Afghanistan's hour of reckoning
Afghanistan's hour of reckoning
The Taliban’s Neighbourhood and Regional Diplomacy with Afghanistan (Online Event, 5 March 2024)
The Taliban’s Neighbourhood and Regional Diplomacy with Afghanistan (Online Event, 5 March 2024)
Op-Ed / Asia 4 minutes

Afghanistan's hour of reckoning

International peacekeepers in Afghanistan are about to face great risks of more casualties as they move beyond Kabul to confront increasingly violent warring factions that stand in the way of rebuilding the country. The factions, which have increased their attacks on government and coalition forces, aid workers and even children's schools, are determined to make Afghanistan both ungovernable and indefensible.

But, however great the risks -- and the recent loss of two Canadian soldiers in a mine explosion is a sobering reminder that peacekeepers are working in the face of this danger -- there is no alternative to an expanded international force.

Creating the conditions for a stable and pluralistic government to emerge in Afghanistan, and preventing either a renewed descent into the chaos that spawned the Taliban, or the emergence of a state dominated by an unhealthy mix of religious extremism and narcotics' trafficking, depends upon it.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai yesterday hailed the United Nations' decision to allow the international peacekeeping force -- called the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) -- to expand beyond the capital of Kabul and into key areas in some of Afghanistan's most-lawless provinces dominated by insurgent feuding warlords and Taliban rebels. Over the past two years, President Karzai, the United Nations and aid groups have clamoured for an expansion of the international force, arguing that the country's dominant armed factions would otherwise hijack political and economic reconstruction.

But throughout Kabul, there remains much skepticism about the depth of international commitment to Afghanistan's security, and fears that what has been deployed so far -- small coalition-led, civil-military unions called Provincial Reconstruction Teams - cannot adequately respond to the pressing and considerable security needs outside the capital.

Indeed, much more than the 5,500-member current NATO mission and the 450 additional soldiers Germany has pledged to send to the northern district of Kundaz, will be needed to quell violence elsewhere in the country.

The northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif is a case in point. Since the Taliban's defeat in November, 2001, tensions between rival generals, Abdul Rashid Dostum, and Atta Mohammad, have periodically erupted into skirmishes.

Last week, things took a turn for the worse, when General Dostum responded to the disappearance of two of his top commanders by positioning troops and heavy artillery around Mazar-e-Sharif, which is largely controlled by Gen. Mohammad. Some 50 to 60 casualties were reported in fighting between the two factions.

Stabilizing the North requires international peacekeepers in sufficient strength and numbers to militarily secure Mazar-e-Sharif and create a neutral space in which non-factional police can be recruited and trained.

Neither of the warring generals is likely to risk incurring the political liability -- locally or internationally -- of confronting an international force, nor would either have the capacity to do so. In fact, in the rare cases where the coalition has actively backed attempts by President Karzai to extend his authority, resistance has been minimal.

More daunting challenges face peacekeepers in southern Afghanistan and parts of the east. Operating from bases in Pakistan and domestic redoubts, Taliban forces and the loosely allied Hizb-e-Islami troops of former prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar have stepped up attacks on government and coalition targets, aid workers and girls' schools. They have done so using a variety of tactics and instruments: ambushes, rocket-propelled and hand grenades, and remote-detonated explosive devices.

These tactics are aimed not only at making the region ungovernable and indefensible, but also at diminishing the dividends for local civilians from the coalition intervention. To a large extent, they are succeeding. With aid agencies having withdrawn from most areas of the south, the mainly Pashtun population -- already alienated by northern dominance of the central government, heavy-handed coalition search operations, and pervasive corruption -- increasingly sees little to justify the continued international presence in Afghanistan.

The existing Afghan military cannot secure Afghanistan without the aid of strong international forces. The military is composed of factions of the former United Front, as well as other forces that were armed and financed by the coalition in its campaign to depose the Taliban. Most have diffuse command structures, lack proper training and are poorly equipped. Irregular or low pay has led to high rates of absenteeism and desertion. In many areas throughout the country, army and police units are little more than criminal bands engaged in robbery, extortion and smuggling.

The deployment last summer in the southeastern Paktia province of a battalion of the new Afghan National Army (ANA), under coalition command, enabled professional, centrally appointed police and army officers to take over leadership of provincial security institutions and pave the way for their reform and restructuring. The previous police commander, having unsuccessfully tried to recapture his post, was taken into custody at the Bagram coalition base, north of Kabul. The establishment of the new army has proceeded slowly, however, with only about 6,000 officers and troops trained to date by the U.S., Britain and France. For this reason alone, it's hard to foresee the ANA replicating its success in Paktia on a national level any time soon.

For Afghanistan, this is the hour of reckoning. The political process agreed to by the rival Afghan camps in Bonn in December of 2001 -- including the adoption of a new constitution by a loya jirga (National Assembly) scheduled for this December, and the holding of elections for a president and parliament, planned for next year -- has the potential to usher in a more representative and accountable government. But that will only be possible in a security environment in which individuals and parties committed to democratic governance are able to campaign openly.

At present, few are prepared to do so, because of the continued dominance of these armed factions that seek to control the political process, or threats from opposition elements that aim to prevent it. Time is unlikely to relax the influence of either camp, especially with a rapidly growing poppy trade providing lucrative sources of income and the means of purchasing arms and support. That's why Afghanistan needs the world now.

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