Already Stretched, Afghan Leaders Face New Threat

Posted in Broader Middle East | 13-Apr-04 | Author: Carlotta Gall| Source: The New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan, April 11 — As often of late, President Hamid Karzai met long into the evening on Sunday with ministers and advisers on how to deal with the clashes that have flared in the past three weeks, first in the country's west and then in the north.

As news reached the capital of another gunfight between two armed factions near the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, and as investigation commissions were reporting back from the provinces, the central government was wrestling with the broader issues of how to contain the violence without aggravating tensions and how to tackle the regional warlords without turning them into intractable foes.

"It is not good news to the people of Afghanistan, the government of Afghanistan and our international partners," the foreign minister, Dr. Abdullah, said of the recent violence, including incidents in which a cabinet minister was shot dead, a provincial governor fled his post and local commanders traded artillery fire.

The government is reporting success, or at least cause for optimism, with the smooth deployment of Afghan National Army units to two provinces, Herat and Faryab, to prevent more violence. Yet officials concede, as do Western and Afghan observers, that neither of the crises is resolved yet. And the government still faces a crucial test of its ability to manage such problems, because there will certainly be more in the five months leading up to presidential and parliamentary elections.

More than two years after a United States-led coalition brought down the Taliban government, and as Afghanistan prepares for the elections in September, security remains a serious problem in much of the country, and the authority of the transitional government in Kabul is in question. Taliban remnants continue to challenge American and Afghan forces in the south and east. And regional warlords continue to dominate political and economic affairs, because of their military strength, raising the question of whether free and fair elections will be possible.

Dr. Abdullah said the recent violence was not going to take Afghanistan back to civil war or the sort of factional strife in the 1990's before the Taliban took control in Kabul, yet it was indicative of the enormous challenges that still lay ahead.

"It cannot reverse the process," he said, "but it shows we need a more focused effort to change the circumstances, the environment, in order to move ahead."

The immediate problem in Faryab is how to undo a move by the powerful warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum to remove a rival strongman and seize control of the province. The departure of the rival commander, Hashim Habibi, an unsavory provincial police chief, will not be regretted by many. But the governor, Eynatullah Enayat, an appointee of Mr. Karzai's government, was also forced to flee. General Dostum's supporters are now in charge in the province.

Mr. Habibi left with 100 of his police officers, leaving a vacuum of power in the provincial capital, and he remains at large. Similarly, in Herat Province, the commander of the national army's 200th division fled the fighting and is holed up in neighboring Badghis Province with his men.

United Nations and government officials hope the Afghan National Army troops sent to both provinces — 1,000 soldiers to Herat and 750 to Faryab — can help in disarming rival commanders. And in the rest of the country, a plan to disarm and demobilize 40 percent of an estimated 100,000 militiamen by the end of June is about to begin.

But the head of the United Nations office in northern Afghanistan, Michele Lipner, warned that heavy-handed use of the Afghan Army could backfire.

"There needs to be a neutralizing of the incredibly high pitch in Maimana," the provincial capital of Faryab, she said. "The last thing we want to see is a more militarized situation."

Suggestions to send the army on to install a new governor who had been unable to take up his position in the neighboring province of Sar-e-Pul were inadvisable, she said.

Even reinstalling Faryab's governor would be difficult, a Western diplomat said. "The situation has far from played out," he said. "The big challenge is to get a governor in there who can be a competent governor."

The fate of Faryab's governor, who for lack of his own power base was forced to rely on Mr. Habibi's police force, has exposed the shortcomings of the central government's appointments of educated and loyal, but largely ineffective, governors.

The outcome has once again shown the importance of establishing a trained national police force, which is belatedly getting under way, Ms. Lipner said.

The power struggles in Herat and Faryab are indicative of the increasing tensions across the country as elections approach.

"Things are indicative of the heightened sense of concern of all warlords," a Western diplomat said. "They are all under stress and afraid they might lose their power."

How successful any deployment of national troops to quell regional violence would be was unclear, not least because of tension around the elections, warned one Afghan government official. "The projection of central government power is desirable," he said, "but it remains to be seen how effective it is in the short and long term."

Ms. Lipner pointed out a complication. "There are multiple agendas at play — not all of them local," she said, referring to those in the central government who want to sideline the warlords and factional leaders. She added that opportunists would also use the instability for their own ends. "Doors have opened up from all sides for people to promote their agenda," she said.

Mohammad Mohaqiq, a former minister of planning who was dismissed from Mr. Karzai's cabinet last month, warned the government against stirring up ethnic and factional divisions by sending in the national troops, and he said he deplored the government's public criticism of General Dostum.

"He is not a small person," Mr. Mohaqiq said. "A slap on Dostum's face is a slap which may upset thousands of faces."

One government official expressed a similar concern. "It is very important on critical national levels that you have as many stakeholders on board," he said. "You should never underestimate someone's ability to undermine things."