From EURASIA INSIGHT February 28, 2003
Camelia Entekhabi-Fard: 2/27/03
Interim Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in Washington on February 27, lobbied US President George W. Bush for an increased American commitment to Afghan reconstruction efforts. Concern is rising in Afghanistan that, with the Bush administration’s attention riveted on Iraq, Kabul’s stabilization challenges will be largely forgotten.
During their Oval Office meeting, Karzai thanked Bush for the US assistance to date, but stressed that reconstruction efforts are far from complete. Prior to his meeting with Bush, Karzai said that disarming Afghanistan’s still-powerful warlords is a top policy priority for the interim administration. Bush expressed strong support for Karzai’s government, but gave no specific assurances about increased American assistance.
Karzai’s visit to the United States comes at a time when security conditions in Afghanistan are increasingly delicate. Under Afghanistan’s stabilization blueprint, elections are due to be held in 2004. But the potential for those elections to promote lasting peace is threatened by the interim government’s inability to disarm Afghan warlords.
Indeed, many Afghan commanders and warlords who helped American-led forces in ousting the Taliban from power now are considered the main threat to the Karzai government’s peace-building efforts.
"At this time we should focus more on security than anything else. Disarming is vital because internal tensions could prevent reconstruction," Rashid Mohammadi, an Afghan diplomat in Abu Dhabi, said in a telephone interview.
Political observers in Kabul note that Karzai’s interim administration wields little influence in many Afghan provinces, saying it lacks the means to compel the loyalty of warlords. "Unfortunately, Karzai doesn’t seem to have much power outside of Kabul. Some warlords call him the mayor of Kabul," said one Afghan political expert, speaking on condition of anonymity. [For background information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
A pillar of US stabilization plans is the formation of a national Afghan army. Some observers say, however, the armed forces build-up is faltering. Only about 3,000 soldiers have been trained so far, and due to a lack of resources, the government is unable to accommodate many soldiers after they have completed their training. As a result, many troops have reportedly returned to homes and former occupations.
In recent months, the United States has become more involved in state-building initiatives, tacitly recognizing that Washington’s initial strategy for Afghanistan stabilization was unrealistic. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives].
Recently Washington allocated about $60 million to foster efforts to renovate facilities used by the national police force and improve the judicial system’s capabilities. The aid will also be used for programs designed to combat drug-trafficking.
Opium production in Afghanistan has surged in recent years, after a Taliban ban in 2001 nearly eradicated poppy cultivation in the country. Afghanistan in 2002 regained its position as the world’s leading source of opium, despite attempts by Karzai to impose his own ban on production. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives].
Afghan analysts say the challenges for Karzai, especially that of disarming the warlords’ militias, are becoming more difficult with each passing day. Thanks in part to revenue allegedly derived from narcotics trafficking, many warlords have an independent ability to equip and maintain their fighting forces.
"They [warlords] have enough money to pay their supporters. In the beginning of the war against the Taliban, they received lots of cash by the American government. Now they have thoroughly developed their own business and have become a new threat to Karzai," said an Afghan journalist.
Perceptions that ethnic Tajiks dominate the country’s most important institutions, including the foreign and defense ministries, have also hampered interim government efforts to encourage a single national identity. In mid February, Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim announced a military reshuffle to make the armed forces more ethnically inclusive. "I wanted to have more balance. We need more confidence in our defense ministry from the people," Fahim told journalists.
Despite the government’s efforts, warlords show no sign of deferring to Kabul’s authority. Indeed, violence and conflict in Afghanistan’s provinces continue to flare. In recent days, for example, forces loyal to Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum clashed in Faryab Province with Jamiat-i-Islami troops commanded by Ustad Atta Mohammad.
Many Afghans don’t expect the security situation to improve in the near future. "They [warlords] don’t want to disarm. They lived with money and power for so many years, and it’s not easy to tell them, ’Thanks for your help. Please give me your weapons and go home!’" said Abdullah Mojadadi, an Afghan merchant.
Conditions are such that some women in Kabul say they have opted to once again wear a burqa, or traditional Islamic covering, in public to reduce the chances of experiencing harassment from Islamic fundamentalists. One female Afghan journalist, who works at the Kabul office of a Western news agency, says she now wears a burqa when traveling to and from her office, taking it off once she is inside.
"If they see us without our faces covered, they follow us home and God knows what happens," the journalist said. "They come out at night armed with weapons to punish girls and sometimes their families as well."
Editor’s Note: Camelia Entekhabi-Fard is a freelance journalist specializing in Afghan and Iranian affairs.
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