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Afghanistan: Analysts Say Some Neighbors Interfering In Kabul's Internal Affairs

Prague, 7 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The British group that publishes "Jane's Defense Weekly" says Afghanistan is facing "pressure and interference" from its neighbors and other nearby countries.

The report by researcher Akram Gizabi was released this month by "Jane's Islamic Affairs Analyst." Gizabi says four countries that actively tried to shape the affairs of Afghanistan during the past three decades -- Pakistan, Russia, Iran, and Uzbekistan -- are now on the scene again to varying degrees. And he warns that some countries have questionable intentions in Afghanistan.

Other experts agree with Gizabi's assessment. Among them is Christopher Langton, head of defense analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He told RFE/RL: "This, to my mind, is one of the most disturbing things about the emerging situation in Afghanistan. The [nearby] powers -- Russia, Pakistan and Iran, in particular -- are now seeking to re-establish their influence in Afghanistan in a very partisan fashion. That, to most people's minds, cannot bode well for the future unity of Afghanistan, which [Transitional Authority President] Hamid Karzai, [UN special envoy] Lakhdar Brahimi, and the United Nations are trying to build."

Out of all of Afghanistan's neighbors, Gizabi says Pakistan is responsible for most of the interference. The degree of involvement by Pakistan's government, rather than radical groups or individuals within the country, is an issue that analysts are still debating. That's because Pakistan officially is an ally in the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign.

But Gizabi maintains that Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, is now directly supporting the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and renegade Afghan commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is thought to be hiding in Pakistan's autonomous tribal regions.

Reports of Pakistani agents working against Karzai and the United States are nothing new to Afghans. Last September, after a deadly bomb attack in a Kabul market, Karzai accused Pakistan of sheltering and helping Hekmatyar.

There also has been a recent upsurge of border clashes and reported infiltrations into Afghanistan by militants thought to have sheltered in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province and Baluchistan -- two provinces where pro-Taliban politicians recently won local elections.

U.S. military spokesman Roger King said former Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters appear to have regrouped and aligned themselves with Hekmatyar and his declared holy war against the United States and the Afghan central government.

King said those fighters are thought to have been involved in a fierce battle against U.S. troops last month in Kandahar Province near the Spin Boldak border crossing with Pakistan. "Our intelligence leads us to believe that they are most closely aligned with [former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's] Hizb-e Islami movement, which is Hekmatyar's military arm. We've had reports over the last several months that he's been attempting to consolidate with remnants of Al-Qaeda and Taliban. So they would all go under the heading of enemy forces -- anti-coalition forces. But that's who we believe they are," he said.

A few days after that battle, when it became apparent most of the fighters had escaped, 18 Afghan civilians were killed by a freshly laid land mine on the outskirts of Kandahar.

Kandahar Mayor Abdullah Popal told a memorial ceremony for the victims this week that elements in "neighboring countries" don't want peace and security in Afghanistan.

Kandahar's security chief, General Khan Mohammad Khakreezwal, told the crowd that Afghanistan's neighbors are still trying to gain influence in the country by helping militants who oppose Karzai. "Now they still don't want to leave us alone. We should not be used [as puppets by our neighbors]. We should not be the cause of destruction -- and we should work for [the Afghan] people now," he said.

Khakreezwal stressed that the presence of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan should help the country protect itself from unwanted foreign interference. "Now there is a good chance for the Afghan people, with the international forces in the region, to release Afghanistan from the grip of these people," he said.

Langton said the growing number of reports about ISI involvement in Afghanistan does not surprise him. "I think this is very much part of it. There is very little secret now about the fact that the I.S.I. are back inside Afghanistan. And if they are in Afghanistan, then it is not going too far to say they are talking with the Taliban both in Pakistan and in Afghanistan," he told RFE/RL.

Langton also said the recent fighting near Spin Boldak has lent urgency to allegations of Pakistani involvement. "Recent events in the southern mountains [of Afghanistan] have shown that the level of attacks, the numbers of attacks, have risen and that infiltration by the Taliban back into [Afghanistan] has also increased. And the ISI may be playing a part in that for traditional, as well as for ethnic, reasons," he said.

Junaid Ahsan, a Karachi-based analyst at the Pakistani Institute for International Affairs, argues that it would be imprudent for Pakistan to help the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. "Viewing history, [and the ISI's support for the rise of the Taliban during the 1990s], it may be possible that covertly they now have some relationship or [are providing] shelter. But officially, and viewing the international and regional situation, it is not very obvious. And it doesn't seem practical that Pakistan should take such a risky step," Ahsan said.

But Afghan commanders in the southeastern provinces of Khost and Paktia have been complaining for months about the ability of Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters to cross freely back and forth across the border with Pakistan -- sometimes passing directly through buildings used by Pakistan's border guards.

Another issue that concerns Gizabi is a $40 million military helicopter deal reached between Russia and Jamiat-e Islami, the powerful former Northern Alliance faction headed by Afghan Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim. The contract calls for Russia to provide transport helicopters, gunships, and spare parts directly to Fahim's ministry rather than the Afghan National Army.

Langton said such deals stoke tensions between rival factional militias that still dominate the regions outside of Kabul. "Particularly, I would point at the Russian involvement with Fahim in passing [weapons] on to him, and specifically not to the Afghan National Army. And what sort of message does that send given that Fahim has as a protege Mohammad Atta, who is a deputy governor in [the northern Afghan city of] Mazar-e Sharif, and the separate coalition up there of the Turks, Uzbeks, and [General Abdul Rashid] Dostum?"

Langton concluded, "The future, if this trend continues with these outside powers picking partners in a disunified fashion, looks rather bleak, to be honest."

Gizabi says Islamist hard-liners in Tehran oppose the creation of a democratic government in Afghanistan and are actively trying to destabilize Karzai's government. He says Tehran also has given sanctuary to terrorists from Al-Qaeda, including at least two high-ranking members of its inner circle.

Iran has provided military aid to the private militia of Ismail Khan, the governor of the western Afghan province of Herat. Gizabi says Tehran also is training and financing militant groups in central and northwestern Afghanistan like Sepah-e Mohammad and Sepah-e Quds.

In northern Afghanistan, Gizabi says Turkey and Uzbekistan appear eager to revive their support for General Abdul Rashid Dostum by strengthening his private militia forces.

Last December, a document signed by Karzai and Afghanistan's neighbors called for constructive and supportive bilateral relations. The so-called Kabul Declaration says friendly relations should be based on the principles of territorial integrity, mutual respect, cooperation, and noninterference in each other's internal affairs.

But the reality suggested by Afghan experts, Karzai, and other Afghan officials appears to be at odds with the hopes expressed in the Kabul Declaration.