Afghanistan Starting to Look Like Iraq

The growing instability in Afghanistan – a country under virtual military occupation by U.S. and other western forces – has been overshadowed by news of the escalating violence, torture and killings in U.S.-administered Iraq.

But analysts who closely monitor the region say security in Afghanistan remains “tenuous” and “has shown no signs of improvement.” And they predict the explosive situation there might soon turn out to be as bad as Iraq – but on a smaller scale.

The similarities are striking. As in Iraq, insurgents in Afghanistan have not only been attacking the multinational military force but also local police and foreign aid workers.

The Pentagon, responding to charges of torture by US soldiers, said Wednesday that at least 25 prisoners have died in US custody, in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

But unlike Iraq, the potential destabilization of Afghanistan has taken added momentum following last week’s announcement of possible US troop withdrawals from the politically troubled country.

During a visit to the Afghan capital Kabul, General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, hinted that Washington might gradually reduce its 15,500 troops immediately after nationwide elections scheduled for September.

Any such action, say Afghan analysts, would be a recipe for political and military disaster.

“If the United States cuts the number of troops after the Afghan elections, it would be the clearest confirmation of what many have feared – that the US main interest in Afghanistan is not stabilizing the country or improving people’s lives, but getting Hamid Karzai elected president and making Afghanistan look like a ‘war on terror’ success in time for US (presidential) elections in November,” says James Ingalls of the California Institute of Technology.

Ingalls, a founding director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, also remains skeptical about the ability of the Karzai government to hold “fair and free elections,” postponed till September from the original June timetable.

“The U.S.-backed warlords continue to control parts of the country with impunity,” he told IPS. “If allowed to participate in the political process, they will likely bully and buy their way into parliamentary positions, as they have in the past.”

“Those who don’t get their way will resort to force. They have little incentive to do otherwise,” he added.

“At best,” Ingalls predicted, “the elections will be meaningless because the people have no real choices – who are Karzai’s challenger(s)? – at worst, the elections could spark a new civil war.”

Mark Sedra, a research associate at the Bonn International Center for Conversion, where he leads a project that monitors and analyses security in Afghanistan, is equally pessimistic about the future.

“A significant reduction of US troops in Afghanistan would send a very negative signal to the Afghan people,” Sedra told IPS.

“It would fuel the growing perception among Afghans that the United States and the international community are once again turning their backs on the country – as they did after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union,” he added.

The Soviets, who militarily occupied Afghanistan for over a decade, pulled out in 1989. The Taliban government that followed was ousted by US military forces in late 2001. Washington then installed Karzai, described by many as a US puppet, as the new president.

While insurgent groups such as the Taliban are not in a position to overthrow the central government, says Sedra, they still pose a potent security risk.

“By focusing their attacks on ‘soft targets’ such as aid workers and Afghan government employees, they have effectively halted development work in approximately one-third of the country,” added Sedra, who recently returned from Afghanistan where he managed, on behalf of the United Nations, the security section of the Afghan government study tabled at last month’s donor conference in Berlin.

Reconstruction of war-battered Iraq has come to a complete standstill because of the security situation. Both the World Bank and the United Nations, along with major humanitarian aid groups, have withdrawn all of their international staff because of security fears.

Since the killing of a U.N. aid worker in Afghanistan last November, most international staff working for more than 30 UN agencies have been withdrawn from southern and eastern Afghanistan. As a result, the United Nations has also suspended aid to refugees returning from neighboring Pakistan.

Jean Arnault, the UN special representative in the country, said he was “shocked” by last week’s “brutal slayings” of two local aid workers in the southern city of Kandahar. The two worked for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, an international aid organization.

“This and other recent attacks in Kandahar urgently point towards the need to make more forces available to the provincial authorities in order to enable them to uphold the law and facilitate the expansion of reconstruction,” Arnault told reporters last week.

The Taliban, warlordism and the booming opium trade are other current threats to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, according to Sedra.

“The US military presence in the country, while limited compared to Iraq, serves as a powerful deterrent to the outbreak of major hostilities, whether perpetrated by the Taliban or a regional warlord,” he added.

The US military also provides vital support to the multinational International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which is in the process of expanding outside Kabul.

“The timing of the potential troop reduction, however, is also disconcerting, for if elections do take place in September, the period immediately following will likely be extremely tense,” pointed out Sedra.

“It is in the immediate aftermath of the polls that we will see whether the country’s major powerbrokers will accept its result.”

“The withdrawal of even a small number of troops would provide a psychological boost to insurgent groups and terrorists; embolden regional warlords to challenge the central government; and encourage interference in the country’s affairs by regional actors, notably Pakistan and Iran.” he added.

After his return from Kabul last January, UN Special Representative to Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi said that despite a heavy western military presence and a two-year-old U.S.-backed government in Kabul, Afghanistan was reduced to a country with no rule of law.

He implicitly criticized the government, the police, the army, the international community and the 4,500-strong ISAF for their failure to resolve the problem of insecurity.

“There is of course, what we see in our press, what we hear about on the radio, what we see on television about bombs that blow up here and there, about rockets that fall here and there,” he said.

“But there is (also) the insecurity we don’t see in the press: the fear that is in the heart of practically every Afghan because there is no rule of law yet in this country,” he added.

Author: Thalif Deen

Thalif Deen writes for Inter Press Service.