Unfinished American Business in Afghanistan

With pledges for US$4.5 billion under his belt from the Tokyo conference of Afghanistan donor-nations, interim Afghan prime minister Hamid Karzai set out for Washington Saturday, January 26, for his first encounter with US President George W. Bush.
The sum raised for the reconstruction of war-torn Afghanistan will be spread over five years, with the first $1.8 billion installment promised in the first year. Japan and Iran, each putting down half a billion dollars, are the largest contributors. The American contribution is a modest $290 million, considering the amounts it laid out for the war and for maintaining a US troop presence in Afghanistan.
During Karzai’s stopover in Beijing, he was promised Chinese aid too. The Afghan leader stresses that the aid is urgent, as Afghans are dying every day from hunger and cold.
However his order of the day in the White House will not be topped by famine, poverty and reconstruction, but two other pressing items. One is the uniquely Afghani national council called loya jirga, at which tribal elders – Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks, Sunnis and Shiites – come together to decide national issues. Karzai will be summoning this grand council to determine the composition of the permanent government to take over from his own interim administration in Kabul at the end of six months.
Another burning item is the continuing war.
American spokesmen, while stressing that Afghanistan is liberated from the hard-line Taliban regime and is no longer a safe base for al Qaeda – therefore attaining the war’s chief objectives – know perfectly well that the Afghan War is far from over. US warplanes have gone back to bombardments over south Afghanistan and the Afghan-Pakistan border districts and US special forces are carrying out search and destroy raids against strong Taliban pockets north of Kandahar and south of Hazar Qadam, with occasional hand-to-hand combat against large Taliban units.
TheTimes of London reported Saturday, January 26, that a 5,000 strong army of Taliban soldiers, equipped with 450 tanks, armored carriers and pick-up trucks, has regrouped among villages in the mountainous region of Ghazni province, northwest of Kandahar. Able to flit rapidly among the civilian population, the American forces are finding it hard to locate and destroy this army.
debkafile‘s military sources report that powerful Taliban units have gone to ground in other parts of Afghanistan too – some with tanks and short-range rockets and medium-range anti-air weapons; one is the Hindu Kush range near the northern town of Jalalabad, controlling sections of the Kabul-Kandahar highway, especially between Ghazni and Moqor; another is Kandahar province and city; and a third is the central provinces of Zabul and Uruzgan. US and Afghan intelligence estimates the total Taliban force still out in the field as more than 20,000 men.
A further complication is the infiltration of 5,000 to 6,000 Taliban fighters into the ranks of the militias mustered by the various tribal leaders, including Karzai’s own force. Like all new recruits, they are outfitted with weapons, uniforms and pay by American or Russian paymasters.
All in all, almost half the Taliban army may be judged fit to return to combat. Its scattered units can be rallied on command to pose a serious menace to the regime in Kabul.
Karzai’s consultations with President Bush, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, General Richard Myers, will discuss ways out of this quandary.
debkafile‘s military experts, analyzing the strategic map of Afghanistan and the deployment of its armies, size up the picture as follows: North Afghanistan in the environs of Mazar-e-Sharif and Konduz is controlled by the militia of deputy defense minister General Rashid Dostum, as well as Russian, Tajik and Uzbek special forces. Present too are Americans, French and German troops.
The Iran-backed Shiite governor, Ismail Khan rules the southwest town of Herat. Otherwise, southern and central Afghanistan are being rapidly infiltrated by intelligence agents of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who are going from warlord to warlord, offering generous sums of money and weapons for defying the Karzai government in Kabul.
According to one intelligence source, the Iranians have established a clandestine network so dense that their command of this sector is unchallenged.
The bulk of the 3,000-man US force in the country operates out of two centers: Kabul plus the central Bagram air base and Kandahar international airport in the east. To extend their reach, the Americans are negotiating the lease of a large tract of land in the west Pakistani province of Baluchistan, between Dalbandin and Pasni, for the establishment of a large military and air base and a non-fly zone.
Pakistan has not yet agreed. If established, this base would enable US warplanes to strike recovered Taliban positions in Afghanistan. American tacticians also believe that a large US base in the heart of Pakistan would deter India from any war plans.
As it stands at the moment, the American military force in Afghanistan is too small to take on the Taliban units still at large, or control the spread of other foreign units through the country.
Washington is only now facing up to the fact that most of the al Qaeda army of 5000 to 6000 fighters managed to slip out of Afghanistan and Pakistan ahead of capture. For weeks, no al Qaeda signals have been picked up around Kahandar or Tora Bora. General Tommy Franks, head of the US Central Command, said Saturday, January 26, that an intense intelligence effort has been mounted in Afghanistan and Pakistan to track Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and Dr. Ayman Zuheiri. The pursuit would go on, he promised.
According to debkafile‘s intelligence and counter-terror sources, the crash intelligence operation has come too late. Most of the al Qaeda escapees have reached the Middle East safely and regrouped in bases around the Arab world – from Lebanon and Syria in the north to Saudi Arabia and Yemen in the south. Their lost Afghan haven has been replaced.
The Bush administration therefore faces a double predicament: its campaign against the Taliban is unfinished, while its war against al Qaeda is just beginning.

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