Jockeying for influence, neighbors undermine Afghan pact

Originally published
From EURASIA INSIGHT January 6, 2003
Ahmed Rashid: 1/15/03

On January 14, Iran announced that it would supply power to Herat in western Afghanistan; on January 10, the United States announced that it would lift tariffs on Afghan trade. Despite such boosts to Afghan economic self-sufficiency, new battles for influence in the country have begun.

President Hamid Karzai watched on December 22 as dignitaries from China, Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan signed the Kabul Declaration, pledging to never again meddle in the affairs of the ravaged country. Officials from near neighbors -- Russia, India and Saudi Arabia -- were in attendance. The ceremony's bonhomie hid a starker reality. According to people close to the discussions, Karzai's desire for such a pledge, even when American and allied forces promise not to leave the country, demonstrated the apprehensions of Afghan leaders and the United Nations.

Sources say that Russia is arming one warlord, Iran another, and India and Pakistan are secretly backing different claimants to power. Wealthy Saudis have resumed funding Islamic extremists and some Central Asian Republics are backing their ethnic allies, according to observers. In this context, Karzai seems intent on laying out a firm principle. "We are not going to be a political football for neighbors in the region as we were in the 1990s," he said in an interview. "The soil of Afghanistan cannot be used by any country against a third country. We are watching the emerging situation very closely."

But neighbors' official policy does not match the calculations being made by their intelligence agencies and militaries. Western diplomats in Kabul say Afghanistan's neighbors are working off common but false assumptions -- that American forces will wind down their operations in Afghanistan if a war in Iraq begins, that the Karzai government is too weak and that the country may still split along ethnic lines. By backing the warlords or ethnic groups they supported in the 1990s, neighbors are hedging their bets.

Russia backed the former Northern Alliance during the 1990s, and sources say that Russia has lately delivered support to Defense Minister General Mohammed Qasim Fahim, a former Northern Alliance leader. In the context of Russia's promise to donate $100 million in military equipment to the Afghan army, some observers wonder if Fahim's fellow Northern Alliance veterans would get an inside track for arms.

International experts say the United States and France will probably lead the creation of the new Afghan National Army (ANA), a projected force of 70,000 men. But Zamir Kabulov, director for Asia at Russia's foreign ministry, pointedly states that old treaty obligations between the two countries allow Russia to steer aid toward Fahim's existing army, composed largely of Tajiks, which currently maintains law and order. Western intelligence believes some Russian spare parts and even tanks are arriving from Tajikistan and being transported down to the Panjshir Valley, Fahim's home base.

Fahim denies the charges. "The Russians have made no promises and so far we have received no items from Russia," he says, responding to claims that Russian materiel is stopping in the northern city of Kunduz. "Kunduz was a gateway for arms supplies when we were resisting the Taliban. Why should we use it now?" Americans, meanwhile, appear unwilling to push the issue publicly while they seek Moscow's backing on a possible invasion of Iraq. Still, sources say American officials have quietly asked Russia to restrict aid to national armies, as Karzai insists it must. "We have made it clear to all of Afghanistan's neighbors that the country should be allowed to develop without interference," says Robert Finn, the American ambassador to Kabul. That interference can take many forms. Juma Mohammed Mohammadi, the minister of mines, says Russia has also refused to return the country's only geological survey of oil and gas resources made in the 1970s. The United States has said it will carry out a new geological survey.

Another former backer of the Northern Alliance, India, has developed a huge presence in the country. Since the summer of 2002, India has provided civilian airplanes, buses and hospital equipment and promised to equip and train the new national army. It has opened consulates in Mazar-e-Sharif in the north and Kandahar and Jalalabad close to the Pakistan border. Karzai assured EurasiaNet that these consulates would not serve as proxies in the simmering conflict between India and Pakistan. This assurance came after reports that General Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president who once maintained diplomatic relations with the Taliban, phoned Karzai with concerns over the Indian consulates. "I have assurances from India that these consulates will only be for trade and consular activities," says Karzai. "We will not allow either India or Pakistan to use Afghanistan to work against each other."

But these rivalries can be very hard to control. Some observers say that the death of two police officers in Kandahar stems from Indian and Pakistani meddling. India reportedly offered to train 60 Kandahar police disloyal to Kandahar governor Gul Agha Shirzai. These same observers say that Shirzai, who is reportedly close to Pakistan's Interservices Intelligence (ISI), retaliated by trying to disarm some police stations, which led to fighting and the deaths of two policemen. "India sees Afghanistan as a means to undermine Pakistan's western border and Pakistan is retaliating," says a European ambassador in Kabul.

While Pakistan supports Karzai and has turned over al Qaeda operatives, some charge that Musharraf's ISI is harboring Taliban leaders and allowing them passage to Afghanistan. Retired Pakistani officers say that the army has split in border cities like Peshawar and Quetta. One senior ISI officer and his staff work with American forces to catch al Qaeda elements, the retired officers say, while another works out deals with the Taliban.

Pakistani sources say top Taliban leader Mullah Kabir is living openly in Charsadda, near Peshawar. Recent rocket attacks in eastern Afghanistan may stem from Taliban radicals or from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an anti-American radical who reportedly crosses often into Pakistan. "I think the security situation in eastern Afghanistan is going to be a problem for some time to come just because of the freedom of operating back and forth from the Pakistan border," said US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers on December 21.

Pakistan is hardly alone in playing multiple Afghan strategies. Time will tell if reconstruction projects due to begin this spring, with the advent of a national army, strengthen Afghanistan's national identity enough to dispel neighbors' apparent tendency to choose sides.

Editor's Note: Ahmed Rashid is a journalist and author of the books "Taliban: Militant Islam and Fundamentalism in Central Asia" and "

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