The Guardian April 21, 2004

Afghanistan: US legacy of chaos lives on

Marilyn Bechtel

The recent power struggle that erupted in northern Afghanistan 
illustrates the chaos ravaging the country two and a half years 
after US troops invaded, ostensibly chasing Osama Bin Laden.

On April 8, the north's dominant warlord, General Abdul Rashid 
Dostum, drove a neighbouring rival warlord and a provincial 
governor appointed by interim president Hamid Karzai out of 
Maimana, capital of Faryab province. This forced the US-installed 
Karzai to send 750 soldiers from his newly formed Afghan National 
Army (ANA) to the area, together with their US trainers.

Though Dostum's forces left Maimana two days later, at last word 
they were still in control in Faryab province. In recent days 
Dostum also clashed with the militia of another rival, Ustad Atta 
Mohammad, near Dostum's stronghold, Mazar-e-Sharif. Though Dostum 
is nominally Karzai's representative in the region, he was 
reluctant to accept the formation of a central government headed 
by Karzai, and remains a major rival.

In March, Ismail Khan, the west's dominant warlord and the 
governor of Herat, drove a pro-government commander out of the 
province, forcing Karzai to send 1000 ANA troops to the area.

Such clashes, combined with the ongoing attacks by the Taliban, 
al-Qaida and the forces of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in eastern and 
southern Afghanistan, have forced the postponement of elections 
initially slated for June. In fact, many international observers 
consider most areas outside the capital city, Kabul, to be highly 
unstable. They liken the situation to the civil war that raged in 
the 1990s after the defeat of the national democratic People's 
Democratic Party (PDPA) government of President Najibullah.

The United Nations has said that for the elections to be 
credible, at least 70 percent of the country's 10.5 million 
eligible voters should be registered. But by early April only 
about 15 percent of this goal had been reached.

With national elections now rescheduled for September, the 
government said last week that it would pursue its previously 
announced plan to disarm 40 percent of the estimated 100,000 
fighters serving in private militias organised by warlords like 
Dostum and Khan.

"We believe that the main reason for the remaining problems is 
the presence of militias and the issue of warlordism", government 
spokesperson Jawed Ludin told journalists. But most commentators 
believe the government will pull its punches rather than risk too 
open a conflict.

The various warlord factions can trace their origins to the 
private mujahedin militias created and armed by the CIA during 
its long campaign against the Najibullah government. Their 
leaders have spent the last two years rebuilding their holdings 
in competition with the central government.

Dostum has an even more interesting history: he was once a key 
commander in Najibullah's army, and many believe his defection to 
the mujahedin marked the turning point in the destruction of 
Afghanistan's fledgling people's government.

Another profoundly destabilising factor is the dominance of the 
opium trade in Afghanistan's economy. The opium poppies, which 
have long funded the warlords, Gulbuddin's gang in eastern 
Afghanistan, the Taliban and probably al-Qaida, are in full bloom 
again. Last year the drug trade made up over half of the 
country's national income, with the opium grown in 28 of the 
country's 32 provinces making up 75 percent of the world's 
production. Experts expect land under poppy cultivation to 
increase by 30 percent this year.

Karzai has warned that opium is "undermining the very existence 
of the Afghan state", and has declared an all-out campaign 
against it. But many desperately poor small farmers turn to the 
crop because it pays far more than anything else they could grow. 
Again, in view of the pre-election political turmoil, the 
government is expected to pull its punches.

Last week The New York Times quoted Uganda-born political 
scientist Mahmood Mamdani, who says present-day terrorism 
originated in US Cold War foreign policy. After the Vietnam War, 
Mamdani contends, the US shifted from direct intervention against 
the socialist world to supporting low-level insurgency by private 

"In practice", Mamdani has written, "it translated into a United 
States decision to harness, or even to cultivate, terrorism in 
the struggle against regimes it considered pro-Soviet." Noting 
that the best known CIA-trained terrorist is Osama bin Laden, 
Mamdani added, "The real damage the CIA did was not the providing 
of arms and money, but the privatisation of information about how 
to produce and spread violence  the formation of private 
militias  capable of creating terror."

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People's Weekly World, Communist Party, USA

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