US occupation forces finding Afghanistan a hard pill to swallow

Developing Just Leadership

Zia Sarhadi

Dhu al-Qa'dah 29, 1423 2003-02-01


by Zia Sarhadi (World, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 23, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1423)

The American occupation forces are not finding their self-appointed task easy going in Afghanistan, despite a news blackout by the pliant western media. Not a day passes without some attack on American troops or a bomb exploding somewhere, especially in the capital, Kabul, which is supposedly protected by American, British, German and Turkish forces. The Americans either downplay attacks on their forces or deny that anything at all has happened. This may keep the American public in the dark, but the reality on the ground cannot be denied.

Three American soldiers were attacked and wounded in two separate incidents on January 15, the day US assistant defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz visited Kabul and several military bases. In Asadabad, a town some 50 km northeast of Jalalabad, two US special forces soldiers were injured when an explosive device went off under their vehicle. A second device also exploded nearby but apparently caused little damage. A third soldier was shot in the abdomen at Qandahar airport the same day. His injuries were described as critical, although the Americans tried to gloss over the incident by describing it as "not due to hostile fire." It seems that nervous American soldiers shoot the moment they are startled by anyone, including their own men, though this time the soldier was not injured by another American. Qandahar has come under frequent attack, especially by rockets. The injured soldier was flown to Germany on January 17. Resistance to American forces is strongest in places like Khost, Kabul and Qandahar.

American forces generally stay inside heavily guarded compounds and seldom venture out without heavy air cover, but these measures have failed to protect them from attacks by Afghans and others. The attackers often vanish into thin air; they seem to be everywhere and nowhere, adding to the Americans’ frustration. Whenever they venture outside, a fleet of B-52 bombers and F-16 planes fly overhead. If they come under attack, the B-52s begin to drop their deadly loads from thousands of feet above. As a war tactic it may be wise, but the bombing raids also cause civilian casualties, adding to resentment among a people already angered by the presence of foreign troops. It has become clear that even members of the Northern Alliance, who were brought to power and given the lion’s share of it, despite being a minority, are turning against the Americans. Hizb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hikmatyar has arrived in Afghanistan and joined forces with the Taliban (whose leader Mullah Omar has successfully eluded the Americans so far), and resistance to US occupation forces has escalated. Recent reports from Afghanistan suggest that Hikmatyar is able to move freely around the country, and that while the regime’s operatives often know about him, they do not notify the Americans.

During his visit on January 15, Wolfowitz acknowledged that the security situation in Afghanistan is precarious. He proposed a new plan in which American, Afghan and European troops would provide security in more than half dozen cities. He tried to blame banditry and factional fighting for the trouble, which are no doubt factors, but the fact also is that there is increasing resistance to the American presence. Americans are not the most polite people in the world; their arrogance has earned them the soubriquet "the Ugly American." It is clear that the Americans have not made many friends in Afghanistan; even Hamid Karzai, the man they installed, is referred to contemptuously as the "mayor of Kabul." He has little or no authority even in the capital, much less being able to exercise any authority outside it.

Aware that they are facing a serious challenge in Afghanistan, the Americans are trying to divert attention by concentrating on Iraq, as well as resorting to such gimmicks as calling for "accelerating" the reconstruction in Afghanistan. There is no reconstruction going on, unless one considers cobbling together a rag-tag band and calling it an army. These men are not even able to march in a straight line; putting them into uniform hardly makes an army out of men.

The Americans’ greatest challenge comes from general Muhammad Fahim, the man they installed as defence minister. He has refused to disarm his militia, spurning offers to recruit them into the new army. Lieutenant general Dan K. McNeill, commander of American and coalition forces in Afghanistan, has said that one proposal under consideration is to hire Fahim’s soldiers to work on projects to rebuild nearly 750 miles of highway linking Kabul to Qandahar and Herat. It would be a severe come-down for a militia and its commander who have spent their lives fighting and destroying; building roads would not be their occupation of choice.

Wolfowitz has also tried to promote a plan to station small units of 40 to 60 soldiers in up to eight cities outside Kabul to provide security for aid-workers and American diplomats. Many aid-workers and diplomats have been unwilling to spend time in cities other than Kabul because of fears of attack, banditry and rape. The new units, to be called provisional reconstruction teams, would include American special operations soldiers, army civil affairs soldiers trained in reconstruction work, and conventional ground troops. Although the units would be small their ability to call up air-strikes by American planes would greatly expand security in those cities, or so the Americans hope. If thousands of American and other forces cannot provide adequate security in Kabul, what chance have they of doing any better elsewhere?

The plan calls for officials from the US Agency for International Development and the state department to be stationed with each team, enabling them to serve as mini-consulates. The first team has begun work in Gardez, eastern Afghanistan, and additional teams will be placed in Bamyan and Kunduz during the coming month, Wolfowitz claimed. The Pentagon is considering creating as many as eight units and the Americans also plan to ask members of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) to provide small numbers of troops for the teams. The reconstruction idea is a carrot the Americans are holding before the Afghans to entice them. But the Afghans do not appear to be convinced; after all, not even a fraction of the US$4.5 billion promised at the Tokyo summit in January 2002 has materialized. Afghan militia commanders, especially Fahim, see the idea as a ruse to disarm their groups and strip them of power. There are few takers for the Americans’ proposals in Afghanistan.

The reconstruction idea has been criticised by Afghan officials as well as international aid-workers as a diversion; they want the US and its allies to extend the international peacekeeping force that now patrols Kabul to other cities as well. American and European leaders have said that they cannot contribute enough troops and equipment to expand the force, known as the International Security Assistance Force, at this time. Although the impending war with Iraq is cited as the reason, the truth is that the Americans are looking for an excuse to withdraw their forces from Afghanistan and let someone else óperhaps some Arab countriesótake the responsibility for security in Afghanistan. Estimates for the number of troops required to expand the security assistance force to the rest of Afghanistan range from a few thousand to more than 10,000. The US is simply not prepared to commit so many troops there; the Americans want to avoid the trap into which the Russians fell more than two decades ago.

A glimpse into what might happen was provided by the country’s chief justice, Maulvi Fazel Hadi Shinwari, on January 21. He imposed a countrywide ban on cable television, which had been introduced after the induction of the Karzai regime. Shinwari pulled the plug on cable television in response to an appeal against a ban imposed in Jalalabad in December. He said that cable broadcastshad offended religious leaders, prompting him to impose the ban. "We are Afghans, we are Muslims, we have Islamic laws and values in our country. I have therefore sent official letters to the security officials and governor of Kabul asking for these cable channels to be banned."

The Americans are not likely to be amused, but then they do not know the Afghans properly.

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