March issue 2002
An expanded ISAF may be the best bet for keeping the peace in Afghanistan’s urban centres.
Almost halfway through the six months allocated to it by the Bonn agreement, the Karzai administration has failed to assert its control beyond the capital, Kabul. Rival military commanders repeatedly clash and openly reject the centre’s authority in the north and the east. In the west and the south, traders and travellers are, once again, at the mercy of local strongmen and criminals. Chairman Karzai’s hold is tenuous even in Kabul where International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) personnel have come under attack. On February 14, Afghan aviation and tourism minister, Abdul Rahman, was murdered at Kabul airport. The same week, locals clashed with Afghan security personnel and international peacekeepers at Kabul’s football stadium.
As the security situation deteriorates, Karzai has repeatedly urged the international community to expand the size and the mandate of the international security force beyond Kabul. US Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld is, however, averse to an expanded ISAF role and has recommended the reconstruction of the Afghan national army and police force instead. The United States, the United Kingdom and Turkey have agreed to reconstruct a national Afghan army while Germany has offered its services in re-establishing an Afghan national police force.
A national army is symbolically important for Afghanistan’s political reconstruction. The logistics and the political pitfalls of creating a viable and legitimate national military are, however, formidable. It could take the United States and the United Kingdom between six months to a year to train and induct even a modest 50,000 strong military. While anything more ambitious would take even longer to construct in an uncertain political climate, a small force would be incapable of restraining regional commanders and their militias.
More importantly, contending Afghan factions could contest the legitimacy of such a force since powerful but controversial personalities in Karzai’s administration including defence minister Faheem, deputy defence minister Dostum, and interior minister Qanooni will play a major role in shaping its composition and missions. Moreover, southern and eastern commanders, who have successfully manipulated the US military to settle scores with their rivals, are equally likely to induct their handpicked candidates into an US/UK-trained Afghan military. An externally sponsored and domestically controversial military could therefore lack internal legitimacy. It would therefore fail to extend the authority of the state beyond Kabul.
Until a future Afghan government has the popular backing and consent to reconstruct a multi-ethnic and representative military, the international community, in particular the United States, should support Karzai’s demands for an expansion of the size and mandate of the 4,700 International Security Assistance Force. Even a 30,000- strong ISAF could strengthen the interim administration’s authority and that of a post Loya Jirga Afghan government by protecting vital communications routes and keeping the peace in major urban centres. Urgently needed economic reconstruction efforts are already suffering because of internal violence as important donors such as Japan ground their Afghan reconstruction teams. Unless urgent international action is taken, domestic tensions will continue to mount and Afghanistan’s political reconstruction could also become the casualty of an all-out civil war.