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Afghanistan: One Year Later, Al-Qaeda Is Disrupted, But Country Struggles With Instability

  • Charles Recknagel

Monday, 7 October marks the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the sustained bombing campaign by U.S. and British warplanes in Afghanistan, an offensive that eventually caused the collapse of the Taliban. RFE/RL looks at the start of the Western action in Afghanistan and the extent to which some of its original objectives have been fulfilled.

Prague, 4 October 2002 (RFE/RL)-- One year ago, U.S. President George W. Bush was in an uncompromising mood. After weeks of demands on Afghanistan's ruling Taliban to hand over Al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, to Washington, Bush ordered air strikes to begin on the militia's military facilities and troops.

Shortly after the strikes began on 7 October 2001, the U.S. president made this announcement: "More than two weeks ago, I gave Taliban leaders a series of clear and specific demands: close terrorist training camps, hand over leaders of the Al-Qaeda network, and return all foreign nationals, including American citizens, unjustly detained in your country. None of these demands were met. And now, the Taliban will pay a price."

Bush also said the bombing was the start of a sustained campaign whose main purpose was to end the use of Afghanistan by Al-Qaeda for training terrorists and organizing attacks upon the United States. The bombing began just 26 days after suicide attacks by Al-Qaeda operatives destroyed the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon in a terrorist operation that killed some 3,000 people.

Regarding Al-Qaeda, Bush said: "By destroying camps and disrupting communications, we'll make it more difficult for the terror network to train new recruits and coordinate their evil plans. Initially, the terrorists may burrow deeper into caves and other entrenched hiding places. Our military action is also designed to clear the way for sustained, comprehensive, and relentless operations to drive them out and bring them to justice."

A year later, the U.S.-led strikes on the once Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan are over, the remnants of the fundamentalist militia have gone into hiding, and most of the members of Al-Qaeda are reported to have fled Afghanistan. The air strikes also resulted in the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance occupying Kabul, an international conference to reach a new power-sharing agreement in Afghanistan and, four-months ago, the country's first Loya Jirga in decades to endorse a new national government.

But if the air campaign, which had broad international support, succeeded in bringing a new and pro-Western administration to Kabul and evicting Al-Qaeda from its bases, the past year has given plenty of signs that the operations that began on 7 October remain far from over.

In Afghanistan, the military phase of smashing the Taliban and Al-Qaeda appears largely complete, although more than 10,000 U.S. soldiers remain in the country to suppress efforts by either organization to regroup. British and Canadian troops also conduct periodic operations to uncover suspected weapons caches. Yet the allied soldiers themselves still come under periodic attack, making it clear that their enemies have not disappeared completely or given up hope of a return.

At the same time, U.S. special forces provide security for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who survived an assassination attempt in Kandahar last month. For many observers, the assassination attempt was a measure of how difficult it will be to achieve political stability in Afghanistan, since it is unknown whether the attack was organized by the defeated Taliban or Al-Qaeda, by Karzai's own political rivals, or was simply the act of a lone gunman.

In efforts to help stabilize Afghanistan, the international community has helped to assure peace in Kabul by maintaining a 5,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) there. But recent events, such as a car bombing last month that killed 26 people, show that the capital is still a volatile place. And outside Kabul, where there is no ISAF, the country remains under the direct control not of the central government but of highly independent regional or local leaders, many with their own militias.

Meanwhile, efforts by the international community to reconstruct Afghanistan have gotten off to a hesitant start as donors prove slow to fulfill their promises. Afghan officials say that of the $4.5 billion pledged for rebuilding Afghanistan, only about $500 million has been received so far.

Still, if Afghanistan remains an unsettled place, many antiterrorism experts say the Western campaign in Afghanistan has succeeded in its aim of dealing a heavy blow to Al-Qaeda.

Magnus Ranstorp, a security expert at the Center on Terrorism and Political Violence in Edinburgh, Scotland, said that by destroying Al-Qaeda's bases, the U.S.-led operations forced the organization to move from an offensive to defensive posture. And that, he said, may have forestalled further attacks, such as those of 11 September 2001. "Without any question, the military campaign against Afghanistan was necessary, particularly to eliminate the zone of sanctuary that Al-Qaeda had been provided by the Taliban regime. It has certainly put Al-Qaeda on the defensive. It hasn't eliminated their operational capability, but certainly they are worrying about their security continuously, and that absorbs time. It has scattered them. It has also meant that they are not able to plan undisturbed in areas for a long time," Ranstorp said.

He also said that by eliminating Al-Qaeda's ability to host and train thousands of militants recruited from around the world in Afghanistan, the campaign may have set back the organization's ability to develop new networks of sympathizers and so-called "sleepers," or members who integrate into societies while awaiting future instructions to attack.

But the expert said the campaign in Afghanistan is far from spelling the end of the Al-Qaeda organization. One reason is that the smashing of its bases in Afghanistan has redistributed its fighters all over the region. "Of course, it has scattered various fighters across the globe but also in the region. There were individuals, some senior ones, who transited or sought sanctuary in Iran. Some other individuals disappeared down through Africa. So, on the one hand, it has put them on the defensive. On the other hand, we are still far removed from making a real inroad into neutralizing the organization's capability," Ranstorp said.

Ranstorp said that means that what began last year as a military operation in Afghanistan has now turned into a global police effort to complete the job. He said this new battle pits the police's ability to track down suspects one by one against Al-Qaeda's ability to remain intact enough to keep coordinating complex operations. And that battle, he said, could take many years or even decades to finish.