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Afghanistan: The Welcome is Going Sour

10 July 2002

Mounting anger over civilian casualties inflicted by U.S. forces is not the only reason why anti-American sentiment is growing in Afghanistan. More than 120 Afghan villagers were inadvertently killed or wounded by a C-130 gunship on June 30 in Oruzgan Province, a stronghold of the 10 million Pashtun tribesmen who are Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. But even before the Oruzgan tragedy, the Pashtun goodwill earned by the United States for sweeping away the Taliban had been replaced by resentment after U.S. pressure to block the re-emergence of a Pashtun-dominated regime at the recent loya jirga, or grand council, held in Kabul.

Pashtun domination has been the historical norm in Afghanistan. A Pashtun monarchy ruled from the birth of the nation in 1747 until a palace coup in 1973 in which the popular king, Zahir Shah, was deposed by a cousin.

When it hastily launched Operation Enduring Freedom last October, the United States cast its lot with a triumvirate of generals from the Tajik ethnic minority who helped to dislodge the Taliban and now dominate the government of Hamid Karzai, a largely powerless front man. This Tajik triumvirate controls not only the armed forces and police but also three hated secret police agencies. In Pashtun eyes, the secret police are dedicated to curbing Pashtun influence and were automatically suspect in last week's murder of Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir, although there is no evidence yet to support this suspicion. To counter Tajik control of the security apparatus and also Karzai's cabinet, Pashtun leaders wanted Zahir Shah to run for president of the new Transitional Authority at the loya jirga. He was to have critical but clearly limited powers, with Karzai as prime minister running the government. At 87, the ex-monarch is too old to wield day-to-day authority, but his presidential powers, it was argued, plus his commanding popularity among Pashtuns, would have enabled Karzai to bring the secret police under control.

In the weeks before the loya jirga, Pashtun tribal delegations totaling 70,000 streamed into Kabul to pay homage to the king. This alarmed U.S. diplomats and generals, who have found Karzai a compliant partner and get along well with the Tajik military and secret police barons.

On the eve of the loya jirga, the White House special envoy in Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad, openly demanded that Zahir Shah renounce his presidential candidacy to avoid a "divisive" situation. Khalilzad confronted the king in a well-publicized meeting that one of the royal advisers described to me as "unpleasant."

Khalilzad is now reviled as "the viceroy" by many Pashtuns, who refer to the once welcomed U.S. forces in Afghanistan as an "army of occupation."

The need to break the Tajik grip on the Afghan armed forces and intelligence services was one of the major conclusions of a recent conference of 38 diplomats, aid officials and nongovernment experts on Afghanistan from 20 countries convened by Francesc Vendrell of Spain, a former UN special representative for Afghanistan and now the European Union's special envoy for Afghan affairs.

Spain had organized the closed-door "brainstorming" meeting at Cordoba, Vendrell said, "in the hope that the international community will remain focused on Afghanistan and not repeat the mistakes of the past by disengaging prematurely." Participants attended as individuals, not as representatives of their governments, and authorized Vendrell to sum up the discussions.

In diplomatic language that avoided the use of the word "Tajik," the conference concluded that "it is necessary to overhaul the Afghan security services in order to depoliticize them, ensure that they are not dominated by any single ethnic group, bring them under civilian control and make them accountable to the central government as a whole."

"Many participants expressed awareness," Vendrell reported in his summary, "that a segment of the loya jirga had left with a feeling of disappointment at what they perceived as their exclusion from the decision-making process leading to the selection of the head of state, but it is too early to assess whether this will have a negative impact on the functioning of the Transitional Administration."

Among its 26 recommendations, the conference urged accelerated efforts to develop a new national army, emphasizing that it should be multiethnic in character.

At present, the United States plans to maintain a military presence until the projected new army is in the field. But building a new army from scratch could take many years. The recent debacle at Oruzgan, which is only the latest of many similar incidents, underlines the urgent need to redefine the mission of U.S. forces.

There is no definitive cumulative estimate of Afghan civilian casualties, but a credible University of New Hampshire study suggests a figure of 3,742.

A redefined U.S. mission should focus on Al Qaeda remnants and phase out operations against what is left of the Pashtun Taliban guerrillas, like the raid at Oruzgan, in which it is impossible to distinguish the enemy from innocent tribesmen and their families.

Zahir Shah spoke out bluntly in a private Rome meeting in March with Italian aid agencies operating in Afghanistan. He thought the meeting was off the record, but a La Stampa reporter was present. As the war drags on, he said, it is becoming "stupid and useless - it causes me great pain, and the sooner it is ended the better."

Selig S. Harrison
Published in the International Herald Tribune © 2002 the International Herald Tribune

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