| ||Heavy Pressures On a Fragile Peace|
Far Eastern Economic Review
By Ahmed Rashid
President Hamid Karzai faces a major challenge retaining the support of the ethnic Pashtun community following the assassination of a moderate warlord and the bombing of civilians. The latter incident is also straining his ties with the United States
IT'S BEEN A BAD MONTH so far for Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai as he struggles to maintain the support of the restive and sensitive Pashtun community for his multi-ethnic government. The assassination on July 6 of Abdul Qadir, a leading moderate Pashtun warlord and a key supporter of Karzai's plans, could prove the most damaging blow, but the president's influence with the Pashtuns was also hurt by another deadly attack on Pashtun civilians by United States military forces hunting for forces of the former ruling Taliban and the al Qaeda terrorist network. And Karzai's apparent inability to influence the Americans is straining his own ties with the U.S.
Qadir, one of five vice-presidents and the second-most prominent Pashtun in the government after Karzai, was gunned down in Kabul on July 6 by unidentified assassins. He had been one of the few leading Pashtuns to help the Northern Alliance topple the pre-dominantly Pashtun Taliban with American help after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S.
A veteran of the 1980s war against the Soviet invaders, Qadir was a bridge-builder between the country's majority Pashtuns and the rival Tajiks, who remain the most powerful political and military group in the government. His death is a blow to attempts by Karzai to heal the ethnic divide and could also lead to a Pashtun power struggle in eastern Afghanistan's Nangarhar province, of which he was governor.
Qadir was also an ally in Karzai's strategy to woo warlords to take up cabinet posts in Kabul, thereby enabling the central government to slowly extend its writ across the country. It is now unlikely that the warlords will leave their fiefdoms.
The reasons for his killing are not yet clear. His death will leave a power vacuum in the east that could also affect U.S. attempts to corner al Qaeda fighters trying to escape into Pakistan. The U.S. military and Central Intelligence Agency have armed and financed warlords in Nangarhar province, who may now use their new weapons to fight each other.
This is all bad news for Karzai as he struggles to impose law and order on Afghanistan. But Qadir's death has had the effect of triggering calls in the U.S. for the administration to consider playing a more active role in bringing stability to the country.
"I fear that we may see this government, and our efforts, unwind here if we don't make the appropriate effort and resources," Republican Chuck Hagel, a member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told NBC.
The sentiment was echoed by a Democrat senator, Evan Bayh, who told Fox News on Sunday: "If all we can do is secure the capital and allow instability to fester around the country, I think we're running a real risk that the gains we made during the war could be lost by an insufficient peace."
The Europeans have also criticized the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush for its obsession with the war against terrorism at the expense of the country's stability and welfare, though U.S. officials say the charges are unfair.
Both Karzai's task in winning over the Pashtuns and the popularity of the Americans had suffered a setback on July 1 when U.S. aircraft bombed four villages in the central province of Uruzgan, killing 54 civilians and wounding 117.
The president, who is coming under immense pressure to take a tougher line and not become an apologist for U.S. errors as anti-U.S. sentiment grows among the Pashtuns and other ethnic groups, was clearly exasperated by this latest incident involving civilian casualties.
"The surprising thing is that in all four incidents--this one and three earlier incidents--the civilians being targeted [by the Americans] are my own people and my strongest allies and in the forefront in the war against the Taliban," says Karzai, reached by phone in Kabul. "We are not happy, we don't want any more Afghan civilian casualties."
His comments contradict Washington's claims that some of those killed belonged to al Qaeda and were firing at U.S. aircraft. Surviving villagers said they were firing into the air to celebrate a wedding-- a normal Afghan custom. Lt.-Gen. Dan McNeill, the head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, promised a formal investigation.
Other senior Afghan officials said they were very angry that it took several days before Bush telephoned Karzai to offer sympathy and that U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld had expressed no apology for the casualties. "The Americans should treat us with some respect," says an adviser to the Afghan president.
Clearly the continuing U.S. bombing campaign is turning more of the Pashtun population against the U.S. forces, while the mounting casualties are straining Karzai's patience and his relations with Washington. Other ethnic groups also felt let down after the U.S. was seen as interfering in the loya jirga, or traditional tribal council, that brought Karzai to power in June.
Karzai, aware that his credibility is at stake, says the war against terrorism will continue, but changes must be made in the relationship with the U.S. "This must not occur again," Karzai tells the REVIEW. "I have asked that from now onwards everything should be closely coordinated between the Americans and the central authority of Afghanistan to make sure no such mishaps happen again."
Hedayat Amin Arsala, a prominent Pashtun tribal chief and also a vice-president, is more abrupt. "What happened in Uruzgan is totally unacceptable and a lot of people feel very upset and uncomfortable," says Arsala, who was closely related to Qadir.
The U.S. approach came under the spotlight at a European Union conference on Afghanistan in the southern Spanish city of Cordoba in late June. Several European envoys accused the U.S. of bungling the loya jirga and of continuing to strengthen the warlords. They criticized the U.S. for treating Afghanistan as a war zone against al Qaeda rather than a country with real political and economic needs.
"The meeting observed the competing pressures of Operation Enduring Freedom which appear to be leading to the strengthening of the warlords and the wider requirement of the progressive elimination of their power coupled with the establishment of the rule of law and central government control," said one of the conclusions of the conference.
A senior U.S. official counters that the Americans "are making a very sincere effort to make the most effective contribution to peace and stability in Afghanistan . . . It's not an easy process."
The conference also discussed the issue that has most frustrated Karzai in recent months--the lack of funds being made available by international donors for the reconstruction of the country.
"We don't want piecemeal money and piecemeal reconstruction, it should be real money for infrastructure and road building," says Karzai. Donors at the conference said that out of $1.8 billion pledged to Afghanistan this year, more than $1 billion has already gone on humanitarian relief and quick-impact projects, leaving little money available this year for reconstruction. That will be a major blow to Karzai, who is depending on reconstruction to win over his people and the warlords. One European delegate said that until the U.S. "developed a more comprehensive political strategy, aid can only have a temporary effect."
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