August issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 21 years ago

Political instability, growing lawlessness, slow reconstruction and botched US military operations are some of the challenges confronting post-Taliban Afghanistan. Any expectations that the collapse of the Taliban regime and the destruction of the Al-Qaeda would bring the war-ravaged country security and peace have remained largely unfulfilled. The current fear is that the future pullout of more than 7,000 US combat troops and the 5,000-member strong, western-dominated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), will once again unleash the ethnic wars and power struggles that had brought Afghanistan to its knees.

Security concerns have prompted the US to deploy 50 of its special troops to protect Afghanistan’s transitional President, Hamid Karzai, after Afghan soldiers, (serving as Karzai’s bodyguards) but loyal to Northern Alliance leader and defense minister, Marshal Mohammad Qasim Faheem, were withdrawn. The move came following comments by finance minister Ashraf Ghani, a royalist like Karzai, that ministers were worried about their safety in Kabul in the wake of the murder of vice-president Haji Abdul Qadeer. The assassins behind the deaths of Qadeer and civil aviation minister, Dr Abdul Rehman, are yet to be captured. Both ministers were assassinated in broad daylight despite the fact that Kabul is a maximum-security city under the protection of the ISAF, the Afghan police and security agencies run by the Faheem-led Tajik faction of the Northern Alliance.

Meanwhile the US military campaign is also beset with problems. For the first time since the launch of its military campaign against the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the US has come under criticism from its Afghan allies because of rising civilian casualties from US bombing missions. Most indicators point to the end of the honeymoon for the US in Afghanistan. The initial muted criticism is becoming increasingly vocal. However, the breaking point in relations between the US and the anti-Taliban Afghan forces hasn’t been reached yet, and it is questionable if it ever will, given that America’s Afghan allies are heavily dependent on Washington for their own survival. In its quest to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban, the Northern Alliance leaders were helped both militarily and monetarily by the US-led west, as well as by Russia, Iran and other countries in the region. The withdrawal of US assistance could embolden the Taliban and their supporters to relaunch another bid for power.

Qadeer’s assassination and the botched US military strikes have added to the woes of Karzai’s fragile, seven-month old Afghan transitional government. The killing of 48 Afghan civilians and injuries to another 118 during the US bombing raid on a wedding party in central Urozgan province on July 1, was followed five days later by Qadeer’s murder. Both cases are now under investigation and much will depend on the findings. It seems, however, that the US will try to wriggle out of its bombing blunder by compensating the heirs of the victims and undertaking some reconstruction and development work in the affected area. Qadeer’s killers, however, may never be identified as has been the case in all assassinations of prominent Afghans over the past two decades.

The Urozgan bombing was not the first such incident involving the US military in civilians deaths. Another wedding party had earlier been bombed in the southern Khost province in which more than a dozen people had been killed. On both occasions, the American pilots appear to have mistaken traditional celebratory aerial firing as hostile fire and retaliated in a knee-jerk fashion. The US warplanes have also bombed, mistakenly or deliberately, passenger buses, mosques, madrassas, shrines, Red Cross warehouses and villages, resulting in scores of civilians deaths. One reason behind the high number of blunders could be the nervousness of American pilots, who despite the complete US command over Afghan skies, believe that hostile forces still have access to anti-aircraft missiles. Since there are no legitimate military targets to speak of left in Afghanistan for the vastly superior US arsenal and troops, there is a greater risk of inflicting harm on non-combatants in rural Afghanistan.

The US and the Karzai-led government differ on the circumstances of the bombing raid in Urozgan and on the number of civilian casualties. Though the US has conceded that civilians were killed in the attack, it is insisting that one of their warplanes fired in self-defence after being fired at from the ground. The US military authorities are also disputing the casualty figure of 48 dead on the basis of the findings of one of their preliminary investigation teams that were shown only five graves. However, it seems angry survivors and villagers refused to cooperate with the Americans. Western journalists, on the other hand, were shown 25 fresh graves in one cemetery. A more elaborate US probe is now underway under the leadership of Major General Tony Przybyslawski.

war-2-aug02The Afghan government has all along claimed that the US warplanes were not fired upon from the ground, and had instead attacked a night-time wedding party where revellers were firing in the air in celebration. It claims that 48 persons, mostly women and children, were killed in the attack and 118 were injured. One Afghan minister, Mohammad Arif Noorzai, even argued against further visits by US probe teams to Urozgan. He said all investigations had been completed by him and an earlier US enquiry team, and the issue should only be discussed between Afghan and American officials in Kabul. Undeterred, the Americans went ahead with the visit to Urozgan despite security risks.

Resentment was, meanwhile, brewing in southwestern Afghanistan, particularly so in the former Taliban stronghold, Kandahar, which neighbours Urozgan. Kandahar Governor, Gul Agha Sherzoi, even attempted to convince fellow governors of the five neighbouring provinces of Urozgan, Helmand, Nimruz, Farah and Zabul, to agree on restricting the US from carrying out military missions without involving the local authorities. He also proposed the raising of a rapid reaction force of 500 Afghans to tackle Al-Qaeda and the Taliban and a 3,000-man border control force drawing soldiers from the six provinces. However, only the Farah province governor, Abdul Hye, backed his initiative, while the others sided with Karzai, who is reluctant to impose restrictions on the US force and is still keen to use America’s might to destroy his biggest enemies: Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

There have also been indications that US warplanes deliberately targetted several villages in Urozgan after receiving information that the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mulla Mohammad Omar, and some of his top lieutenants were hiding in the area. There were also reports that the Americans were told by their Afghan informers that senior Taliban leaders would be attending the said wedding. No Taliban leaders were present when the wedding house was bombed. Ironically, the bridegroom’s father, Mohammad Sharif, and uncle, Mohammad Anwar, were fervent supporters of Karzai and had given him refuge when he dramatically entered Afghanistan from Quetta to stir an uprising against the Taliban last November. The family had also welcomed the US military campaign which led to the ouster of the Taliban regime. However, the deaths of 25 members of their extended family has turned them bitterly anti-US. Rising anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan was also evident in Kabul where the first demonstration against the US military actions took place.

Resentment against the US is probably strongest amongst the majority Pashtuns since the American military operation is concentrated in the Pashtun areas where support for the Taliban still exists. The continued dominance of the Northern Alliance, particularly of the late Ahmad Shah Masood’s Tajik protégés, in the Karzai-led transitional government even after the Loya Jirga, has also annoyed the Pashtuns. The murder of Qadeer, the highest-ranking Pashtun in the government after Karzai, has further antagonized the Pashtuns. The general lawlessness in the country also shows no signs of abating. It seems Afghanistan is gradually returning to its old, murderous ways and the seeds of another round of civil war are being sown. The US and its allies will have to do some quick damage control to prevent war-prone Afghanistan from plunging into yet another bout of bloodshed and suffering.

The security situation has to be drastically improved, the fractious elements in the transitional government kept together, reconstruction undertaken to generate employment and stimulate the economy and most mportantly, the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban conquered once and for all. A tall order even for the world’s only super power.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.