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Afghanistan: U.S. Bodyguards For Karzai Signal Heightened Security Fears

U.S. troops have been called in to guard Hamid Karzai's presidential compound in downtown Kabul amid reports of security threats against the Afghan leader. RFE/RL examines security concerns in a country that has already seen two senior government officials assassinated during the last six months.

Kabul, 23 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai has replaced some 50 Afghan bodyguards at the presidential palace in Kabul with U.S. troops. The move is the latest sign of heightened security fears following the daylight assassination of Afghan Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir earlier this month.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld confirmed that U.S. forces have been deployed at Karzai's sprawling presidential palace. Rumsfeld called the move a "relatively short-term" measure that would last several weeks or months. He also confirmed that the United States would help train Afghan bodyguards loyal to Karzai.

Some Afghan officials have criticized the move, saying the presence of foreign bodyguards will signal to most Afghans that Karzai is a president with no local power base.

Indeed, Western diplomats in Kabul say a U.S. security team for Karzai has become necessary because of "serious threats" against him, possibly from some of the rival warlords who comprise Karzai's own government.

All of the Afghan bodyguards who have been replaced by U.S. troops were rank-and-file fighters loyal to Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim, the powerful commander of the military wing of the former Northern Alliance political faction known as Jamiat-i-Islami.

Some Western diplomats say privately that Fahim's forces are a possible threat to Karzai's administration. They say that if Fahim wants to topple Karzai, he can easily use the hundreds of armored vehicles and thousands of loyal fighters that he has at his disposal in the mountains around Kabul to push aside the outnumbered and lightly armed International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

But such a move would also clearly cause Fahim to lose support from the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition, whose air strikes against the Taliban regime late last year helped Jamiat-i-Islami seize de facto control of Kabul.

RFE/RL's correspondent in Kabul confirmed that security provided by troops from Jamiat-i-Islami at the presidential palace in Kabul had been lax before the deployment of U.S. soldiers there this weekend.

Guards from Fahim's faction routinely allowed trucks carrying piles of twisted scrap metal and scores of local Afghan workers to pass through the outer gates of the presidential compound without being stopped for a search.

On several occasions, our correspondent watched overloaded trucks being allowed to pass without any security check into the innermost sanctum of the presidential grounds where Karzai's office is located.

Such security breaches are disconcerting in a country that has seen two senior members of the Afghan government assassinated literally in front of their Afghan bodyguards during the last six months.

On 6 July, 10 bodyguards sat by eating lunch while two gunmen shot dead Vice President Qadir right outside of the Public Works Ministry in Kabul. The bodyguards had failed to prevent the assassins from staking out the ministry gate for several hours with Kalashnikov assault rifles hidden beneath their flowing shirts. They also did not stop the gunmen from getting into a car and driving away after the assassination.

In the case of interim Civil-Aviation Minister Abdul Rahman, who was assassinated at Kabul Airport in February, Karzai said Fahim and other leaders of Jamiat-i-Islami have admitted it was their own men in the security services who orchestrated the killing.

Officers under the command of Fahim and current Internal Security Adviser Yunis Qanuni were in charge of airport security at the time of Rahman's assassination. Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah has also told RFE/RL that bodyguards from Jamiat-i-Islami were responsible for killing the civil-aviation minister.

But the highest-ranking official named by Karzai as a suspect in Rahman's killing, Deputy Interior Minister Din Mohammad Jurat, was later put in charge of the investigation. No arrests have been made.

Both Qadir and Rahman had been allies of Jamiat-i-Islami before they broke off their ties with the former Northern Alliance faction in order to support Karzai.

Karzai has not commented publicly on the use of foreign troops to protect him since the first U.S. soldiers arrived at his presidential palace during the weekend.

But in an interview with RFE/RL earlier this month, Karzai admitted that it may have been a dangerous move for him to invite Afghanistan's rival warlords into his transitional government.

Nevertheless, Karzai justified the inclusion of warlords in his cabinet by saying that it was the best chance to bring stability to Afghanistan. "What I don't want is war in this country. What I don't want is fighting in this country. What I don't want [are] the rights of Afghan people violated in this country. So if I can bring a man with a military force and a regional structure into the government and make him cooperate, that is a good thing. That's not a bad thing. That's in the interest of this country," Karzai said.

Karzai explained that he thinks the only chance for an end to 23 years of warfare in Afghanistan is for all Afghans to be brought into the process of rebuilding the country. "We have offered all Afghans -- warlords or not warlords -- to be part of the nation building in Afghanistan. And there is an opportunity for them to come and participate and go into Afghan history as good people. They also have the choice to go the other way around and go into Afghan history as bad people. Any good, sane man would choose the path of goodness, and of service to this country, and of getting a good name in history. There is this opportunity and I wish everybody would take it," Karzai said.

But Karzai also told RFE/RL that he would ask foreign military forces for help if it appeared stability was threatened by the rival warlords that make up his government placing their own interests ahead of what is best for Afghanistan.

Kabul's former mayor, Fazel Karim Aymaq, said the use of foreign bodyguards is one of many recent developments to damage Karzai's credibility in the eyes of ordinary Afghans.

Aymaq said that an Afghan president with foreign security guards will be seen by most Afghans as a man who simply doesn't have his own homegrown security, and thus, doesn't have a legitimate base of support in his own country.

The former mayor said the move may contribute to long-term problems for Karzai if he tries to become the democratically elected president and run the country after the mandate for his Transitional Authority expires in two years' time.

In order to bolster security provided by Afghans, on 20 July ISAF began a one-month training program that will prepare 240 Afghan bodyguards to protect Karzai's cabinet ministers and other senior government officials.

Turkish ISAF spokesman Major Murat Pekgulec confirmed that the training program is the result of a request from Karzai's administration. Pekgulec also said that a growing number of Afghan officials have been asking ISAF to bolster their personal security teams since Qadir's assassination. "Some of the [Afghans being trained are] still bodyguards. The others are bodyguards [the government ministers] are planning to use. So we've trained them. And after the training they [will be] used as bodyguards for the VIPs," Pekgulec said.

About 70 Afghan guards chosen for their loyalty to Karzai are also being trained by U.S. soldiers in order to form a close protection team for the Afghan president. Their training program is expected to last several months.