Much of Afghanistan remains a bleeding and bitter land
By MALCOLM GARCIA
The Kansas City Star
Sunday, March 2, 2003
An Afghan boy walks away with rations distributed by a U.S. civil affairs
combat patrol near Kandahar. In the Afghanistan beyond Kabul,
humanitarian aid organizations have retreated, despite the dire need for
assistance. Village leaders say promises of aid have not materialized.
DAVID SWANSON/Knight Ridder Tribune
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Ragged pieces of paper scrawled with angry
handwriting call for jihad against Westerners.
Afghan soldiers aligned with American forces are attacked with rockets or
roadside bombs almost daily.
Humanitarian aid organizations retreat, despite the dire need for
assistance. The roads are unsafe. Banditry is epidemic.
This is the Afghanistan beyond Kabul.
In the capital, reconstruction projects, Western-style restaurants and
traffic-choked streets give the impression of a country on the rebound.
But a day's drive south of Kabul, a different story unfolds. From
Kandahar, it is clear that much of Afghanistan remains a bleeding and
impoverished land, torn by ethnic and political strife.
More than a year after the overthrow of the Taliban, this city -- the
birthplace of the fanatically fundamentalist movement -- is seeing a rise
in violence and instability.
An international military coalition led by the U.S. Army holds the
country together. But recently the coalition has engaged in ongoing,
small, violent skirmishes with radical Muslim fighters who don't consider
the war over.
The frustrations lead some soldiers to make comparisons to the Vietnam
"Farmer by day, Taliban by night," one American soldier said, describing
the rural areas surrounding Kandahar.
It is a sobering lesson about the limits that face an outside power
trying to rebuild a fractured nation with a different culture.
And it suggests something of the monumental tasks the United States may
face in Iraq -- an equally diverse country -- if it throws out Saddam
`No end to this'
Should the U.S. attack Iraq, more violence is expected from
fundamentalists in Afghanistan, who would use the war as a rallying cry
against the West.
"If the U.S. attacks Iraq, southern Afghanistan will be very dangerous,"
said Abdullah Lali, a military commander in Kandahar. "Groups will
reorganize, saying that Islam is being attacked by the Americans."
Night letters -- routinely found posted on the doors of mosques -- are
becoming more strident. These leaflets once called the faithful to arms
against Soviet occupiers; now they denounce the West.
"We have started our jihad against the non-Muslims," one warned. "If you
interrupt (our) work and if you stop (us) from doing (our) work, your
punishment will be the same as that of the Americans and the men who work
Beyond Kabul, where an international security force keeps the peace, the
task of expanding the government's power falls to U.S. and coalition
About 10,000 American troops are in Afghanistan. A military spokesman
would not say how many were in and around Kandahar. The troops remain
close to their base about 30 miles outside the city. Romanian troops are
also assigned to the area.
After an almost yearlong lull in major fighting, rebel fighters attacked
U.S. soldiers clearing mines east of Kandahar. Deciding to root out
Taliban leaders in the area, U.S. commanders recently moved hundreds of
troops into the Baghran Valley to the northwest of Kandahar. They
expected heavy resistance, but have encountered none of the elusive
"There's no end to this," a soldier with the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne
Division complained as his platoon searched a village for weapons. "We
could spend another month down here easy and still not find anything. Is
there a method to this madness?"
"It's called hide-and-go-seek," said another soldier.
Kandahar's chief military officer, Khan Mohammad, expressed surprise at
the recent fighting:
"It is a guerrilla fight now. The enemy can't fight in groups. They will
attack us, create problems and escape. The enemy is not destroyed. It is
a big concern for us because we don't know how this kind of fighting will
Crime and unrest
In Washington last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai called his
nation's war against terrorism largely over, although with still "bits to
do." At another meeting, he conceded the recent surge in enemy activity
was "worrying to us."
The next day, two rockets found inside a bag exploded near government
offices in Kandahar before a bomb disposal squad could reach the site.
Most point to Taliban, al-Qaida or fighters loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar,
a rebel leader who returned from exile in Iran after the United States
helped install the new government in Kabul.
"It feels like the period after the Russians left," said Diane Johnson of
Mercy Corps, a humanitarian aid organization. "A lot of crime and civil
In the Kandahar region, a list of some of the events so far this year
• An Afghan Military Force water tanker was blown up, costing a soldier
• An associate of Ahmad Wali Karzai, President Karzai's brother, was
wounded by a gunman.
• An 82nd Airborne Division convoy was ambushed by men in three vehicles
who fired rocket-propelled grenades. There were no casualties.
• Two children were killed by a mine believed to have been left for their
father, a deputy police chief in Kandahar.
• A minibus was destroyed by a mine, leaving 18 dead.
• The French aid organization Action Against Hunger closed its Kandahar
office after one of the windows of its guesthouse was blown out in
• Five employees of an aid organization were robbed at gunpoint.
"Everything is on standby," said Olivier Franchi, the Action Against
Hunger coordinator. "We can accept some risk, but this is more than just
some risk. Some people tell us it's Taliban, some say local bandits. It's
Local farmers said they felt abandoned by such withdrawals.
"Once we saw aid workers, but not anymore," said Raz Mohammad. He did
not have seeds to plant wheat. "Where are they? They made promises and
now we are angry about it. It's the same as when the Russians left. Are
But he acknowledged the lack of security forces.
"Maybe you see two or three police trucks come by once a week. That
doesn't make much security. But we still need help."
In a recent visit to Mola Kochi, a village about 15 miles north of
Kandahar, Capt. Kit Parker and 27 soldiers distributed blankets and
almost 500 ready-to-eat meals. They urged village leader Abdul Rahman to
notify coalition forces if he saw armed men in the area.
But Rahman was more concerned about the lack of food for his people than
providing intelligence. He complained that many foreigners passed by with
promises of aid that he said never materialized.
"It's easy to tear things down," Parker responded. "It's harder to build
things up. You're going to have to be patient with us, with the central
Karzai told U.S. senators last week about the progress made by his
country, including the 2 million refugees back from Pakistan or Iran, and
the 3 million children now enrolled in schools.
But the American lawmakers pushed for a less-glossy look, and Karzai
noted that some areas had seen little rebuilding, and the new Afghan
National Army was not yet the stabilizing force many had hoped for.
"The central government is very weak and can't unite the country because
it can't obtain the financial support from the international community,"
said Abdul Razak, director of commerce in Kandahar.
A presidential election in Afghanistan is planned for 2004. But without
the cooperation of warlords and the clout of outside aid, a new
government may be no stronger than Karzai's.
"If held properly and fairly under U.N. supervision, the new government
will have much more influence in the provinces," said Fayez Sherief,
minister of higher education.
Such sentiments don't take into account the anger and cynicism of the
predominantly Pashtun south toward elections after last summer's grand
council. Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, has been criticized by other Pashtun
leaders who complain that his Cabinet, dominated by ethnic Tajiks, does
not represent them adequately.
Gone is what Johnson of Mercy Corps called the "post-Taliban euphoria."
In its place, she said, "there's a general destabilization."
The failure of the United States and other donor nations to disburse
significant amounts of $4.5 billion in aid pledged last year suggests a
reluctance to commit such a vast sum when the country remains unstable.
"Much of money goes into projects which won't have long-term results for
Afghanistan," said Maki Shinohara, the spokeswoman for the U.N. High
Commission for Refugees. "Rebuilding infrastructure should be a
Much of the aid that has been received has gone to projects of
nongovernment organizations. One exception is the push to rebuild the
"Ring Road," with Washington spending $180 million on two key sections
running from Kabul to Kandahar, and then on to Herat to the northwest.
But even that project has not started in Kandahar.
"If the United States Congress were to ask, `What does Afghanistan cost
us and what have we achieved?' the answer would have to be, `Not much,' "
said a Western diplomat who asked not to be identified.
"Governments want to see something is moving. For this, (Karzai) needs
money and power. For that, he needs an army."
Money and military
But Karzai also needs money for his army. Because he cannot use the
international aid for soldiers' pay, he is dependent on warlords turning
over tax revenue collected in their regions.
The warlords instead use the money to finance their own armies and
maintain their power.
As a result, two Afghan armies coexist today -- the Afghan National Army
being trained by the United States, and the Afghan Military Force, a
loosely knit group of militiamen that united to fight against the
Taliban, but who remain loyal to individual warlords.
For every trained soldier in the national army, there are about 100 armed
men in local militias throughout the country. The United States faces a
daunting task if it hopes to meet its goal of establishing a powerful
Afghan army by 2004.
A recent policy brief by CARE International found that about 3,000
recruits for the Afghan National Army have been trained. Few, however,
have been paid. Those who have earn about $50 a month.
To date, about half have deserted because of tensions between ethnic
groups, low pay and poor housing.
The Karzai government tries to recruit members of the Afghan Military
Force for the national army, but warlords hold onto their men by
providing steady salaries, good housing and prestige, the report found.
Mohammad, Kandahar's chief military officer, said he spent his own money
to pay the 15,000 soldiers stationed in Kandahar about $120 a month. He
charges convoys passing through his area a regional tax to support the
army. He would not say how much the tax was.
"Of course, the soldiers are loyal to me," Mohammad said. "They are here
because of me....I'm a tribal leader. They have expectations of me. They
have none of the central government. If the central government doesn't
pay, why should they?"
The sight of American paratroopers with their modern vehicles, uniforms
and weapons increases the distance Afghan soldiers -- often equipped only
with 20-year-old Russian rifles -- feel toward the Western-backed central
"We are very jealous," said Abdul Ghafar, a military commander loyal to
"Why can't Karzai get us these things from the Americans? Khan Mohammad
is our friend....They can't make us be soldiers if they can't pay us. And
they can't make us be soldiers if they don't pay us as much as Khan
Mohammad said: "I do my best to keep our areas under control. But if I
run out of money and can't pay the soldiers, a day will come when I won't
have any more control than the government."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.