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Afghanistan: U.S. Envoy Warns On Warlords, Iranian Meddling

  • Ron Synovitz

The U.S. envoy to Afghanistan says the greatest security threat facing the country is a possible return to "warlordism" -- factional fighting among regional commanders who control their own separate armies. Speaking yesterday after talks with the interim administration in Kabul, U.S. envoy Zalamai Khalilzad outlined possible options for an expanded U.S. military role in Afghanistan. He also reiterated U.S. allegations Iran is trying to destabilize Afghanistan by supporting factions opposed to the interim administration.

Kabul, 25 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. envoy for Afghanistan has issued a strong warning that rival warlords in the country could soon start fighting against each other unless steps are taken to prevent a fresh outbreak of war.

Zalamai Khalilzad, U.S. President George W. Bush's special envoy to Kabul, made the remarks yesterday after a weekend of talks in Kabul with interim leader Hamid Karzai and other officials.

"Clearly, the major overall challenge is how to prevent a return to 'warlordism' and conflict among major armies. That's the biggest security challenge that Afghanistan faces," Khalilzad said. "There are a number of ideas as to what can be done. The ultimate answer is the building of a national army and the national police."

The interim administration has set a goal of having a 92,000-strong Afghan national security force operating across the country by the first part of 2003. But even in the best-case scenario, only about 30,000 troops are expected to be deployed by June, when a transitional government will be appointed to replace Karzai's interim administration.

Competing factions within the interim administration are already trying to position themselves to dominate the transitional government. That has led to tension between the leaders of different factions. But Khalilzad said he does not think any warlord is actively planning to attack his rivals.

"I believe myself that the warlords -- if you like, the regional leaders -- do not want to go back to war. If the Afghans want to go back to war, there are not enough international forces available to come and stop them," Khalilzad said. "Our concern is that inadvertently -- because of miscalculation, lack of trust, a sense of insecurity -- they might do things that could lead to a war."

Khalilzad described a range of options that are being considered by Washington in order to lessen the threat of clashes between warlords.

"What it is that could be done, from our perspective, to lower the chances of this miscalculation -- of things leading to a bigger conflict -- the issue is, in part, military. It is also political. It is also economic," Khalilzad said. "As you get reconstruction going, as you get the process for a loya jirga [or grand council] proceeding [toward the appointment of a transitional government], all of these things could interact in a positive way and lead to a positive situation with regard to security."

Among the military options, Washington has ruled out the idea of U.S. soldiers joining the British-led International Security Assistance Force -- a group of about 4,500 foreign troops that are patrolling Kabul.

But Khalilzad suggested that U.S. troops already in Afghanistan might be given an expanded mandate that includes the task of providing security in other parts of the country.

"Our current forces that are in some of these places could be given this additional mission," Khalilzad said. "[Another option is that] there could be different countries that take a lead in different regions with regard [to] providing this sort of role. In Kosovo, as you remember, there was the same force with a single command responsible across [different national components]."

Khalilzad said another possibility is for U.S. troops to serve as advisers in "hot spot" areas until a national Afghan security force is able to function independently.

Washington, so far, has limited its security role to about 3,000 soldiers, based near the southern city of Kandahar, and the deployment of a limited number of special forces soldiers. These units assist Afghan troops in hunting down suspected Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters.

Whatever decision is reached, Khalilzad said it must be done quickly to keep Afghanistan from sinking into the same kind of chaos that was seen after the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989.

During the early 1990s, feuding warlords destroyed much of Kabul and other cities as they scrambled for power. Their bloody factional fighting between 1992 and 1996 left an estimated 50,000 people dead -- most of them civilians.

Analysts say it was this inability of the warlords to unite under a constructive government that brought about the conditions allowing the Taliban rise to power in 1996.

"We need to come up with an answer relatively soon," Khalilzad said. "It may not be a single answer [that is] the same for everywhere. It may be different answers for different places. The situation is complex."

Khalilzad concluded his visit to Kabul just as interim leader Karzai was leaving Afghanistan on a three-day diplomatic visit to neighboring Iran.

Khalilzad repeated Washington's allegations that Tehran is interfering in the internal affairs of Afghanistan by supporting factions of radical Islamist fighters who oppose the UN-backed interim administration: "This is a continuing problem. The issues that we are concerned about are something that the chairman and other Afghan officials that I have talked to share. As far as the United States is concerned, we do expect Iran to stop the kind of activities that we find objectionable."

Khalilzad went on to detail a list of activities in which Washington is accusing Iran of being involved: "What we want is a normal relationship between Afghanistan and Iran. They are neighbors. We want that relationship to be based on non-interference. We do not want Iran to allow Al-Qaeda types to cross from Afghanistan into Iran, or the Taliban people to be supported or be allowed to cross into Iran, or for Iran to send [paramilitary Islamic] Al Quds forces here or to supply [Iranian paramilitary] Sepah-i-Mohammad forces in here or to assist some warlord or local leader."

Iran has strongly rejected Washington's allegations that it is trying to destabilize Afghanistan.

Karzai and some members of his large political and economic delegation met today with Iran's spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the reformist speaker of parliament, Mehdi Karubi.

For its part, the Afghan interim administration praised Iran's official policy of support for the post-Taliban transition process in Afghanistan. The United Nations also has said that it has no evidence to support the U.S. allegations of Iranian interference within Afghanistan.

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