Outside view: Afghanistan unraveled

By ROBERT L. MAGINNIS, A UPI Outside view commentary  |  Aug. 24, 2002 at 7:30 PM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 21 (UPI) -- On Aug. 19, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf warned the United States that its failure to establish control outside of Kabul has created conditions ripe for a resurgence of the Islamic militant network, al Qaida. War gains will be lost unless action is taken to stabilize Afghanistan. To do this, the peacekeeping force needs to be beefed up significantly.

A low-intensity guerrilla war continues to occupy 8,000 Americans in Afghanistan, but, according to Musharraf, since last winter U.S. effectiveness has declined. Pakistan's president says that Osama bin Laden's al Qaida terrorist network now is "running helter-skelter between" his country and Afghanistan.

Musharraf places the blame on Afghanistan's "Wild West" environment. The Texas-sized country is awash in deep, ancient tribal tensions. Moreover, warlordism reigns supreme in most areas. There is little legitimate economy. Raw opium continues to be the major export.

Meanwhile, the United States and its allies continue to invest considerable blood and treasure, trying, after decades of bitter tribal wars, to resuscitate Afghanistan. Since the war on terror began last October, for example, the United States has lost 40 soldiers to combat and non-combat accidents; another 340 have been wounded.

Since last fall, the United States has generously poured more than $500 million into rebuilding Afghanistan. Another $1.5 billion is in the pipeline. Other countries are making major investments in humanitarian support and infrastructure as well.

So far, the United States has rebuilt four hospitals and medical clinics, 38 schools, and it has dug 75 wells. The United States also has repaired numerous roads and bridges. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld points out that the Combined Joint Civil-Military Operations Task Force has completed 58 of 118 scheduled projects. Money and projects are not enough, however.

Musharraf contends the 5,000-strong International Security Assistance Force must push out from Kabul to seven key power centers, such as Herat in the west, Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, and Jalalabad in the east. Failing to wrestle the countryside back from tribalism and the rule of the Kalashnikov, explains Musharraf, spells defeat for the West. He should know; after all, he has lived with a troubled Afghanistan for decades.

Yes, the U.S. military is training Afghanistan's army, but that army will be little more than a palace guard for years to come. Moreover, the foundation for a successful and respected military institution is a government that transcends Afghanistan's history of division and creates a democratic national identity.

Yet Afghanistan's misery extends to its recently formed government. Last month, for example, Vice President Abdul Qadir was assassinated inside the capitol city. Even President Hamid Karzai has accepted U.S. soldiers for bodyguards rather than put his personal safety in the hands of personnel provided by his Minister of Defense, an ethnic rival.

Now, according to news reports, Karzai is about to empty Kabul's jail of enemy fighters captured during the war. This move likely will further destabilize the country -- not to mention the region and U.S. efforts to destroy the terrorist threat.

Most of the prisoners Karzai has promised to release are foreigners who pledge to continue their jihad against America. Karzai plans to release these "dangerous terrorists" back to their home governments for "appropriate action." Not surprisingly, most of these men come from Pakistan, a country already filled to the brim with terrorist groups and radical Islamists.

Realistically, given Pakistan's track record with the Taliban and al Qaida, the returned jihadists will enjoy a little rest and recuperation, rearm, and then march back across the porous border with Afghanistan to resume their evil deeds.

Thus, Musharraf's prophecy that regional conditions are ripe for a resurgence of al Qaida is, in part, self-fulfilling. Still, Musharraf must reckon with internal political forces disfavoring his alleged coziness with the West. He could use a little help from Hamid Karzai, but decisions, such as this one to empty Kabul jails of terrorist thugs, demonstrate that help is not forthcoming.

Unfortunately, granting terrorists their freedom to attack us again has become the sort of thing we expect from Afghanistan.

Recently, atrocities against prisoners under the supervision of Northern Alliance Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a key American ally, were alleged. Newsweek broke the story that up to 960 prisoners taken from battlefields near Konduz, in northern Afghanistan, were packed like sardines into unventilated shipping containers and sent to the prison camp at Sheberghan. Apparently, many of these men were asphyxiated and then secretly buried in mass graves.

Nic Robertson, reporting for CNN, acquired 250 al Qaida tapes that provide graphic, indeed disgusting evidence of al Qaida's experimentation with chemical agents. Once again Western intelligence agencies might have underestimated al Qaida -- and overestimated Afghanistan's stand-alone ability to extricate itself from its status as one of al Qaida's "most favored nations." It also begs the question: what else has been overlooked in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan won't be tamed in a year, or two. The United States will be in that country for, at minimum, a decade, with little hope the land will evolve into a safe place for families and commerce. That's why Musharraf's warning must be taken seriously. Absolutely more security is needed before Afghanistan can turn the corner from its chaotic past. The world community must provide that security, enough to stabilize every region of the country. Otherwise, Afghanistan is more than like to keep sliding back into the pit of terrorists from which it is so desperately trying to emerge.

-- Robert L. Maginnis is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who is a frequent analyst for television and radio networks. He is also a vice president for the Washington-based Family Research Council.

-- "Outside View" commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers who specialize in a variety of important global issues.

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