US rhetoric dangerously out of step with realities on the ground in Afghanistan

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The announcement by US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld during a brief visit to Kabul on May 1, to the effect that the military phase of the campaign in Afghanistan is over, took American soldiers in the country by surprise. US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage got an even ruder reception when he visited Kabul for a few hours a week later. As he landed in Kabul a massive explosion rocked the city. Armitage, himself a military man, was told that this was business as usual in Kabul.

Kabul is supposed to be relatively safe because of the presence of some 11,000 foreign troops from the US, Australia, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, who are regularly involved in firefights with Taliban and al-Qa’ida supporters. In August this duty will be taken over by forces from NATO, which has now been assigned a new role as an extension of the US military.

It may be recalled that when the Americans were going to attack Afghanistan in October 2001, they spurned offers of help from NATO member-states. Now the Americans want help from NATO because they themselves are involved virtually daily in fights outside Kabul. On May 7 the UN suspended mine-clearing operations after its workers came under fire near Qandahar, leaving one Afghan dead and three injured.

Rumsfeld’s claim that everything is under control was belied by Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special representative in Afghanistan, who said in his report to the Security Council last month that “there are many signs that the security situation throughout Afghanistan is worsening.” Inter-ethnic and inter-factional strife, harassment and intimidation were cited as some of the reasons. An Asian diplomat has made similar observations: 17 months after the Taliban were removed from power, Afghanistan is still in chaos. “We hear the Taliban is making a comeback,” he said. The Washington Post reported on May 8 that hundreds of angry protestors marched through Kabul, accusing Bush of breaking his promises. One of the Afghans’ complaints is that the world has been led to believe that they have turned their backs on Islam.

Meanwhile, the US-installed government is so weak that its writ barely covers Kabul, and fails completely to extend beyond it. If the few soldiers loyal to him are not abandoning their posts when attacked by the mujahideen, they are shot and killed by the Americans, as happened on May 21. Karzai himself is a prisoner in the presidential palace, protected by a heavy contingent of American guards; he has no money to pay thousands of government workers. On May 20 he called a meeting of provincial governors and demanded that all revenues that they have collected be transferred to the central treasury. All the governors, agreed. They even signed an agreement, but then in effect told him, “come and get it.” Karzai says that these revenues amount to some US$600 million annually. Whatever the total, he has seen little of it. Even his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, complained that Afghanistan has not received money promised in international aid, and that people are losing faith in the government. on the ground, aid workers say, US rhetoric and Afghan reality are dangerously out of step.

Americans are not renowned for good manners even at the best of times; during war situations they can be beastly. The Afghans are finding this out the hard way. In the Pushtoon belt the Americans often break down doors in the middle of the night, ostensibly looking for weapons and Taliban sympathizers; this can hardly endear them to a people who already resent them. Violence is increasing, warlords are more powerful than ever, and international interest in Afghanistan are waning. “The issue of security casts a long shadow over the whole future of Afghanistan,” Brahimi told the Security Council last month.

The Americans have told Karzai to launch a disarmament drive to curb violence. The poor man cannot even rely on his own people to defend him, much less think of disarming them. The source of much of his trouble is Mohammed Qasim Fahim, who is defence minister as well as vice-president. He also has a stranglehold on the intelligence agencies. Like every other Afghan, Fahim is aware that power in Afghanistan flows from the barrel of the gun; he is not about to disarm his own militia. Even the US is not really serious about disarmament. In their quest to find the Taliban and al-Qa’ida, the Americans are paying large sums of money to warlords and regional commanders to get their cooperation. This undermines what little authority Karzai has.

Their new policy is to pursue opponents across the border into Pakistan. The subservience of Pakistan was confirmed yet again when US Central Command announced that, during the war in Afghanistan, nearly 58,000 sorties were flown from Pakistani bases or over its territory in 2001, so Islamabad is not likely to protest such violations of its sovereignty. In fact, Pakistani troops have been put at America’s disposal even in the volatile North West Frontier Province.

US special forces officers are now saying that Afghanistan is in danger of developing into another Vietnam. They see ominous parallels between the heavy-handed attempts at “pacification” that are alienating Afghan villagers, on the one hand, and similar ham-fisted actions that turned people in Vietnam against the Americans. The situation is made even worse by fatal errors, such as the air strike on April 26, near Shkin in eastern Afghanistan, that was meant to target the mujahideen but instead hit a house, killing 11 members of one family as they slept. A similar attack in Khost on May 16 killed 10 people. Such mistakes will eventually cost the Americans very dear.

Poppy-cultivation has also returned with a vengeance; large parts of Afghanistan are now covered with that crop. In the absence of any other source of income, this is the best or only way people can feed their families. In the last year of their rule, the Taliban eliminated poppy-cultivation; now it is back, returning to the West, in some form, some of what their governments and their soldiers have been visiting on others, and still are.

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