Rumsfeld and Interim Afghan Defense Minister Fahim – at Odds

US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the first senior US official to visit Afghanistan, inspected US troops at Bagram airfield Sunday, December 16 and met the country’s first post-Taliban interim prime minister Hamid Karzai, who is due to take office next Saturday. Celebrated too was the reopening of the US embassy after it was shut for 12 years.
But Rumsfeld’s most important business was with the interim Afghan defense minister Mohammed Fahim. As defense minister and chief of staff of the Northern Alliance, Fahim led the US-supported rout of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan. He then marched at the head of his troops into Kabul against Washington’s wishes.
One of the main subjects of their discussion, according to debkafile‘s military sources, was the creation of a “sterile” military buffer zone along Afghanistan’s frontiers with Uzbkistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. These Central Asian neighbors fear incursions by al Qaeda combatants and the spillover of Islamic terror into their countries. Uzbek president Islam Karimov is so worried that the FriendshipBridge linking the two countries has been closed most of the time since it was ceremonially opened ten days ago for the overland passage of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Rumsfeld proposed Afghan units would patrol such a zone – with or without outside aid, and its evacuation of civilian inhabitants.
The conversation between US defense secretary and the interim Afghan defense minister is described by sources in Kabul as correct and direct, but neither warm nor conclusive. According to those sources, they differed chiefly on three points:
A. Fahim views the war as over; Rumsfeld is doubts this strongly. Contrary to American wishes for local forces to chase the estimated 2000 escaped al Qaeda fighters, the Afghan minister made it clear that the Northern and Eastern Alliances had done with fighting at this stage, unless the Taliban return to threaten Afghan towns. Rumsfeid, who heard this from Karzai too, argued that Taliban pockets and knots of al Qaeda fighters still hold ground in parts of the country and could well mount forays against towns and main highways.
B. Fahim objects to a foreign troop presence. If it cannot be avoided because of Washington’s coalition considerations in the world war on terror, that presence must be kept down to hundreds and restricted to Kabul. Their prime mission must be to secure the interim government and the ruling bodies in Kabul. They must keep a low profile – on the successful model of the US units in the country. Large foreign contingents outside the capital would, he stressed, diminish the central government’s authority in the provinces and draw the vestigial Taliban army into a counter-offensive.
debkafile‘s military sources list some of reasoning behind General Fahim’s arguments, which leave the scheme to move an international security force of several thousand into Kabul next week, very much up in the air.
Afghanistan already has a large foreign troop presence – roughly 7,500 Russian troops. Around half, in Russian Emergency Situations uniforms, are posted in Kabul. The rest are deployed with Northern Alliance forces in northern and central Afghanistan, alongside some 6,000 Uzbek and Tajik special forces troops. They are commanded by Russian officers attached to the elite Russian 201st Division, the backbone of Moscow’s counter-terror formations in Central Asia.
In addition, some 3,000 US Special Forces and Marines are scattered round four key sectors – the Kandahar-Jalalabad sector, where they carried out intelligence and liaison missions in the fighting; Tora Bora and the Pakistan frontier passes; the Kabul area and Bagram air base – 500 US servicemen in all; Mazar-e-Sharif and Konduz in the north; and around Herat and Saranj, in the south. Still in the country too, are the far smaller British, French, German and Iranian contingents.
The Afghan minister explained firmly to Rumsfeld that no further foreign troop increments were required.
C. He particularly stressed the North Alliance leaders’ oft-repeated objections to British troops coming to Kabul. Russian influence is discerned here. Moscow wants to see only two dominant forces in the country – American and Russian.
Perhaps the touchiest point in the conversation, debkafile‘s military sources report, was the vanishing trick performed by Taliban and al Qaeda leaders, notably Muhammed Omar and Osama bin Laden. Rumsfeld wants local forces to continue the hunt; Fahim claimed that Northern Alliance intelligence has concluded that a pursuit across the peaks of eastern and southern Afghanistan would be futile. In any case, they may not be there. Even if some are hiding up in those mountains, they cannot hold out for long in the grim winter conditions prevailing there.
Clearly, neither US nor Northern Alliance intelligence services have any clue of their whereabouts at this time.

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