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Afghanistan: Fighting In Gardez Highlights Security Challenges

An ongoing dispute between rival Pashtun factions battling for control of the Afghan town of Gardez illustrates the difficulty the interim government is having in trying to bring stability to areas outside of Kabul. But the government insists that prospects for resolving disputes between rival ethnic, tribal, and militia groups has never been better.

Kabul, 5 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's interim government insists there will soon be a resolution to a dispute between rival ethnic Pashtun factions that have been fighting for control of Gardez in the southern province of Paktia.

But despite the efforts of a government delegation sent to the town over the weekend, the ethnic Pashtun fighters who continue to control Gardez say there will be more violence unless their leader -- Commander Haji Saifullah -- is allowed to maintain power in the province.

The interim government's delegation managed to broker an exchange of some 240 prisoners that took place today. But the delegation so far has been unable to bring about a compromise on who should govern Paktia Province.

The dispute demonstrates the difficulties that Afghanistan's interim government is facing as it attempts to appoint new provincial officials and bring stability to areas outside of Kabul.

Although 3,200 of an eventual 5,000 foreign troops have been deployed in Kabul so far as part of the International Security Assistance Force, (ISAF), the United Nations mandate for those troops stipulates that they must remain within the capital.

Outside of Kabul, tensions remain high -- particularly in areas where factional leaders and militia commanders feel their interests may be threatened by newly appointed administrators who are their traditional rivals.

Gardez, a mere 120 kilometers south of Kabul, is a case in point. About 50 people were killed in the town last week after the interim government appointed Padshah Khan Zadran as the governor of Paktia Province.

A fierce battle erupted when troops loyal to Zadran entered Gardez and tried to disarm a militia group loyal to Commander Saifullah, the leader of the town's tribal council. Saifullah says he refuses to accept the appointment of Zadran as Paktia's new governor.

Zadran is an ethnic Pashtun from the Zadran clan. As a supporter of interim government leader Hamid Karzai, he was one of the first provincial officials to be appointed since the interim government came to power in December.

Saifullah also is an ethnic Pashtun. But he is from the rival Ahmadzai clan. He has accused Zadran of giving false information to the U.S. military about the presence of Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters in Paktia Province in order to trigger air strikes against his rivals there.

Saifullah says a convoy of tribal elders from Paktia Province that was traveling to the inauguration of the interim government in Kabul in December was bombed near Gardez after U.S. forces were given false information.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said that the convoy was thought to include Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters. A U.S. investigation into that incident is continuing.

The dispute between Zadran and Saifullah appears no closer to a resolution today. Supporters of Zadran say any compromise deal that revokes his appointment would merely encourage similar violent disputes in other Afghan provinces.

In the central Afghan city of Bamiyan, ethnic Hazara leader Karim Khalili has warned interim leader Karzai he should not appoint any other provincial governors. Khalili, whose militia of 15,000 to 30,000 troops controls much of central Afghanistan, said the appointment of Zadran was a mistake that has humiliated the interim administration. He says new provincial governors should be determined only through elections.

There also has been tension among rival leaders of the main militia factions in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. However, a deal has been brokered for rival forces to withdraw from the city in an attempt to ward off any major clashes. The plan also reportedly calls for a new security force to be formed.

The planned withdrawal includes pledges from all sides to eventually demobilize tens of thousands of fighters who have been protecting the interests of rival warlords there for years.

Interim Interior Minister Yunis Qanooni says he is confident the situation in Gardez will improve in the near future. Qanooni also is downplaying suggestions that the fighting in Gardez is a harbinger of things to come in other parts of the country.

"I am very sure that what happened in Gardez will not escalate and [that similar incidents] will not scatter across the country. It was a local dispute, and there were also hands from outside the country involved. The situation is now under control."

Qanooni did not specify which foreign countries he thinks are linked to the fighting in Gardez. But lower-level government officials who support Zadran told RFE/RL that foreigners from the Al-Qaeda terrorism network were involved. Those claims could not be independently confirmed.

Qanooni says the interim government's plan to bring stability to all of Afghanistan calls for a 70,000-strong Afghan police force to be trained and on patrol within a year. He said that the self-sufficient national security force would include police officers from every province and ethnic group in Afghanistan.

"I am of the belief that we need to make the Afghan security forces self-sufficient. Security is the key and essential issue for us. If we do see the need for the deployment of ISAF in the rest of the country, we will definitely ask them to cooperate with us."

In fact, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said during Karzai's visit to London last week that every delegation he has met with from Afghanistan has urged the deployment of additional foreign troops to the country. But Blair said he has no intention of either sending more British soldiers, or extending the length of Britain's three-month leadership role in the ISAF.

In Kabul yesterday, the British ISAF commander Major General John McColl said that 3,200 personnel for the first battalion of a national Afghan security force already have been chosen. McColl says ISAF has a role in ensuring that those recruits are properly trained.

"Included in my mission is a requirement to help the interim administration identify suitable security structures, and to identify and arrange training and assistance for the Afghan security forces. And we are working closely with the interim administration's Ministry of Defense on this issue."

McColl also said he expects the first battalion of an Afghan national guard to start training later this month in Kabul.

Qanooni says that German troops are expected to help train the recruits. Qanooni also says that he expects the Afghan security force to number about 29,000 by the time a transitional government for Afghanistan is named in about four months' time.

Many observers in Afghanistan anticipate that the naming of the transitional government will be a critical time for the country because factional or militia groups that may be left out of the next administration are likely to be angered by such a development.