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Afghanistan: New Army Is Priority For Interim Administration

As factional rivalries in Afghanistan continue to flare into sometimes deadly clashes, both Kabul and the international community are giving high priority to the creation of a national army to provide security. Afghan interim administration leaders, including Defense Minister General Mohammad Fahim, visited London last week for talks that focused largely on the shape such a force might take.

Prague, 6 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The need for Afghanistan's interim administration to form a national army grows more apparent each time it seeks to appoint a new provincial governor.

Last week, heavy fighting broke out when the newly appointed governor for eastern Paktia Province, Padshah Khan Zadran, tried to assume power. As his forces moved to disarm troops loyal to the town's tribal council -- headed by rival commander Haji Saifullah -- fighting broke out which left at least 50 people dead.

Afterward, Zadran's men were forced to retreat from the provincial capital, Gardez, and now remain dug into defensive positions south of the town. Yesterday, the two sides exchanged prisoners, but the dispute has yet to be resolved.

Now, in the neighboring eastern province of Khost, a similar standoff appears to be developing. The tribal council there also is demanding that interim administration head Hamid Karzai remove his recently appointed governor -- Kamal Khan -- or risk an uprising. Instead, the council wants Karzai to accept its own candidate for the job.

Surveying this state of affairs, Karzai said in Kabul yesterday that he "knew all along" that there would be a clash in Gardez and that the conflict highlights Afghanistan's need for a national army "as soon as possible." The statement came as Karzai, presiding at a ceremony to raise the country's new flag over the presidential palace, called upon his fellow citizens to "take each other's hands" to rebuild the nation.

As the clashes over provincial governors challenge the new administration's authority, Karzai and other top officials are engaging in intensive talks with Western countries over how to create, train, and finance a national army.

Karzai recently visited Washington and London for discussions that were reported to focus largely on security questions. In London, he was accompanied by interim Defense Minister General Mohammad Fahim, who toured British military facilities. The tours, at the invitation of the commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, Major General John McColl, were intended to show the Afghan military delegation what forms a new army might take.

RFE/RL Turkmen Service director Mohammad Nazar spoke with Fahim in London late last week. He asked Fahim how much progress the Afghan interim administration has made toward creating a new national army.

"We have got some programs under way to establish a 'National Force of Afghanistan' and the preliminary steps of this project have been taken. There is no doubt that there have been a lot of armed men in Afghanistan during the past 23 years. But with the people's encouragement and the support of the central government, there should be an independent force which will defend the country's sovereignty without interfering in political affairs."

Fahim also described overall political stability in Afghanistan as good, despite the recent tensions in Paktia and elsewhere. Those tensions have included threats by local leaders in the southern city of Kandahar to mount a punitive military expedition against the governor of the western city of Herat, Ismail Khan, over complaints that trade on the road between the cities was being subjected to extortionate taxes. The confrontation was later defused in direct talks between the two sides.

Fahim said: "Currently, the overall political and military situation in Afghanistan is good. All the provinces, all the commanders and all the people are working with particular warmth to establish a central government in Afghanistan. Everyone agrees on national unity and that there should be no more war in Afghanistan."

In another pocket of tension in the north, two rival factions yesterday reportedly agreed to withdraw from Mazar-i-Sharif and to eventually demobilize their soldiers. Troops loyal to Fahim last week clashed with forces loyal to Deputy Defense Minister Abdul Rashid Dostum in Sholgara -- south of Mazar-i-Sharif -- and in points to the west and north of the city. The forces of Dostum and Fahim cooperated to take Mazar-i-Sharif from the Taliban in November, but also have a long history of rivalry between them.

Analysts say the form of the new Afghan army still remains to be decided. Britain, which currently heads the ISAF and has offered to take a lead role in forming the army, is urging Afghan leaders to develop a small but efficient force. But Fahim is calling for a force of some 200,000 to 250,000 men -- almost twice the size of the United Kingdom's own standing army.

James Gow, a defense expert at King's College London, has said Afghanistan lacks the resources to support a force that size but that Afghan officials favor it as a way to absorb many of the country's restive commanders and militiamen.

Britain and the U.S. both reaffirmed this week that they are ready to help create the army, even though they have made few details of their discussions on the issue public.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon, on a one-day visit to the Afghan capital yesterday, said he had what he called "excellent discussions" with Fahim "on how we can provide for a national army."

At the same time, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in Washington that an American military team is being sent to Afghanistan to help assess proposals for building the force. Rumsfeld said Washington has "every intention of trying to be very helpful in the development of a national Afghan army."

As Britain and the U.S. take the lead in talks regarding training and financing a national army, it is unclear if other nations might also be involved. In past weeks, both Iran and Russia also have offered to aid in creating a national army. Fahim is due to visit Moscow next week to discuss what Moscow officials describe as "security issues."

Afghan leaders are also calling for extending the ISAF beyond Kabul to other key parts of the country. But so far London has shown itself reluctant to expand the force, which now numbers 3,200 soldiers.

Hoon told reporters in Kabul yesterday that there have been "discussions in London regarding this," but he gave no indication of support for the request. Instead, he said "we are working toward long-term stability for Kabul" and added that, so far, "those difficulties elsewhere in Afghanistan are entirely manageable."