General’s special envoy, in his report presented earlier this year said that “the high rate of criminal activity in and around Mazhar-i-Sharif, remains unabated”.
Meanwhile, more than a year and a half after the fall of the Taliban, the long-suffering people are still waiting for the “new Afghanistan” promised by President Bush. President Bush is quoted in Bob Woodward’s book Bush at War as having said that the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan “is to create chaos, a vacuum”, in the pious hope that something good would emerge out of the chaos and the vacuum. The result of Bush’s policy in Afghanistan is there for all to see - anarchy and warlordism, not order. A similar fate may be awaiting Iraq.