Chaos, disorder and internal power struggles in Afghanistan threaten American plans for the region

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War is a grim business, the more so in Afghanistan, but occasionally nuggets of humour emerge even from that harsh landscape. The latest is the Americans’ announcement that they will train Afghans to fight. Those with even a rudimentary knowledge of Afghanistan concede readily that every Afghan is born gun in hand; they could teach the Americans a thing or two about fighting. The Americans’ energies would be better spent on teaching them not to fight: fighting is all the Afghans have been doing for the last 25 years.

The Americans have got a taste of the Afghans’ fighting ability whenever they have dared to venture outside their fortified bunkers in their heavily fortified compounds, far away from the fighting zone. On April 5 it was revealed that leaflets have been distributed among Afghan civilians offering a reward of US$100,000 for the capture of live American soldiers, and $50,000 for dead soldiers. “Night letters” have become more frequent, especially in Paktia province, scene of the most recent fighting. Other leaflets, distributed in refugee-camps in Pakistan, warn Afghans not to cooperate with the foreign occupation forces.

On April 4 more bad news emerged for the beleaguered interim government of Hamid Karzai. Taliban supporters and al-Qaeda men are beginning to reorganize. This is even admitted by general Tommy Franks, Commander of US Central Command. Speaking at a press conference at the Pentagon on April 5, Franks admitted that Afghanistan is a dangerous place. Franks was perhaps being more frank than he had been before about his military’s ability to deliver. Captain Steven O’Connor, an American spokesman at Bagram airbase outside Kabul, admitted that “coalition” forces had come under fire in Paktia province on April 3. This happened despite claims, made two weeks earlier, that all Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters had been killed or driven out of the Shah-e Kot mountains.

Equally worrying for Karzai was the announcement by a spokesman for the Afghan defence ministry that more than 50 people had been arrested in connection with a bomb plot aimed at “sabotaging” the interim administration. The spokesman alleged that the plotters were followers of Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, the former prime minister. Hikmatyar’s spokesman, Ghairat Baheer, denied involvement in the plot, saying that it was part of an internal power struggle. That the government was forced to announce it indicates that the issue is serious. An American military spokesman said that at least 300 people had been arrested, and suggested that a coup d’etat may have been planned. If so the situation is serious: the only people who can mount a coup are the Northern Alliance, who are the most prominent armed group in and around Kabul.

Perhaps more ominously for the Americans, Northern Alliance fighters have also started shooting at US troops. The Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, mainstay of the interim government, at least for now, resents the Americans’ presence because they see them as a stumbling block to their ambitions to dominate the country. The Alliance is also averse to any role for the former king, Zahir Shah, whose arrival from Rome was postponed from March 25 until April 15 (although Karzai insisted that this was due to technical difficulties). Zahir Shah has not yet arrived in Kabul because his safety there cannot be guaranteed.

Claims of an internal power struggle were backed up by reports that former Northern Alliance finance minister Wahidullah Sabaoon was among those who had been arrested. “According to the information we have from the interim administration, Wahidullah Sabaoon was not among the detainees,” said Sultan Ahmed Baheen, head of the official Bakhtar news agency, but few people believed him. Sabaoon was a close ally of Hikmatyar but later defected to the Northern Alliance, becoming a minister in the government that took power in Kabul in November after the Taliban abandoned the city. He was not given a job in the interim administration formed the following month. Switching allegiances is a common habit of Afghan warlords. It is also interesting to note that when the Taliban were being driven out, the Americans referred to these Afghans as mujahideen; now they are being called warlords.

There are also reports that the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters are reorganizing and that they have spread out in groups of 10 or so, the better to harass the enemy. With the advent of spring and favourable weather, the chances of the fighting picking up have increased. Also, most Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters managed to escape the heavy US bombing. Spring and summer are typical months for guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan. It will be interesting to see whether the Taliban and al-Qaeda still have the capacity to wage war and, if so, what the casualty threshold of the Americans will be, before they decide to pack up and leave. Some observers suspect that part of the reason for America’s eagerness to assault Saddam Hussein is that the attack can be used to divert attention from Afghanistan, should the going get tough there.

What is certain, however, is that Afghanistan is at present in total chaos. It has no functioning central bank, for instance; the interim government deposits the money it gets as cheques into an account in Dubai or India; even the Americans cannot carry millions of dollars in suitcases all the time. They are also forced to use the hawala system to get by. For warlords hawala (road side money changers) is the preferred system. As soon as they get US dollars (as part of their monthly bakhsheesh, for instance) they head straight for the open market. The Pakistani rupee is the currency of choice at the moment, as most trading inside and outside Afghanistan is done through it. There is also the danger that American dollars may be counterfeit. Several warlords have complained that they have been stung by forged currency given them by the Americans (yes, really). The US$10-million cheque that Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf handed to Karzai in Kabul on April 2 cannot be processed through the hawala system, much as Karzai would like to do so. It will probably end up in a bank in India.

The only good news for the Americans for the time being is the arrest of several Arabs in Faisalabad (Pakistan) on March 28. Among them, according to American sources, is Abu Zubaydah, a top-ranking member of al-Qaeda, who was seriously wounded in the joint Pakistani police-CIA/FBI raid on a house in the city. Abu Zubaydah, or whosoever he is (it is not certain that the man really is Abu Zubaydah), is in “serious” condition, according to doctors in Pakistan, but he is expected to live. US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld says that the US is anxious to interrogate him. One person of Arab background was killed in the raid, which led to the arrest of 20 Arabs and 40 Pakistanis. Some of them were released after interrogation, among them a Pakistani professor and his sons. The raid also confirms the close collaboration between Pakistani security agencies and the American CIA and FBI inside Pakistan.

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