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Afghanistan: Warlord Threats Continue To Grow Throughout Country

There are growing concerns that violence in Afghanistan involving troops of regional warlords is threatening the stability of the Transitional Authority. RFE/RL examines the threat posed to Afghan President Hamid Karzai by clashes in the east, south, and west of the country, as well as a major firefight that erupted yesterday near Kabul itself.

Prague, 8 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The security situation in Afghanistan is continuing to deteriorate. In the past week, there have been clashes involving regional warlords in the west, south, and east of the country. They come after similar factional clashes in the last two months in northern, central, and northwestern Afghanistan.

At least 15 people were killed near Kabul yesterday in a shoot-out between Afghan police and what witnesses described as a gang of Arabs and Pakistanis.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman said there are signs that the 12 foreign gunmen who were killed in that battle were members of Al-Qaeda. Two policemen and a civilian were also killed in the firefight, which took place at Binizar about 15 kilometers south of the capital.

Since 4 August, U.S. troops have twice engaged members of warlord factions in the eastern province of Kunar. Those factions have been battling for control of the territory since a power vacuum was created by the 6 July assassination of Afghan Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir.

U.S. Army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Roger King yesterday described one clash in the east between U.S. soldiers and a group of armed men that reportedly included relatives of an eastern warlord. "Five individuals opened fire on the mounted patrol from their own vehicle. The patrol returned fire, killing four and wounding the fifth. No U.S. personnel or civilians were killed or injured. The wounded man was evacuated to a local hospital," King said.

In the west, near the border between the provinces of Herat and Farah, there have been several clashes in recent weeks between ethnic Tajik fighters loyal to pro-Iranian Herat Province Governor Ismail Khan and ethnic Pashtun troops from farther south under the command of Ammanullah Khan.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami is scheduled to visit the Afghan capital Kabul on 13 August. In addition to talking about promised Iranian aid, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is expected to raise the issue of Iran's links with Khan.

U.S. General Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is visiting Kabul today, said that recent flare-ups of violence do not necessarily signal the start of a campaign by the remnants of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda. But he admitted that Afghanistan remains a very dangerous place for foreign troops to operate.

His remarks suggest that warlordism in Afghanistan may be becoming a greater threat to stability than the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Indeed, the growing threat of warlordism is something that the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has been warning about for months.

Mike Jendrzejczyk, the group's Washington director on Asian affairs, is among those who think warlordism in Afghanistan is getting increasingly out of control. "We're deeply concerned about the resurgence of warlord activity in virtually all parts of Afghanistan. This threatens not only the stability of the civilian government, but also threatens those returning to Afghanistan from outside of the country [and the] internally displaced," Jendrzejczyk said.

One notorious example of how regional warlords are threatening the stability of Karzai's Transitional Authority is that of renegade ethnic Pashtun warlord Padshah Khan Zadran.

Zadran, a former U.S. ally in southeast Afghanistan who emerged from last December's Bonn Accords as Paktia Province governor, was sacked by Karzai from that post in February after an old feud with rival Pashtuns in the province erupted into fresh bloodshed.

Since January, Zadran's troops have twice launched massive rocket barrages into Paktia's capital of Gardez, killing dozens of civilians each time.

After the second barrage took place in the spring, U.S. military leaders began to distance themselves from Zadran, saying he was no longer an important U.S. ally.

Military analysts say that Zadran's dispute in southeastern Afghanistan also has complicated the U.S.-led campaign against the remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

The U.S. had trained at least 600 of Zadran's fighters and employed them in the battle at Tora Bora to prevent Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters from escaping across the border into Pakistan.

But Zadran's men failed to block their escape. During a similar mission in March called Operation Anaconda, U.S. forces relied instead on ethnic Tajik fighters from the northern Panjshir Valley. They also posted U.S. soldiers to block the escape routes of enemy fighters instead of relying on Zadran to do the job.

Another sign of crumbling confidence in Zadran came during the Loya Jirga that confirmed Karzai's Transitional Authority in June.

Zadran's brother had been the interim frontier minister during the first half of this year, and several of his other brothers held deputy-minister posts. But the post-Loya Jirga Afghan government has been purged of all of Zadran's relatives.

Since then, Zadran has emerged as the most vocal Pashtun critic of Karzai's administration. He alleges that Karzai is controlled by the Panjshir Valley's ethnic Tajiks in the Jamiat-i-Islami party, in particular, by Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim.

Zadran also complains that Afghanistan's former king, Zahir Shah, should have been given a political role in the country by the Loya Jirga.

Zadran and his supporters have staged a series of demonstrations during the past week in the territory they now control in Paktia, Paktika, and Khost provinces. They are calling for Karzai to resign and for more powers to be given to the ex-king.

But Zahir Shah made a televised public appearance on 4 August with Karzai and issued a statement saying that he does not support Zadran or any other person trying to undermine the authority of Karzai's government.

For his part, Karzai has called Zadran and his supporters "bandits." The Afghan president also has threatened to take military action against Zadran's fighters, who are estimated to number between 3,000 and 6,000.

But the chances of an Afghan army defeating Zadran in his mountainous home turf are unlikely.

So far, after six months of recruiting and training efforts, the Afghan government's national army numbers fewer than 1,200 men.

An emerging dispute between Karzai and Fahim suggests that Fahim is not likely to send his powerful forces to fight Zadran for Karzai's sake.

Indeed, the history of Zadran's military experience in Paktia and Khost shows that such a battle would be costly for the Transitional Authority.

When Soviet forces occupied Afghanistan in 1979, mujahedin fighters, including Zadran, successfully closed off the main road winding through the narrow mountain passes to link Gardez with Khost, the same road that is now controlled by Zadran's men.

Afghan communist forces tried unsuccessfully to open the Gardez-Khost highway on many occasions during the 1980s in order to supply a communist garrison at Khost by ground transport.

Two entire regiments were annihilated in the process, and a popular myth developed amongt Afghans that the mujahedin fighters along the Gardez-Khost highway were invincible.

It wasn't until 1987 that the massive Soviet-led Operation Magistral managed to open the Gardez-Khost highway. Even then, Soviet troops could only hold the road against Padshah Khan and other mujahedin commanders for 12 days before they were forced to withdraw. They never again succeeded in opening that road.

Zadran's experience as part of the mujahedin defense against the Soviets during Operation Magistral is, today, an important example of the difficulties Karzai's fledgling army might face in imposing the central government's will on regional warlords who continue to fight for their own interests across Afghanistan.