[Last update: 27 April 2003]

In Afghanistan, Violence Stalls Renewal Effort

by Carlotta Gall

26 April 2003

KABUL, Afghanistan, April 25 In the middle of the main road between Kabul and Kandahar lie two bombed-out, rusted fuel trucks, destroyed in American strikes in October 2001. That no one not the Americans, nor international aid workers, nor Afghans themselves has dragged them out of the way shows how little has been done to mend Afghanistan since the 2001 war, despite promises of copious foreign assistance.

In a very real sense, the war here has not ended as shown by an attack today that killed two American soldiers and by a planned visit on Sunday from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Nearly every day, there are killings, explosions, shootings and targeted attacks on foreign aid workers, Afghan officials, and American forces, as well as continuing feuding between warlords in the regions.

No clear picture exists of who will provide the security to stop the bloodshed: the government of President Hamid Karzai, which still has no national army or police force; or the international force of 5,000 peacekeepers here in the capital; or the 11,500 Americans, Romanians and other foreign soldiers still in the provinces hunting for the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

For months now, the American military here has talked of moving into "Phase Four," which would mean winding down combat activities and entering a period of reconstruction. Yet the military is still mounting large-scale combat operations in the pursuit of armed groups of rebels in mountain hideouts, and turning villages upside down in a search for suspects and weapons that is making the foreign presence ever more unpopular with Afghans.

In southern and eastern Afghanistan, the exiled Taliban movement has been resurgent since December. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a renegade mujahedeen commander and former American ally, has called for a holy war against "occupying forces."

The attack today, which killed an American soldier near a Special Forces base close to Shkin in eastern Afghanistan, was particularly brazen. About 20 rebels opened fire on a platoon of American and Afghan soldiers in broad daylight, wounding at least six other soldiers before retreating across the border to Pakistan, as many attackers have in recent weeks. A second American soldier later died of wounds from the battle, Reuters reported.

Cross-border violence has risen so much that President Karzai, apparently with the backing of the United States, took the unusual step this week of naming the fugitive Taliban leaders he wants Pakistan to hand over to his government in Kabul.

His administration appears equally hamstrung, however, when it comes to reducing the power of the warlords, who often put personal interest before national unity, but who have been virtually the only source of security for ordinary Afghans, who have been looking for safety and some form of economic subsistence since Afghanistan began to fall into chaos more than two decades ago, during the Soviet invasion in 1979.

Fixing the Kabul-Kandahar road, one of the main arteries of the country, has been a priority of the Karzai government. It is part of the American-led $180 million plan to repair main roads and provide hundreds of jobs. Yet now, in the second year of reconstruction, there is no sign of any work being done all along this 300 miles of ruts and holes.

American soldiers at their headquarters at Bagram Air Base, near Kabul, share many of the apprehensions of the Afghan public despite their public, official optimism on their ability to secure both Afghanistan and Iraq. "I don't feel comfortable watching us start on another war when this remains unfinished," one soldier at Bagram said recently, insisting on anonymity. "It would have been better if we could have moved into Phase Four before they started in Iraq."

After their grueling hikes through the Afghan mountains, American troops often head back to base with little to show for their effort. The international coalition here regularly announces that weapons caches have been seized and destroyed, but there have been few important arrests made, and no pause in attacks on American bases and Afghan government posts and personnel.

A recent two-week operation with 500 Special Forces and airborne infantry troops in the Baghran Valley in the southern province of Helmand failed to net its main prey Abdul Waheed, the local chief of Baghran, and another former Taliban commander, Mullah Kabir. Both men got away, and Mr. Waheed later told friends that he had made it to the safety of Quetta in Pakistan, an American official said.

The continuing airborne assaults and rough searches are angering Afghan villagers, especially when fatal errors are made. One of those, an airstrike that was meant for a group of rebels but that hit a house in eastern Afghanistan this month, killed 11 members of a family as they slept. The bombing occurred near Shkin, where today's attack happened and where the first signs of renewed rebel activity emerged last Dec. 21, when an American soldier on patrol was shot dead.

The recent operation in Helmand left one shepherd dead and five people injured, three of them children. A trail of houses was trashed and looted; other families wept to see their male breadwinners detained.

The popularity of the American presence was also not increased by the deaths of two men among a group of Afghans arrested and held for interrogation at Bagram Air Base in December.

Small boys make obscene gestures at American troops as they pass by villages in Khost Province, and villagers complain that the Americans are arresting the wrong people, often because they are misled by the local militias working with them who hunt down personal enemies.

A former mujahedeen commander, Hajji Spin Bacha Zadran, 60, who was held for a month in the Bagram detention center last fall, said he told his captors they were encouraging animosity among Afghans.

"I told them they should not arrest innocent people and they should try to be close to the people and should not make the people angry, because already now the people do not like them because they are arresting innocent people," he said in an interview at his home in the eastern town of Khost.

In a tea house in Khost, where scores of arrests have been made over the past months, residents listened keenly to a conversation about the American presence in Afghanistan.

One speaker praised the Americans because, he said, they have prevented Afghan militias' feuding. But the room fell into an appalled silence when it was suggested that American forces would stay for as long as a decade. "Oh my God!" muttered one man, turning his back on the speaker in disgust.

"There is a widening gap between the Afghan people and the Americans," warned a senior government official on his return from the eastern border regions.

American officials say the military has learned the bitter lessons of working too closely with any one clan or tribe, often ending up being used to further local vendettas. But their critics say they are not moving fast enough to cut ties with troublemakers.

The American commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Daniel K. McNeill, has stressed the importance of treating villagers with respect and of rebuilding and bringing in aid after combat operations, his top commander in southern Afghanistan, Lt. Col. John Campbell, said in a recent interview. But it does not always work.

"We will not be angry if they help us and do not bother us," said Pai Muhammad, a villager in the Baghran Valley. "Up until now, I have not become angry, but then they have not killed anyone in my family." But the villagers of Lejay were so embittered after Special Forces spent 10 days in their village, conducting searches and making arrests, that they wrote an open letter to the United Nations mission in Afghanistan.

"The Americans searched our province," the letter reads in part. "They did not find Mullah Omar, they did not find Osama bin Laden, and they did not find any Taliban. They arrested old men, drivers, and shopkeepers, and they injured women and children."

These villagers said they did not see any of the aid that United States forces said they would airlift into the region.

The escalating violence has also slowed reconstruction. A series of attacks on nongovernmental agencies culminated in the killing of an expatriate Red Cross worker in Kandahar last month, prompting most agencies to scale back their work in the most needy south and southeastern regions.

"Thousands of people are going to suffer from this," said one aid worker as he prepared to pull his team of four foreign workers out of refugee camps in the south.

Already frustrated last year by the slowness of reconstruction and the failure of aid organizations to reach the more remote areas, the American military decided last fall to use military civil affairs teams to take reconstruction efforts to the turbulent regions.

The idea is to position civil affairs personnel backed up by Special Forces for security groups of up to 60 or even 100 people in as many as 10 places around Afghanistan. The teams have a total of $12 million for projects they oversee, and they hire local contractors to do the building.

In Kabul, foreign diplomats have welcomed the idea of a larger military presence in the regions, particularly because no country is prepared to expand the 5,000-member international peacekeeping force in the capital out to the border regions.

But the plan was immediately criticized by relief groups. The United Nations gently pointed out that it was responsible for coordinating aid, and the nongovernmental aid agencies expressed alarm about becoming associated with the military, suggesting that the soldiers stick to the bigger projects roads, bridges, government buildings that aid groups cannot manage.

In the end, some aid officials say, the teams will fail because they are neither one thing nor another.

"They are undermanned, underresourced and are focusing on the wrong areas," said Paul O'Brien of CARE International, the American-based aid group, which has long experience in Afghanistan.

Most aid agencies, and many Afghans around the country, would like foreign troops to disarm the private militias, reduce continuing robbery and extortion, and curb the power of the warlords, Mr. O'Brien said.

But the military teams are concentrating on small-scale projects building schools, or even just providing desks and latrines for them while the larger issues of disarmament and peacekeeping are left unfinished, he said.

Rafael Robillard, the director of a coordinating body of international aid agencies in Kabul, summed up the frustration of many aid workers. "I was talking to one civil affairs guy, and we were looking at a kindergarten the American military was building, and the soldier turned to me and said, `Why aren't you guys doing anything about disarmament?' I could not believe it. The military is building kindergartens, and they are asking me, a civilian aid worker, to do disarmament! The world is upside down."

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Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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