Afghanistan "on the edge of chaos" (LA Times)

Fred Feldman ffeldman at
Tue Aug 5 02:37:56 MDT 2003

Afghans on Edge of Chaos
As opium production and banditry soar, the country is at risk of
anarchy, some warn, and could allow a Taliban resurgence

By Robyn Dixon
The Los Angeles Times
Monday 04 August 2003

WARDAK, Afghanistan - Two months after a gun attack, the bullet holes
in the Datsun sedan have been patched and it runs beautifully. But
water engineer Asil Kahn walks with a limp and he still has two
bullets in his body, one of them half an inch from his spine.

The vehicle's humanitarian logo made him a victim in the battle for
Afghanistan's future, where water engineers, mine-clearers and
humanitarian workers - people the country needs most - are prime
targets for militants trying to destabilize President Hamid Karzai's
interim government.

The May attack on the Afghanistan Development Agency car in Wardak
province, south of Kabul on the road to Kandahar, injured Kahn but
killed the driver.

"They weren't robbers or thieves," said Kahn, 46. "They just wanted to
kill us. They're people against the government. They thought that
maybe there would be some foreigners or some officials from aid
organizations in the car. That's why they shot us."

U.S. forces have their hands full trying to subdue attacks in Iraq.
But with the slow buildup of a national Afghan army, an inadequate
U.S. and coalition presence and poor progress on reconstruction
projects, Afghanistan is spiraling out of control and risks becoming a
"narco-mafia" state, some humanitarian agencies warn.

Already the signs are there - a boom in opium production, rampant
banditry and huge swaths of territory unsafe for Western aid workers.
The central government has almost no power over regional warlords who
control roads and extort money from truck drivers, choking commerce
and trade.

If the country slips into anarchy, it risks becoming a haven for
resurgent Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. And the point of U.S.
military action here could be lost - a major setback in the war
against terrorism.

Money spent on the war may end up being wasted, and dragging the
country back from chaos could be even more costly. America spends
about $900 million a month on its forces stationed here, but little of
the $3 billion authorized for aid in the Freedom Support Act has been

U.S. promises of a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan raised Afghan
expectations, but security and reconstruction woes are undermining
support for the coalition among ordinary Afghans. Their disappointment
and disillusionment plays into the hands of anti-government militants.

Humanitarian agencies, calling for a big boost in international funds
for security and reconstruction, contend that the commitment to
Afghanistan is relatively low. A CARE International paper in January
stated that postwar international aid spent in Bosnia-Herzegovina was
$326 per capita, compared with $42 promised for Afghans up to 2006.
For every peacekeeping soldier there were 48 Bosnians, compared with
one for every 5,380 Afghans, the paper said. Yet Bosnia poses no
appreciable terrorist threat.

There are 8,500 U.S. military personnel leading the 11,500
anti-terrorist coalition forces in Afghanistan. An additional 5,000
international troops secure the capital city, Kabul. A key missing
piece is an Afghan army, but with only 4,000 troops trained so far, it
will take many years to reach the planned 70,000-strong force. It
won't be ready in time to ensure free and fair elections scheduled for
June. Some of the 4,000 trained soldiers have already defected because
of poor salaries and low morale.

The security vacuum outside Kabul has emboldened Taliban fighters, who
constitute the bulk of anti-government militants, some who cross from
Pakistan, others based in the east and south. U.S. officials say the
Taliban controls part of the opium business, a rich source of funds to
attract fighters.

As security worsens, there are sharp differences between the aid
community and Western leaders on how to prevent a deepening slide.

Many in the international aid community in Kabul believe the
coalition's latest response to the security problem - small scale
military teams tackling modest reconstruction projects - will have
little impact and will put aid workers at more risk by blurring the
line between them and soldiers.

About 40% of the $5.2 billion pledged by the international community
last year has been spent but with little progress on big
reconstruction projects like the Kabul-to-Kandahar road. Much of the
money has been eaten up by emergency relief - food, medicine, blankets
and tents.

Haji Abdul Khaliq, 54, arrived in Kabul exhausted by 14 hours on the
shattering, rocky track of a highway from Kandahar. It was
inconceivable to him that $2 billion had been spent in his country
since January last year.

"From what we can see, they didn't spend more than a dollar," he
spluttered angrily. "There are no paved roads, no reconstruction of
government buildings, no help for the people and no government

"I think at first people were very hopeful, [but] day by day they lose
hope," said Khaliq, a turbaned, white-bearded general from a Kandahar
military base who is fighting Taliban militants in the south.

The term Taliban can be a little confusing in a city like Kandahar,
where most people in power were once with the Taliban.

Typical of many Afghan moujahedeen fighters, Khaliq is loyal only to
his commander. Though he's fighting anti-government militants, he is
contemptuous of Americans and despises Karzai and his government.

Khaliq said Taliban forces in the region were growing bolder. A June
30 explosion at a Kandahar mosque that injured more than a dozen was
apparently aimed at the anti-Taliban mullah there. A day later another
anti-Taliban mullah was shot dead in Nakobak village, six miles south
of Kandahar.

In the same week, said Khaliq, Taliban fighters from Pakistan set up a
base northeast of Kandahar in Zabul province. Afghan forces attacked,
killing a dozen Taliban fighters and capturing about five.

The Taliban rebels offer local people good salaries - more than $100 a
month - to fight, while Khaliq grumbled that he and his men are not
being paid at all. Afghanistan's severe budgetary problems are leaving
many civil servants unpaid.

In Afghanistan, U.S. forces have not suffered the steady casualties
borne by the much larger force in Iraq. But anti-government militants
in recent months have killed aid workers, attacked mine-clearers and
burned girls schools. In June, a suicide bomb attack in Kabul killed
four German soldiers from the International Security Assistance Force,
or ISAF.

The security problem delaying the Kabul-Kandahar road project is
denying the country the economic fillip of a six-hour trade route
between the cities. Taxis can do the road in 14 hours, but truck
transport takes at least two days.

Taxi drivers working the road daily tell hair-raising tales of armed
attacks by thieves and bandits. With something akin to nostalgia, they
recall the security of the Taliban era, when they could drive all
night without fear.

U.S. forces are focused on eradicating remnants of the Taliban. But to
many Afghans, a more immediate problem is bandits, often associated
with the venal commanders and warlords who control the roads.

Sher Alimad, 38, a driver from the western city of Herat, said he was
attacked in mid-June by five gunmen at Gereshk, about 40 miles west of
Kandahar. He was beaten, tied up and thrown into his trunk, driven to
a deserted road and robbed of 12,000 Afghanis (about $250).

A surge in trade by small businessmen after the Taliban's fall is
being slowly strangled by extortion and banditry.

A group of truck drivers sat wearily in the dust at Dashte Deh Sabz on
the northern outskirts of Kabul, after their loads of gravel for the
thriving brick industry were seized by a local commander named
Maulana. They said he had taken over the gravel trade.

"He's collecting from everyone. No one else can bring it into the city
except for him," said driver Khalifa Yakub, 21, who said he was beaten
by checkpoint soldiers and jailed for three days when he tried to
protest. His dream of running his own small gravel transport business
has died. He's become an employee.

"These people, they're commanders, they're dealers, they're
businessmen, they're killers, they're everything," he said ruefully.

President Karzai has repeatedly called for the deployment of ISAF
forces outside Kabul, a request echoed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi
Annan and international aid agencies, but resisted by U.S. and
European leaders. Last month an open letter from 80 aid organizations
called for a national ISAF presence, warning that efforts to rebuild
and hold elections were at risk.

Karzai has called for international donors to offer $20 billion over
five years to help the country rebuild. CARE International called for
at least $10 billion.

Playing down the security problem on a recent visit, Defense Secretary
Donald H. Rumsfeld said provincial reconstruction teams, or PRTs -
military-civilian teams of 50-100 people deployed to rebuild
infrastructure - would play a key role in improving security. Four are
working, independent of ISAF, and eight are planned.

Lt. Gen. Norbert van Heyst, the German commander of ISAF forces in
Kabul, described the city as a "safe island" because of ISAF's
presence, but expressed concern that militant attacks in the south and
east could spill into the capital. However, he said, extending ISAF
beyond Kabul was unrealistic.

"For the entire country you would need 10,000 additional troops, and
nobody is willing to do that," he said, adding that PRTs were a more
realistic first step. "I'm convinced that this concept can improve

It's a view contested by many in the humanitarian sector. Barbara
Stapleton of ACBAR, the coordinating body for Afghan relief, said the
military should focus on improving poor security, not duplicate the
role of humanitarian agencies.

PRTs "have neither the mandate nor the resources to have a significant
impact on either reconstruction or security," she said, adding that
the teams eroded Afghan confidence in the neutrality of humanitarian
agencies. "In a highly complex security situation, they further muddy
the waters."

Stapleton said some U.S. military anti-terrorist forces had conducted
crude searches in a village in southern Afghanistan, bursting into
homes and offending cultural sensibilities.

"Then they went in later with sweeteners and built wells. And the
people refused to use them. It's actually a crude way of dealing with
a highly sophisticated and very intelligent people."
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