Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Do Recent Assassinations Presage Return to Chaos in Afghanistan?

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Do Recent Assassinations Presage Return to Chaos in Afghanistan?

Article excerpt

Andrew North is a reporter for the BBC who recently was in Afghanistan.

Anywhere in the world, it is taken as a given that the leader of a country--however lacking in funds--is protected by his or her fellow nationals, for reasons of pride as much as for security. What other option could there be, most people would ask.

So the symbolic shock of the announcement in late July that Hamid Karzai, the recently appointed president of Afghanistan, would for the foreseeable future be guarded by American GIs and not Afghans cannot be underestimated. As one now-dismissed Afghan security guard was quoted in The New York Times as saying: "Whose president will he be if he's not guarded by Afghan soldiers?"

But if Karzai's decision to hand his security over to the U.S. was a blow to Afghan pride, it was also a demonstration of just how worried the Bush administration has become about his survival. With Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leader Mullah Omar still apparently on the loose, and with growing concerns about insecurity across the country, the establishment of the interim government led by Karzai is one of the few tangible achievements of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

The U.S. move also came as a surprise to many because it plays straight into the hands of President Karzai's critics, both within and without Afghanistan, who say he is simply an American puppet. Not that Washington was trying to hide the decision to provide the U.S. security detail. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke about it on the record, commenting diplomatically that: "it's important that the Afghan people not have an interruption in their leadership, having just completed that process."

The "process" Rumsfeld was referring to was the Loya Jirga: the grand council of 1,500 representatives who met in Kabul in mid-June to decide on a new interim government. What prompted the U.S. move, however, was the assassination in early July of one of Karzai's deputies--also appointed as a result of the Loya Jirga--Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir.

Qadir was killed by an unidentified gunman as he turned up for work at the public works ministry in Kabul, which he had just been appointed to head. It was the second major assassination this year--in February, the aviation minister was murdered at Kabul airport--and immediately plunged the new Afghan government into crisis.

What frightened so many was that it looked like another giant step back for Afghanistan along the road toward a return to the turmoil and bloodshed of the early 1990s. Qadir's killing occurred against a background of deteriorating law and order and growing concerns about the resurgence of the country's socalled "warlords."

This word, which now has become almost a term of abuse in the country, refers to the mujahideen commanders who led the fight against the Soviet invasion. When the Soviets left, however, many went on to become drug barons and virtual feudal bosses in their home regions--until the Taliban took power and pushed them out.

The late vice president was himself a commander and, although he was popular in his homeland in the eastern Pashtun provinces, many believe it was that status and the enemies he inevitably made that explain his killing.

Best known among the warlords are Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammed, who are rivals in the north, and the Iranian-backed Ismail Khan in the region around the western city of Herat. All three have large private armies at their disposal, and all seem more interested in maintaining their own fiefdoms than cooperating with Kabul in trying to rebuild the country. It is the reappearance of so many lesser-known warlords, however, that has heightened fears about a return to the 1990s--particularly in the country's major drug-producing areas.

It does not help that efforts to set up a new 60,000-strong national Afghan army are not going well--for which warlords are being fingered for some of the blame. …

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