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By Wading Deeper Into Afghanistan, the U.S. Could Step Into a Big Hole
Published on Tuesday, August 13, 2002 in the Los Angeles Times
By Wading Deeper Into Afghanistan, the U.S. Could Step Into a Big Hole
by Amir Taheri

There is a joke from Kabul: Hamid Karzai, the interim head of state, signs a document and hands it to a man sitting across from him. "Here is the edict for your appointment to a senior position in my government. Now it's your turn to sign a document." The new appointee asks: "What is the document that I should sign?" Karzai replies: "Your last will and testament."

The joke may sound cynical, but it reflects the mood of anxiety in Afghanistan. During the last six months, at least a dozen senior officials have been killed, including a vice president, a Cabinet minister and a provincial governor. The ex-king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, and Defense Minister Mohammed Qassim Fahim have escaped assassination attempts.

In every case, Karzai's entourage, using leaks to the American media, has alleged that the killings were organized by unspecified factions within the governing coalition. Karzai is so distrustful that he replaced his Afghan bodyguards with 72 U.S. Marines in July.

Initially, the United States had been careful to minimize its involvement in Afghan politics. The U.S. plan was to destroy the terrorist organizations, kill or capture as many of the criminals as possible, organize some form of governmental authority and then leave. The task of leading an international stabilization force was assigned first to the British, then to the Turks; the United Nations was put in charge of the so-called nation-building efforts.

By those yardsticks, the U.S. achieved its objectives in June. The terror groups were smashed. A stabilization force was in place, and Karzai and his Cabinet filled the role of a national authority.

Now, however, there are signs that the U.S. may be abandoning its minimalist agenda in favor of a maximalist one that could trigger a civil war and drag the U.S. into Afghan factional bloodletting.

Judging by statements by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, U.S. action in Afghanistan is being transformed from a limited police operation into an open-ended empire-building scheme with geostrategic goals.

Under this plan, the U.S. would acquire a permanent military presence in Afghanistan and turn it into a base for projecting power in Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. A landlocked country larger than France, Afghanistan could serve as a terrestrial aircraft carrier for U.S. military facilities in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Afghanistan also could be used as a transit route for oil and gas pipelines from Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Central Asia via Pakistan and the Indian Ocean. Both Karzai and Khalilzad have worked as consultants for U.S. oil companies that have pushed for this scheme since 1996. A third Afghan involved, Ashref Ghani, is minister of finance in the Karzai Cabinet.

Some Afghans have identified Khalilzad and Ghani as the twin eminences-grises in Kabul, with Karzai just the front man. At times Khalilzad has stepped out of the shadows to show who is boss. Some Afghan officials report directly to the U.S. envoy or receive his instructions over the telephone.

In the days immediately after Sept. 11, the U.S. acknowledged that Afghanistan was a fragmented nation where numerous groups wielded power with a combination of violence and bribery. The U.S. was cautious not to side with groups that wanted to restore the monarchy in one form or another.

For a broader American agenda to succeed, a number of conditions would have to be met. Chief among these is the creation of an Afghan government capable of mobilizing public support for a long-term U.S. military presence. Such a government is also needed for the protection of the projected oil and gas pipelines along more than 700 kilometers of some of the most dangerous territory in the world.

The Khalilzad-Karzai-Ghani triumvirate hopes that its ethnic group--the Pushtuns--will dominate such a government. The problem is that the Pushtun community, which is 38% of the population, is the most fractured of all 18 ethnic groups in Afghanistan today. Further, it lacks the intellectual, bureaucratic and technical elements needed for building and running a modern centralized government.

Western and southwestern Afghanistan, where the pipelines would pass, are now controlled by Tajik forces and their Char-Aymaq, Baluch, Uzbek and Turkoman allies. A recent unsuccessful attempt by Pushtun forces to capture the air base at Shindand, seen as a future U.S. base, showed how tough it would be to change the balance of power among the factions.

The U.S. has thus far resisted pressure to become involved in the fighting on the side of the Pushtuns. But these things have a diabolical logic of their own. All empires have blundered their way into situations that they have subsequently regretted.

Since its creation as a state in the 18th century, Afghanistan has been a patchwork of ethnic and tribal communities with a nominal central government in Kabul. It has been a buffer separating rival neighboring empires. Afghanistan has always been an easy land to conquer but the hardest to hold. A newcomer to the region, the United States should not ignore those facts. It is, perhaps, time for the U.S., its initial mission accomplished, to take a deep breath and evaluate what really might happen if it stays in Afghanistan.

Amir Taheri is editor of Politique Internationale. E-mail:

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times


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