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Afghanistan: Karzai Maintains Busy Travel Schedule Both At Home And Abroad

Afghanistan's interim leader Hamid Karzai is keeping a busy diplomatic schedule both within the country and abroad as he attempts to consolidate his authority and prevent factional disputes from derailing promised international aid.

Kabul, 13 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghans are expressing concern that interim leader Hamid Karzai is spending so much time abroad that he may be ignoring serious problems within the country -- in particular, violent disputes in the north, west, and southeast of Afghanistan between rival warlords and clan leaders.

But Anatol Lieven, a senior associate of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the current tensions are not purely a domestic issue. He says they cannot be resolved without also considering the influence that Afghanistan's neighbors have on the feuding factions.

"A key reason for the Afghan disaster and Afghanistan's civil wars was interference by its neighbors and support for rival military groups inside of Afghanistan," Lieven says. "So Karzai, on behalf of Afghanistan, has to make sure that that doesn't happen again -- that he has good relations with all of Afghanistan's major neighbors."

Lieven, an expert on Russian and Eurasian affairs, is spending most of February in Afghanistan in order to get a first-hand perspective on the situation there. He says Karzai's busy diplomatic schedule indicates the interim leader is in fact working on the crises that threaten to tear the country apart once again along ethnic, tribal and factional lines.

"In the last week alone, Karzai has been to Pakistan, to the United Arab Emirates. [And] many of his ministers are on the road visiting different countries. And of course, there are visitors to Kabul, including, this week, the German defense minister [Rudolf Scharping] and the British foreign secretary [Jack Straw]," Lieven says. "So Kabul is quite a hub of international activity these days. And it needs to be [that way] if the interim government -- which doesn't have much authority of its own -- is going to be able to consolidate its authority within the country."

It was amid recent talks in Kabul -- aimed at preventing a dispute in the southeastern province of Paktia from erupting into factional warfare -- that Karzai left the Afghan capital for his visit to Pakistan.

That trip is seen as an attempt to address a regional aspect of the Paktia dispute -- alleged support from some elements in Pakistan to the Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters remaining in Paktia's southernmost mountains.

Interim Interior Minister Yunis Qanooni says a key issue to be addressed in Kabul's relations with Islamabad is that there are two branches of power in Pakistan with conflicting policy goals on Afghanistan.

Qanooni says one branch of power is led by Pakistan's military ruler, President Pervez Musharraf. He says Musharraf is legitimately trying to change the country's traditional support for the ousted Taliban movement.

But Qanooni says another branch of power in Islamabad includes former members of Pakistan's intelligence services that are still influential in the country. He says those linked to Pakistan's intelligence services probably are protecting alleged terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and the Taliban's spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

In fact, both sides in the Paktia dispute have claimed their rival is getting support from Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. With remnants of those groups known to be lingering in the mountains of Paktia close to the border with Pakistan, it has become essential for Karzai to address the issue of alleged cross-border support.

Karzai's recent diplomatic schedule also has entailed trips to Western countries -- including Britain and the United States, where he visited the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

Yesterday, Karzai received German Defense Minister Scharping and reportedly repeated his request for additional troops to be deployed in Afghanistan as part of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

The interim administration says it needs the ISAF's help for longer than the current mandate of six months in order to establish a national army and police force that can be deployed across the country. In the meantime, Kabul wants the ISAF contingencies to be deployed in other cities besides the capital.

Scharping said yesterday he realizes the situation in Afghanistan remains volatile: "Overall you cannot speak of either a secure or stable situation in Afghanistan. At the same time, progress has been made. But as we all know, the fight against the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and international terrorism has not been won yet. Not even on Afghan soil."

But the current ISAF commander, British Major General John McColl, says the force can not be expanded without a new UN Security Council resolution and the willingness of the mostly European countries involved to contribute more soldiers.

"The key thing, as far as we're concerned, is Kabul. That's our mandate," McColl says. "That is what underpins our mission and that is what the UN Security Council resolution focuses upon. And if there is to be an expansion, that's a matter for the interim administration to take up with the international community. And that is a separate issue from the current mission which I am now engaged on."

British Foreign Secretary Straw has indicated his nation supports the idea of Turkey assuming command of ISAF when Britain's term expires, which is due to happen in March. Both Turkey and Germany have been named as possible successors to Britain in leading the multinational force.

Karzai's spokesman, Shah Zada Massoud, says the interim leader on 11 February accepted an invitation from Scharping to visit Germany. Massoud also said Karzai plans to visit Iran and Russia after returning from Germany.

Afghanistan's interim defense minister, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, is continuing a visit to Russia today. In addition to paving the way for Karzai's visit, Fahim also is seeking help to repair battered military equipment that the interim administration needs for Afghanistan's yet-to-be created national army.

Lieven sees all of the visits to Europe and the United States by Karzai and his ministers as an essential part of maintaining the administration's main source of power -- support from the West.

"Karzai's position within Afghanistan is overwhelmingly dependent on his support from the international community -- particularly the West. Frankly, he doesn't have much personal support inside the country," Lieven says. "What his strength really comes from is the international offer of billions of dollars in aid, coupled pretty explicitly with the threat that if people move to overthrow Karzai or reject his authority, that aid will not be coming. So that is a pretty convincing incentive [for Afghans] to support Karzai."

A visit to Kabul later this week by British Foreign Secretary Straw also is seen as an essential part of Karzai's efforts to cultivate and maintain his international contacts.