Citing security concerns, Hamid Karzai, the US-installed and protected president of Afghanistan, cancelled his visit to Pakistan only an hour before he was supposed to leave Kabul on March 22. His Pakistani hosts were taken aback: Mahmood Ali Kasuri, Pakistan’s foreign minister, was about to leave for Islamabad airport to receive the Afghan president when he was informed of Karzai’s decision. A government spokesman in Kabul said that, given the strong anti-US sentiment sweeping Pakistan since the US-British attack on Iraq, it was not prudent for Karzai to undertake the journey at this time. This may be true, yet there can be little respite for Karzai even in Kabul, where he remains virtually a prisoner, and at the mercy of the American occupation forces.
In Afghanistan, however, the Americans themselves need protection these days. On March 23 an American helicopter crashed near Ghazni in southern Afghanistan, killing all six marines on board. The Americans immediately announced that it was mechanical failure, not hostile fire, that brought the craft down. Perhaps, but too many American helicopters have been falling out of the sky in Afghanistan for no apparent reason.
Given the massive US operation under way in the Sami Ghar mountains, south of Qandahar, since March 20, attacks on American aircraft cannot be ruled out. The Americans admitted that the HH-60 Black Hawk helicopter was on a “medical evacuation mission.” Where the marines were wounded, so that they needed “medical evacuation”, was not explained, but sources in Pakistan have reported that Americans are facing hit-and-run attacks by Afghans and al-Qa’ida members in the area.
On March 22 three Afghan guards were killed at a checkpoint some 20 miles from Spin Boldak, the main border crossing with Baluchistan province, according to Carlotta Gall in the New York Times (March 23). Quoting Fazeluddin Agha, the local district commander, Gall reported that a number of Afghan guards fled for their lives. Three Afghan soldiers near a US base in Khost in eastern Afghanistan were not so fortunate when their vehicle was ambushed the same night. Colonel Roger King, a US military spokesman, said that the men were badly injured; two of them were evacuated to Bagram air base. Resistance to the occupation forces is escalating around Khost, with almost daily attacks being carried out against them.
American and Romanian troops that are part of the occupation force, together with the ragtag Afghan army, launched a large-scale operation in southeastern Afghanistan, Operation Valiant Strike, on March 20. They claimed two days later to have found a large ammunition-cache that included mortars, rocket-propelled grenade-launchers, high-calibre machine-guns, and land- and anti-personnel mines. Lieutenant colonel Michael Shields of the US army admitted that American forces had come under fire on March 19 from six gunmen in the area, which caused them to launch the largest operation in months. Informed sources in Pakistan give a different interpretation: the Americans launched their assault based on information that Usama bin Ladin might be in the area. Reports from Baluchistan say that Italian commandos have also been deployed; they resemble the people of the area and, once dressed like them, are indistinguishable from the locals, provided that they don’t speak.
There was even speculation, which started with a Tehran-radio interview given by Murtaza Poya (a Pakistani politician and publisher of the now-defunct Islamabad daily The Muslim), that Usama had already been captured and that the announcement of his capture would be timed to coincide with the start of the US aggression against Iraq. This has turned out to be incorrect. What cannot be ruled out, however, is that American and Pakistani troops are scouring the border region in Baluchistan for Usama and his associates.
The campaign appears to be having little success, as attacks by Taliban, followers of the former Hizb-e Islami chief Gulbuddin Hikmatyar and al-Qa’ida continue. Instead, local people are being arrested and humiliated, increasing their resentment against the occupiers. The sweep in southeastern Afghanistan on March 22 led to the arrest of 13 locals, all suspected of being Taliban-supporters or members. Abdul- Raziq, police chief in Spin Boldak district, claimed that several of them had admitted to being Taliban. Such claims can have little credibility: local officials are keen to ingratiate themselves to the Americans in hopes of getting some bakhsheesh (petty handouts). The mistreatment of locals to extract confessions heightens resentment among an already resentful population.
All this is made much worse by the fact that the much-hoped-for relief from hunger, starvation and disease is not forthcoming. Infant mortality is rising in an already impoverished country; there is a lack of clean drinking water; because of the prevalent lawlessness many relief-workers are no longer able to offer their services in remote areas. For instance, water-shortage is acute but can only be remedied by digging wells. Pakistani companies that used to operate unmolested in remote villages during the Taliban era, no longer go far from Kabul.
This has been confirmed by David Hayman, head of operations of Spirit Aid, a Scotland-based relief-agency, in an article published in the Herald (Glasgow) of February 26, 2003. He reported that 50 percent of the population in 13 mountain villages, collectively called Shaikh Jalaal, that he visited are children, and that they are dying. Tuberculosis, diphtheria, malaria, whooping cough, gastroenteritis and UTI (urinary tract infections) are widespread. “They haven’t seen a doctor in 24 years!” he wrote.
Hayman, who spent more than a month in Afghanistan, said the following on Afghanistan: “It is one of the most heavily land-mined countries in the world. Only 5 percent of the rural population have access to clean water, 17 percent have access to medical services, 13 percent have access to education, 25 percent of all children are dead by the age of five. Life expectancy is 43. An estimated three million people are still in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan, let alone the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced peoples.