New Afghan Army Asserts Itself ; Rivals in Western Afghanistan Agreed to a Cease-Fire Last Week after the Arrival of the Afghan National Army

Article excerpt

The recent fighting in Afghanistan's western province of Herat is seen by many as an effort to mar the country's first democratic presidential elections, but for President Hamid Karzai it has also provided the opportunity to flex his muscle and show how far his government has come in the last three years.

With 13,700 soldiers, the fledgling Afghan National Army (ANA) has become a force that Mr. Karzai has used to douse flareups between warlords who still rule a majority of the country.

Earlier this month the Afghan government rushed two ANA battalions to Herat, where a local commander of a neighboring province attacked Herat's governor, Ismail Khan. Although Mr. Khan has been known to disobey orders from the central government, sources close to the president say Karzai made a decision to defend Khan in order to show the power of his government and deter other warlord uprisings.

A cease-fire was signed last week after the ANA moved in - backed up by the threat of American warplanes above.

"The Afghan National Army is the spine of this country and of our president. The central government can defend itself now," says Faiz Mohammed, a lieutenant in the Afghan National Army.

In reality, Afghanistan is teeming with militias and Kabul has no monopoly on the use of force. Regional warlords control some 85,000 armed fighters, according to the Defense Ministry. The US military says it will not pull out its nearly 20,000 troops until the ANA becomes self- sufficient.

"We are trying to work ourselves out of a job ... but this is definitely a long term mission," says Maj. Eric Bloom, a US military spokesman. He notes that the Bonn Agreement calls for the development of an Afghan military force of 70,000. "We could see us here for another four or five years."

The ANA is barely three years old and is a creature of the US military, which has involved the force in antiterrorism and border patrol missions. This is the ANA's fifth major deployment this year. The first was in December of last year, when commanders in Mazar-e Sharif refused to comply with a disarmament campaign. Then, two battalions were dispatched to Herat in March after Ismail Khan's son was killed in a clash with a pro-government commander. Shortly after, infighting in the northwest provinces of Ghor and Badghis drew two more deployments. High ranking US military advisers are embedded into the ANA battalions when they are deployed.

Critics of the ANA say that it is inexperienced and would not be able to claim any successes on the battlefield without the help of the US military. …