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Guess Who's Back

Security Situation Deteriorates As Taliban Regroup
Afghan security deteriorates as Taliban regroup

Anthony Davis

After a winter punctuated by scattered attacks, March and April saw the closest to a co-ordinated offensive the anti-Kabul opposition has yet achieved. This left no doubt that the predominantly Pashtun forces aligned against the western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai had used the winter to regroup, train and achieve a far greater degree of organisational cohesion than was evident in 2002. An ad hoc alliance comprising Taliban remnants, the Hizb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) faction of former mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and groups of Al-Qaeda stragglers now appears increasingly to be co-ordinating its command structures and support and logistics networks.

Politically, the opposition has displayed a new confidence and political assertiveness in recent months with various leaders publicly enunciating their goal of expelling western forces. In January, Hekmatyar vowed Afghan "mujahideen" would "force America out of their country like the Soviet Union" while in February, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar used the Pakistani press to renew his call for anti-Western jihad. Then in late March in an interview with BBC radio, the day after the murder of a foreign aid worker, senior Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah promised to step up the fight against "Jews, Christians, [and] all foreign crusaders", warning Afghan government officials at all levels "not to stand behind the puppet and slave regime."

Rocket attacks have gained both in frequency and intensity. Whereas last year one or two missiles was the norm, salvos are now being fired. There have also been barrages of mortar fire.

Rocket attacks targeted US bases in the provinces of Kunar, Nangahar, Paktia, Khost, Paktika, Kandahar and Uruzgan. On 29 March, two US military personnel, a Special Forces soldier and a National Guard airman, were killed in an ambush near Girishk in Helmand province. The following evening, the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in central Kabul was hit by a 122mm rocket, while another missile landed near the Kabul Military Training Centre on the eastern edge of the city.

At the same time, the opposition has displayed greater aggressiveness both in attacking US Special Forces beyond their bases, and in concentrating larger numbers of fighters. The planting of mines on roads used by US patrols, which was begun last year, continues; but is now being reinforced with close-in ambushes. The Girishk ambush has been the only one to result in Coalition fatalities this year, but on 10 February a US patrol was attacked in the Baghran valley of upper Helmand province, by assailants using rocket propelled grenades and machine guns. Other ambushes have occurred near Asadabad in eastern Kunar and near Shkin, a well-known blackspot on the border of Paktika province with Pakistan.

Attacks on the Coalition's Afghan allies - which Taliban remnants had earlier specifically refrained from - have also gathered pace this year. Such assaults have occurred repeatedly against posts near Spin Buldak, the border settlement on the highway between Kandahar and Pakistan. The largest operation undertaken by former Taliban forces appears to have been in northwest Badghis an ethnically mixed province where Taliban leaders have successfully appealed to the fears of the Pashtun minority. An operation in late March involving up to 400 fighters and apparently timed to coincide with attacks in the south, triggered several days of fighting.

No less worrying has been the opposition's deliberate targeting of foreign aid workers and intimidation of Afghans working with foreign organisations. This new tactic was brutally highlighted by the murder of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) engineer Ricardo Munguia in Shah Wali Kot district, Kandahar province, on 27 March. Munguia was shot execution-style in front of his Afghan co-workers at a roadblock, after his captors had used a satellite phone to request instructions as to his fate; the Afghans were freed. This was the first incident involving the killing of a foreign aid worker in five years. But attacks on Afghans working with westerners have been rising: in November a veterinarian working for the US-based Mercy Corps was shot dead in the same district as Munguia. On 26 January an ambush of a UN convoy on the Jalalabad-Kabul road killed two Afghan security men. The same day grenades were thrown at a UN compound in northern Mazar-i-Sharif and the building of a French charity in Kandahar, although there were no casualties in either attack. More recently, on 16 April, another grenade was thrown at a UNICEF office in eastern Jalalabad. Anonymous leaflets known as 'shabnama' (night letters) warning Afghans that they should cease working with foreign organisations or face death are circulating.

Munguia's murder has badly shaken the confidence of the international aid community. The weeks following his death saw a sharp reduction or halting of field operations in the south by the UN, the Red Cross and other non- governmental organisations. Many staff have been withdrawn to Kabul. But as all sides are well aware, any significant reduction of aid and development programmes in a chronically poor part of the country threatens to trigger a vicious downward spiral of growing Pashtun disaffection from Kabul, accelerated opposition recruitment, and a further deterioration of security.

The perceived domination of Kabul's most powerful ministries by the Tajiks of the former Northern Alliance remains an abiding source of resentment. Afghanistan's largest ethnic community, the Pashtuns, have tended traditionally to view themselves as Afghanistan's natural rulers, a perception the post-Taliban dispensation in Kabul has directly challenged. Moves to induct more Pashtuns into senior positions in the Defence and Interior Ministries have done little to alleviate these concerns.

A more serious concern is the failure to move more swiftly on high- visibility reconstruction programmes that would alleviate unemployment, stimulate local economies and demonstrate Kabul's fiscal reach. In most of the south, frustrations over disappointed economic expectations are arguably more corrosive than concerns over imbalances in the division of power in Kabul.

Efforts to check the destabilisation of the south comes as Karzai prepares to negotiate another daunting security challenge - the disarming, demobilisation and reintegration of up to 150,000-200,000 militia fighters who for years have provided regional warlords with their muscle. The first steps to tackle this problem are due to begin in July when the government, in conjunction with the UN Development Programme, will attempt to demobilise 100,000 fighters over a three-year period. Initial tranches of funding for the Afghanistan's New Beginnings Programme (ANBP) budgeted at US$127m, have already been pledged by Japan and, to a lesser extent, the UK and Canada.

Militiamen participating in the ANBP will choose between enrolling in vocational training for new jobs in the civilian economy, or joining the Afghan National Army (ANA) and receiving military retraining. The disarming, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process, it is hoped, will provide a powerful boost to the painfully slow expansion of the ANA. Since training by US and French instructors began at the Kabul Military Training Centre in April 2002, the army has expanded to seven battalions of slightly less than 3,000 troops. These battalions have been organised into two infantry brigades of a projected three brigade-strong Central Corps based on Kabul. While the ANA has conducted company-level training operations in co-operation with US forces in various areas, it has little independent operational capability.

The DDR process is unlikely to be a smooth one. Much will depend on economic development providing alternative employment, and that in turn will hinge on stability and security. It is also clear that the process will be nowhere near complete by the time of national elections scheduled for June 2004, permitting regional warlords to influence the electoral process.