A key consideration at the present juncture is how vulnerable the Afghan government, the ISAF and coalition forces and the aid community might be in the event of a US-led military intervention in Iraq. In reflecting on this question, account has to be taken of possible levels of threat within both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Within Afghanistan, the primary level of threat arises from a possible increase in anti-US feeling amongst the population at large. This could result in spontaneous acts of violence by isolated individuals or groups against western targets, both military and non-military. In addition, those seeking to exact revenge for violence committed by US forces against members of their family could seek to return that violence, as would appear to have been the case in a grenade attack on US forces in Kabul on 17th December. Such spontaneous acts of violence could be complemented by others of an orchestrated nature perpetrated by one radical Islamic group or another.
In this context, there is particular concern that Hisb-i-Islami and other radical elements are seeking to build support at the village level in the Shomali Valley and other parts of the country. There are, in addition, continuing reports of the Taliban re-grouping in southern Afghanistan. It is clear that the Afghan government is taking these threats from the radicals very seriously. Anti-US feelings have also been generated in eastern Afghanistan following the arrest and detention, by US forces, of a senior figure in the Ahmedzai tribe.
Similar concern is felt in relation to the universities. Speaking on 21st December, the Afghan Minister of Higher Education, Mohammed Sharif Faiz, warned that students in higher education were "the children of war, emotionally and psychologically wounded" and that, if opportunities were not provided for them, they risked being "radicalised and exploited". He stressed the importance of teaching religious values within the national curriculum, stating that, "otherwise, children will go back to the rigid system of the madrasahs".
There are, in addition, indications that military training is again being provided in Afghanistan for those volunteering to engage in a jihad against western targets. A UN team established after the terrorist attacks of September 11th , to monitor further terrorist activities world-wide, issued a report on 18th December in which it claimed that "new, albeit simple, training camps" have been set up in eastern Afghanistan, with Kunar mentioned as one of the locations. The team described the camps as "small, discreet and mobile" to evade detection by US-led coalition forces and noted that they were attracting new volunteers. President Karzai played down this claim, stating that there were simply individuals and small groups hiding in Afghanistan from place to place who would occasionally come out and carry out attacks. A US counter-terrorism official commented that no major training activity was going on. This exchange underlines the difficulties faced by the international community in determining to what extent terrorist activity is centrally orchestrated by groups such as Al-Qaida or is purely random, based on a widely held antipathy to the USA.
The question as to how much additional sympathy for an anti-US position would be generated in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a consequence of any US-led military intervention in Iraq is a difficult one to answer, particularly as much would depend on the level of grievance felt by individuals against the western military and non military presence in Afghanistan and on the ability of radical organisations to exploit this. However, it is interesting to note the comment of the UN team that, globally, there was "a tremendous amount of sympathy in some countries for the movement", referring to Al-Qaida, and its view that, while significant progress had been made in the US-led campaign against Al-Qaida, including moves by Saudi Arabia against charities that fund Al-Qaida, the movement still posed a substantial global threat. The leader of the team also commented that recent terrorist attacks in Bali and Kenya indicated a shift in tactics to hit soft targets.
The ability of radical elements to generate anti-US actions will inevitably be affected by the strong power base of the ruling radical coalition, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province and the significant influence that it enjoys in Baluchistan, manifested by the recent release, by the Chief Minister of the province, of Islamist radicals detained last year by President Musharraf. Further, the experience of the Gulf War would suggest that emotions would run very high in Pakistan in the event of a US-led intervention in Iraq and would result in large street protests. Feelings have already been heightened by an incident on December 29th in which US planes bombed a madrasah just inside the Pakistani border following a clash between US and Pakistani patrols and we may expect the MMA to focus on this incident in its public statements. Negative emotions have also been stirred by the requirement of the US government that all males over sixteen from Pakistan and nineteen other Islamic countries who do not have permanent resident status in the USA should register with the immigration authorities.
In response to a recent increase in armed attacks on US military positions in Afghanistan, Pakistan has denied reports that training camps have been established in Peshawar and refuted claims that such camps are being used to train suicide squads to hit targets in Afghanistan.
Fears that Pakistan and other countries neighbouring Afghanistan might seek to strengthen one element or another in Afghanistan were central to the signing, in Kabul on December 22nd, of a declaration by representatives of Pakistan, Iran, China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan that they would respect the independence and territorial integrity of Afghanistan. Officials from the UN, Russia, the USA and the European Union were also present.
In conclusion, while the US-led coalition and ISAF forces are alert to any threats and are actively seeking out and destroying weapons caches and questioning individuals who arouse suspicion, it may be prudent for international agencies to plan for a minimal expatriate presence in both Afghanistan and Pakistan in the event of hostilities in Iraq.
This is particularly the case as aid personnel have been victims of at least three significant security incidents in December. In one of these, two Afghan interpreters were killed when a grenade was thrown at the gates to the ISAF camp on 19th December. One of these was employed by ISAF. The other was attached to a French charity, the Afghan Media and Cultural Centre and two of his French colleagues were also injured, one of them seriously.
In another incident, on 26th December, an Oxfam vehicle was hijacked on the main Kandahar-Kabul highway between Qalat and Shah Juy in Zabul Province. Two armed men forced the vehicle into the desert where, fortunately, the Oxfam staff were released unharmed after being blindfolded. Three days later, there was a grenade attack outside the office of Afghan Development Association in Qalat, the capital of Zabul.
Violence aimed at western targets continues to be compounded by criminal violence and by clashes between power holders. Thus, fighting was again reported at the beginning of the month between the forces of Ismail Khan and those of the Pushtun commander, Amanullah Khan, near Shindand air base to the south of Herat. Among the factors leading to the tensions between the two men is a demand by Amanullah Khan that Pushtuns have greater representation in the Herat government. Ismail Khan has accused Amanullah Khan of having links with remnants of the Taliban. A ceasefire between the two sides was mediated by the Afghan government on 3rd December. However, the outcome may also have been influenced by a decision by US-led coalition forces to drop a 2,000 bomb near the front line of the fighting after US troops gathering information about the clashes were fired on.
Political and economic developments
Speaking at a conference in Bonn convened on 2nd December to bring the Afghan government and members of the international community together to reflect on the first year of the Bonn Agreement, the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, called on the regional power holders to cooperate in the creation of a 70,000 strong national army. He also insisted that all private militia should be banned. President Karzai added further to the pressure on regional power holders when he issued a decree, to coincide with his attendance at a conference with donors held on 17th and 18th December, stating that no civilian or military official was allowed to work in both the political and military sphere.
Simultaneously with the Bonn Conference, the newly-established Security Council of Afghanistan was convened by the Defence Minister, General Fahim, to discuss ways of addressing the prevailing insecurity in the country with regional power holders and those responsible for security at the national level. Representatives of the International Security Assistance Force were also present at the meeting. Among the decisions was an acceleration of the disarmament process which has been ongoing in parts of the north, albeit at an extremely limited level, since October, with a particular focus on Kunduz and on the militias of General Rashid Dostam and General Atta Mohammed. The meeting was attended by Ismail Khan and other major regional figures and may, therefore, have made some progress but, as with the decrees issued by Hamid Karzai, much will depend on what leverage can be exerted by the international community on these. The existence of economic alternatives for those opting to fight for one militia group or another will be a further consideration of note. However, we may anticipate that none of the power holders will want to weaken their relative positions substantially in case the present government fails to survive and a civil war ensues. Similarly, in spite of the agreement drawn up on December 22nd committing Afghanistan's neighbours not to interfere in its internal affairs, it is likely that Afghanistan's immediate and wider neighbours will want to ensure that the balance of power in Afghanistan, in the event of a civil war, is one that suits their interests. To this end, they are likely to put resources into one power holder or another.
Mr Karzai also attended an international conference convened by the Italian Government, in Rome on 19th December, to consider how best to rebuild Afghanistan's justice system. Italy's Deputy Foreign Minister stated that the revamped legal system would take, as reference points, Afghanistan's 1964 Constitution, Islamic Law, Afghanistan's traditional system of justice and international law. The conference also addressed the need to build the physical infrastructure of courts, lodgings for judges etc. as well as to tackle legal training. A committee was set up at the conference to coordinate the efforts of the UN agencies, NGOs and governments seeking to support the eleven-member Afghan Judicial Commission set up under the Bonn Agreement.
On the economic front, the World Bank Asian Development Bank have agreed to resume loans to Afghanistan after the British Government decided to pay off Afghanistan's outstanding arrears.
Agreement was reached on 10th December between the Afghan and Pakistani governments to repatriate 400,000 Afghan refugees per year over the next three years.
UNHCR reports that more than 1.8 million refugees returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan and Iran during 2002 under the assisted voluntary repatriation programme supported by the host governments and UNHCR. This is made up of 1,532,000 from Pakistan and 261,000 from Iran. The total monthly figures since the repatriation programme started at the beginning of March have been as follows: March: 122,000; April: 298,000; May: 413,000; June: 292,000; July: 303,000; August: 197,000; September: 107,000; October: 49,000; November:15,000; December: 7,000 (as at 24 December). The official figure given for the number of Afghan refugees remaining in Pakistan is 1.5 million while that for Iran is 2 million. UNHCR expresses its concern about "the capacity of the war-torn country to absorb the sudden influx of millions of people" and notes that "substantive reconstruction aid for infrastructure repair and employment is still urgently needed if returns are to be sustainable". It concludes that "security and living conditions in Afghanistan are not yet sufficient to encourage all refugees to return at this time". It stresses that "repatriation programmes aim to facilitate those refugees returning on their own to begin rebuilding their lives under difficult conditions". UNHCR has called on host governments to recognise that "while for many Afghans the reasons for their exodus may have ceased to exist, there are still others who need continued international protection" and asks them "to provide support and ensure that returns are phased and coupled with development and reintegration support to increase the capacity in the communities of return".
The humanitarian situation
The Afghan government and UNHCR estimate that 550,000 people may face severe hardships during the cold season, including 290,000 recent returnees and 260,000 internally displaced Afghans. Particular concern is expressed for those living in areas cut off by snow in the central highlands. The two bodies note that more than 400,000 displaced people are living in difficult conditions in southern Afghanistan. The IDP population for the whole country is currently estimated at 724,000, broken down as follows: North: 51,000; South: 413,000; Centre: 124,000; East: 70,000; West: 66,000. Over 250,000 displaced people have been assisted to return to their villages over the course of 2002.
In spite of the reported deaths of up to 30 children and elders at camps in Spin Boldak during a severe cold wave at the beginning of December, 30,000 people have opted to remain at these camps rather than relocate to the camps provided by UNHCR at Zhare Dasht, to the west of Kandahar, since August. It is thus clear that the remote position of Zhare Dasht and the absence of employment opportunities is proving to be a major disincentive to those offered relocation. Thus far, nearly 5,000 families have made the move.
Human Rights Watch issued a new report on 17th December, focusing on the situation of women in Herat as an example of that pertaining generally in Afghanistan, to stress that the political environment remains a highly conservative one. While noting greater female access to employment and education, it draws attention to the enforcement of strict behavioural and dress restrictions, based on standards publicised by the local media.
In possible response to this and an earlier Human Rights Watch report on the overall human rights situation in Herat, Ismail Khan has established a Human Rights Commission for the region. This will complement the work of regional offices to be set up by the Afghan Human Rights Commission, which has welcomed the development.
Human Rights Watch has criticised the US government, in another report, issued on December 18th and entitled "Fatally Flawed: Cluster Bombs and Their Use by the United States in Afghanistan". Human Rights Watch found that "the United States did not take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties, as required by international humanitarian law, when it used cluster bombs in or near populated areas". It added that "US cluster bombs also left an estimated 12,400 explosive duds - de facto anti-personnel land mines - that continue to take civilian lives to this day".
This report is published by the British Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG) Project, based at the Refugee Council, London. The Project is funded from a number of sources, including the UK Government's Department for International Development and individual British NGOs operating in Afghanistan. However, the views expressed are those of the BAAG Project and do not represent any official view of its funders.
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