U.S. Planes Bomb Afghan Hideouts; U.S. Eyes Iraq
By Tom Heneghan and Saul Hudson
KABUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. warplanes pounded suspected al Qaeda and Taliban hideouts in eastern Afghanistan (news - web sites) Sunday even as the United States looked farther afield in its war on terrorism.
With the government in Kabul pleading for $45 billion to resurrect its devastated land, a senior Defense Ministry official said the government would keep about 1,500 troops in the capital Kabul after it had cleared the city of thousands of armed men in agreement with international peacekeepers.
Oceans away, the first 20 captives shipped out of the war settled into a routine, sleeping and praying in their outdoor, cage-like cells at the Guantanamo U.S. Navy (news - web sites) base on Cuba as they waited for interrogation and possible trial.
As the U.S. military hunted bin Laden and ousted Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, a top U.S. diplomat said the world's superpower was maintaining the option of opening a new front -- against long-standing enemy Iraq.
After a night of raids, U.S. warplanes Sunday bombed cave complexes in the Zhawar area, 30 km (19 miles) southwest of Khost, the private Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) said.
The bombers have hit the area hard for several days but Sunday was the first time they had flown by day, AIP said.
The U.S aircraft appeared to be dropping very large bombs. Residents of the Pakistani town of Bannu, 50 miles away from Zhawar, said they could hear the rumble of distant explosions and feel the ground shake.
The bombers were preparing the way for U.S. ground patrols to search the caves and tunnels for fugitives, the Pakistan-based AIP said.
The Zhawar area houses cave complexes and training centers dating from Afghanistan's war against the Soviets in the 1980s.
Osama bin Laden (news - web sites)'s al Qaeda network ran a guerrilla training base in the Zhawar area and al Qaeda fighters were believed to have recently regrouped there after weeks of military defeats.
HOPE FOR HELP
Afghanistan's interim government, grappling to pacify a country awash with guns, bandits and feuding tribal chiefs, continued its push to disarm various factions and declare the capital Kabul weapons-free.
But a senior defense official, Saleh Mohammad Regestani, said it would keep 1,500 troops in the city, despite a recent order for all armed men to get out.
``The 1,500 soldiers will remain until police take full control,'' Regestani told Reuters Television. ``If an armed group or criminal group creates an accident or commits a terrorist act or murder, we have to be prepared to face it.''
The troops will be confined to bases around the city and not allowed to roam the streets with their weapons, as has been the case since the Northern Alliance captured the city from the fundamentalist Taliban in November.
U.S. Senator Joseph Biden, on a visit to Kabul, said Western nations should release frozen Taliban assets now to provide the government with about $100 million for its six-month term.
Looking farther ahead, Planning Minister Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq said Afghanistan needed $45 billion in aid over 10 years to open schools, improve food supplies and re-establish healthcare after 23 years of war.
He said the figure -- at least triple the sums that have been previously discussed -- would be presented to a donor conference on January 21-22 in Tokyo.
It would represent about $1,800 for each of the estimated 25 million people in the country, one of the world's poorest.
Donor countries preparing to pledge aid at the Tokyo meeting appeared wary of committing such a large amount.
``We need to see the basis for these figures,'' European Union (news - web sites) spokesman Gunnar Wiegand said Sunday in Brussels. The EU has aimed to raise $9 billion for the next five years.
Afghans in the south rejoiced Sunday as heavy broke a four-year drought that has turned rich soil to desert.
``We are happy we have peace and now we're happy because we can try to revive what's left of our agriculture,'' said Shafiq Ullah, a Foreign Ministry representative in Kandahar. ``Eighty percent of our farm production has been lost in the drought.''
EYES ON IRAQ
The British Foreign Ministry said a Briton was among 20 al Qaeda and Taliban captives who were transported to Cuba on Friday after being identified as the most dangerous of the more than 400 prisoners held by U.S. troops.
The men were captured in a U.S.-led military campaign which swept away the Taliban rulers in retribution for harboring bin Laden -- the suspected mastermind of the September 11 attacks on the United States that killed more than 3,000 people.
While bin Laden's whereabouts were unknown, another foe, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (news - web sites), suspecting of developing weapons of mass destruction, was in Washington's sights.
Asked about the possibility of military action against Iraq, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns said President Bush (news - web sites) and Secretary of State Colin Powell (news - web sites) had made clear no decision had been made, ``but they have also made clear that all options are available.''
Bush has said Hussein will ``find out'' the consequences if he did not readmit U.N. inspectors seeking to stop Iraq developing weapons of mass destruction. But Burns said for now the administration was concentrating on Afghanistan.
Rain has been falling in many parts of Afghanistan, encouraging farmers to hope that the three-year drought may be ending.
The capital, Kabul, is enjoying only the second period of sustained rainfall this winter, with Kandahar, Herat, Bamyan and Chaghcharan also seeing rain or snow.
The thirsty trees and vines are rejoicing and so are we
Farmer Shah Wali
The BBC's Kate Clark in Kabul says that residents are delighted, and hope that yields from the country's crippled agriculture may be boosted.
But for aid agencies, rain and snow could bring problems with distribution of food and other supplies.
People haven't needed umbrellas for some time
Planes have been grounded and the Red Cross said that road access to valleys above Chaghcharan was blocked.
If the snow settles, it could increase misery for refugees trying to survive in tents and makeshift shelters.
But many of those refugees have left their homes because they have been unable to grow crops, so an end to the drought should improve their prospects in the longer term.
A Foreign Ministry official in Kandahar said that 80% of agricultural production had been lost because of the drought.
The current dry spell is the worst for three decades.
Kabul is still waiting for its first winter snows
"We are happy we have peace and now we're happy because we can try to revive what's left of our agriculture," said Shafiq Ullah, a Foreign Ministry representative.
Light showers fell in December in southern Afghanistan, but this is the first sustained precipitation in the area.
"The thirsty trees and vines are rejoicing and so are we," said Shah Wali, a farmer north of Kandahar, in a region once famed for its grapes and pomegranates.
In the north of the country, the rain was falling as snow, and Kabul may see its first overnight snowfall on Sunday.
"It's better for Kabul to be without gold than without snow," said one taxi driver in the city, citing an old saying.
If there is snow on the ground on Monday morning, it will be a festival day with tricks and games played in the street to mark the first snowfall of winter.
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- Mohammed chose a muddy red taxi at the border, trying to look inconspicuous for the drive back to Kandahar. He set the satellite telephone on the back seat, under a pile of clothes and a box of cookies.
It was early October, as the United States was on the threshold of a massive bombing campaign against the Taliban militia that ruled Afghanistan. The Taliban -- glowering men in black turbans -- controlled the border crossing, the checkpoints and the jails -- which a spy would count himself fortunate to reach if captured.
On the radio, Taliban leader Mohammad Omar warned Afghans not to pass information to the Americans that could help steer bombs toward the hide-outs of the radical Islamic militia. If caught, Omar vowed, the spies' houses would be burned to the ground.
"This," said Mohammed, looking back on his harrowing weeks as a spotter for U.S. airstrikes, "was dangerous work."
The Afghan war was fought on many fronts. But few efforts were more clandestine and risky than that undertaken by a handful of Afghan civilian spotters, armed only with forbidden telephones and the nerve to shadow the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization. They pinpointed the location of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, a key element in the U.S. bombing campaign. They were hunters, and the hunted.
"Do you know what will happen to your family if you're caught?" said Ahmed Wali Karzai, who each night helped field the Afghan spotters' calls to the Pakistan home of his brother, Hamid Karzai, now the interim leader of Afghanistan. "These guys were 100 percent risking their lives."
Much has been made of the vital role U.S. Special Forces played as forward observers in the war. Small bands of American commandos traveling with anti-Taliban militias relayed target coordinates on the battlefield to pilots circling overhead. The satellite-guided bombs that followed cleared the way for the Afghan forces to advance, gobbling up the country in two months.
But U.S. bombs also fell hundreds of miles from the nearest American commando, not only in the precise place but at the right moment: the goal was obliterating al Qaeda and Taliban forces when they had come together, in locations they thought would be safe.
These strikes were called in by an underground Afghan network that even now remains obscure, testimony to the discipline of an effort that depended on secrecy and discretion. Indeed, spotters seldom knew the identity of compatriots taking the same risks. The others were, perhaps, following the same cars loaded with Arabs, phoning in the same address where they went indoors, and listening for the explosion two hours later.
"This is the law of intelligence work," said Abdul Ali, another Kandahar spotter. "One spy should not know another spy. I don't know anybody else."
A vivid if incomplete picture of the effort emerged in interviews with two spotters and one of the men who took their reports on the satellite phones he had taught them how to use. They told of close calls, a campaign based on trust and dependent on craftiness that at least once turned the Taliban's medieval strictures against itself: One of the satellite phones used to summon U.S. airstrikes was smuggled into the country under a burqa, the head-to-toe veil the Taliban required women to wear in public.
For Mohammed, the mission began with a summons to the Pakistani city of Quetta. A mutual friend passed the word that Karzai wanted to see him.
Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun tribal leader and longtime Taliban opponent, had known Mohammed for years. They shared a trust formed in part by mutual hatred for the brutal regime that had assassinated Karzai's father two years earlier. For days they talked about the looming war and how inevitably the fighting would come to Kandahar, where the Taliban had first risen.
On the fourth night, Mohammed was alone in a room with Hamid Karzai and his brother, Ahmed. One of them produced what looked like to Mohammed a laptop computer with a handset attached. But the lid was an antenna, and the handset could dial anywhere in the world.
"This is the satellite phone," Hamid Karzai said. "Let me show you how to use it." The brothers showed the young man how to pivot the dish toward the Indian Ocean satellite, how to read for signal strength and battery life. Then they gave him the numbers for the phones they would keep.
"If you have any fear, you can choose not do it," Mohammed recalled being told. "But if you do it, you need to tell us where the Taliban and al Qaeda go."
Mohammed never saw an American at the Karzais' house, but he understood implicitly that the phone had come from the United States. He also knew his friends would pass on his information to the U.S. military for targeting. When Mohammed arrived back in Kandahar and unwrapped the gadget, his family immediately grasped its significance as well.
"My family said, 'Please, for God's sake, get out of the house. Stay somewhere else. The Taliban will come here and burn this house.' "
The first U.S. bombs fell five days later, Oct.7, piercing the the roof of Omar's sprawling palace (which he had covered with tires) and Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds around Kandahar's airport. The targets were long-expected to be hit, as was the military camp and ammunition dump called Kishlayjadid that exploded in a huge fireball three nights later, just outside the city.
Mohammed had called about the ammo depot, telling Hamid Karzai that the Taliban had not abandoned it after the first airstrikes. As the sound of exploding ammunition rolled across the night, he felt a rising panic.
"I felt like a thief in my own city," he said. "I was very confused."
A few days later, he recalled, Hamid Karzai arrived in Kandahar, cruising into the seat of Taliban power on a red Honda 125 motorcycle. Five identical Hondas carried confederates. After a night or two, Karzai took three bikes north, rumbling toward a rendezvous with U.S. commandos in Uruzgan province. On the phone he carried, Karzai a few weeks later would negotiate the surrender of Tarin Kot, the provincial capital.
Back in Kandahar, Mohammed continued hunting targets, astride one of the red motorbikes Karzai left behind. On the streets of Kandahar, he dodged donkey carts and gaudily painted motor rickshaws, peering through a veil of dust for his quarry.
Sometimes it was easy. The Taliban troops, whose military specialty was mobile warfare, were known for cruising Kandahar in double-cab Toyota pickup trucks. Even easier to spot were the foreigners who made up bin Laden's al Qaeda. Any non-Afghan stands out in Kandahar, and the Arabs, as al Qaeda operatives were generically known, were a privileged class.
"Inside the city, I followed them wherever they moved," Mohammed said, using the traffic for cover. If their cars headed out of town, where traffic grew thinner, Mohammed had to peel off and let U.S. jets hunt for targets. But around town, "if they stopped, that's what I reported."
The results are the ruins in and around Kandahar. On one street American bombs crushed a row of houses used by Arabs. On the road leading toward western Afghanistan, a palatial two-story home exploded into rubble hours after al Qaeda members gathered there to escape bombing near the airport. Spotter Ali said 27 al Qaeda members died inside, including an assistant to bin Laden.
"When he died, the assistant, all of the Arabs were crying for him," he said. "It seemed he was a big person."
The accuracy of the bombs was impressive, said Ahmed Karzai. "The Americans could decide whether to hit the front of the car or the back of the car," he said. "It was amazing."
But the Taliban soon caught on to the spotters. Mohammed said the Taliban began hunting the hunters seven days into the bombing. On Oct. 26, they came for Ali.
Mohammed and Ali say they were unknown to one another. Mohammed insisted that for 25 days, he was the only spotter in Kandahar. But Ali was an old friend of Hamid Karzai, and about the time Mohammed traveled to Quetta, a messenger carried a satellite telephone to Ali in Kandhar. In the following weeks, he too made regular, secret calls to Hamid Karzai or his brother. He too noted that Taliban leaders began parking their cars in the crowded bazaar during the day and sleeping in different places each night.
When the Taliban gathered in a guesthouse near the Governor's House downtown, it was noted. Ali remembers hearing the explosion that followed his call, but so, he added, did other spotters. "We were busy," he said, with a lopsided smile.
Ali, who now runs Kandahar's official radio and television station, said that because the Karzais -- and by extension the Americans -- used multiple sources to confirm slippery targets, "we don't know whose information they are acting on."
When the Taliban enforcers caught up with Ali, he recalled being told, "You are the one who divides the dollars among the spotters." Ali was in jail for four days, and beaten only "a bit," he said, but the worst was not knowing whether he would emerge alive. The same day he was arrested, the Taliban captured and killed Abdul Haq, another anti-Taliban leader, who was also traveling with a satellite phone.
Ali's own phone was hidden. It had been in the house of a friend when the Taliban showed up, and while he was in jail, friends nervously passed it from house to house, the one bit of evidence that could lead to his death.
Ali was released, but he was warned not to leave Kandahar. He decided to disobey the order. He immediately headed north to join Hamid Karzai in Uruzgan.
"I was not alone," he said. "Many others were there spotting."
By early November, more phones had reached Mohammed through the courier system Ahmed Karzai anchored from Quetta. Ahmed Karzai remembers sending "10 or 12" phones out, as well as walkie-talkies and Pakistani rupees went north "as necessary," he said. He took calls every night at 9, he said, from locations in Kandahar, Helmand, Nimruz and Herat provinces.
The phone in Nesh, on the border between Kandahar and Uruzgan provinces, got there under a burqa. But not every spotter was so secretive. "One guy drove to Kandahar, put the phone on the back seat of his car, and drove back to Uruzgan," said Ahmed Karzai. "He was completely crazy."
In Kandahar, Mohammed was taking no chances. The phones that reached him were passed on to people who "were all friends before," he said. "I trusted them all."
He impressed on each one additional duty that Karzai had added: damage assessment. In the first days of the air campaign, reports of civilian casualties were undermining support for the U.S.-led military campaign. The Pentagon needed to know which reports to challenge, and which to concede could need investigation.
The spotters said there were mistakes. In the town of Daman, northeast of Kandahar on the road toward Kabul, a U.S. airstrike killed26 civilians. The spotter was one Mohammed had trained, but it was unclear what went wrong. In Kandahar, when Taliban gathered one afternoon in the headquarters of the office of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, an American fighter-bomber swooped down. Its bomb, however, landed on a civilian house across the street. "There were 14 people killed," Ali said.
That night the bombers returned, this time hitting the religious police headquarters squarely. But only a Taliban watchman was inside, and so were several children, Ali said.
At the same time, many bombs found their targets. One U.S. bomb found Arabs some 15 miles southwest of Kandahar, in a residential compound near a mountain where Kandaharis said they had moved to escape the bombing campaign. On the road beside it lies twisted wreckage of what the residents say were two station wagons that had left the compound with the Arabs' families inside.
Before long, the Taliban and al Qaeda were taking over homes in a desperate search for safety from the bombs. In Kandahar's residential Second District, 15 religious police and Arabs moved into Sarda Mohammed's home. They stayed a month and a half, setting up a gunsmith shop in the cellar and stacking rocket launchers and assault rifles like cordwood.
"Our neighbors became our enemies," Sarda Mohammed said. "They said, 'You brought these people to us. If the bomb blast hits us, we will kill you.' "
The whole city was nervous. On the radio at night, Omar's nasal voice grew angrier, his tone more defensive. "Those of you who are following America, take a lesson from me," he said. "It will be to your disadvantage."
One night, as Mohammed was dialing his satellite phone, his younger brother ran in to tell him a Taliban enforcer had circled the block, parked and was walking toward their house. Mohammed grabbed the phone and ran. The motorcycle would have been faster but more perilous: The Taliban had heard that Karzai's people used red Honda 125s.
Only after he reached the cover of a forest did the spy realize he had left behind the notebook containing the phone numbers of his contacts in Pakistan. All beginning with the code for the Indian Ocean uplink, 00-873, the numbers were as incriminating as the phone itself. When his brother agreed to go back for it, he returned instead with good news: The enforcer had gone into a neighbor's house; it was just a social call.
As Karzai and the Americans pressed south from Uruzgan, commandos called in the air strikes that cleared the way for the anti-Taliban militias, most decisively on the road outside the provincial capital of Tarin Kot, where 30 Taliban trucks went up in flames in a single morning.
Meanwhile, from the south, the militia commanded by Gul Agha Shirzai was approaching Kandahar from the Pakistani border, also supported by two trucks of U.S. Special Forces carrying radios and satellite Global Positioning Systemlocators.
In the city, caught between the advancing armies, perhaps the last official act of Taliban authorities was the arrest of a handsome young man known only as Abdullah. He was beaten to death by his torturers, and his corpse hanged on the fence in the center of Kandahar's main traffic circle, called Martyrs' Square, for all to see.
His crime: expressing anti-Taliban views, and owning a satellite telephone
By Elizabeth Neuffer, Globe Staff, 1/13/2002
KABUL, Afghanistan - Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's interim prime minister, said yesterday that he is considering asking for more international security forces to be deployed across the country and expressed hope that the United States will not abandon the war-ravaged country before it is rebuilt.
Karzai also renewed his pledge to back the US-led war on terrorism, saying he was committed to hunting down fugitives from the Qaeda terrorist network and the hard-line Taliban regime in ''all the caves and corners'' of his rugged, mountainous nation.
''Look at what they have done to our country,'' the 44-year-old Pashtun tribal chief said in an interview yesterday with the Globe. ''Look at what they did to your country. There's no way I will let go.''
Speaking three weeks after his inauguration as the head of this country's six-month interim government, Karzai reflected on what he has learned about his troubled homeland, and the vast challenges that lie ahead. The Afghan leader's comments in the battered presidential palace came at the end of a long day of official meetings, including one with US Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Security, the fight against terrorism, and the need for large amounts of international aid loomed among Karzai's top concerns. Afghanistan is pinning much of its rebuilding hopes on an international donors conference, scheduled for next week in Tokyo. Karzai and other officials are hopeful they will receive the funds needed to rebuild a country devastated by more than 20 years of war.
Afghanistan's new ministers have been working round the clock with UN staff and various specialists to put together a ''needs assessment'' that will outline the country's top priorities. Karzai declined to put a dollar figure yesterday on how much the country hopes to receive, saying only that he would ask for ''a lot'' - some of it emergency cash dedicated to ensuring that the government can function on a daily basis.
Many government officials are owed months in back salaries, and despite UN assistance, many of the country's 30 Cabinet members still only have minimal office equipment. Some of the ministers lack offices altogether, and have been forced to conduct business from their homes or hotel rooms.
Karzai stressed that one message he will carry to the Tokyo conference - and in a visit to the United States, which is expected to happen soon after the conference - is that the international community must realize that it cannot afford to abandon Afghanistan again.
''If you abandon us in the middle of the road somewhere,'' he cautioned, ''there's a good chance that Afghanistan will become unstable again, and these bad guys will find a space here again.''
That is one key message Karzai has heard repeatedly from dozens of local leaders who are still arriving in Kabul to offer their congratulations to him. Yesterday's interview followed a visit from a large delegation from the country's Hazara minority, who strode through the palace in turbans and long, flowing robes.
So many delegations have arrived at the palace gates that Karzai's aides are struggling with how to schedule his time. Karzai has granted only a handful of interviews, and yesterday's occurred after a four-hour wait.
Karzai, who hails from a family of eight, is one of the few Afghans to return to the country. He and his family fled to Pakistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion. Many of his brothers moved to the United States, as did his only sister, Fozia, who owns The Helmand, an East Cambridge restaurant named after the southern Afghan province.
A tribal elder of the Popolzai tribe in southern Afghanistan who spent two years in the former government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, Karzai emerged as a top contender to lead Afghanistan during last year's UN-brokered talks in Germany that resulted in the creation of the interim government.
Politically astute and personally charismatic, Karzai was seen as the man who could bridge the gap between East and West, and between Afghanistan and the United States. Even his choice of clothes represents his divided loyalties: He sports the traditional Afghan-style baggy pants and top, but over them wears a sweater and a suit jacket.
Karzai is politely direct. As he noted in yesterday's interview, the key reason leaders from around the country have called on him to ask for more international peacekeepers was not just to provide security, but to demonstrate the West's commitment to his country. ''They want to be sure the international community stays committed to Afghanistan,'' he said.
About 5,000 international peacekeepers are expected in Kabul. So far, about 1,000 have arrived. Asked if he will request more peacekeepers, Karzai answered: ''If we need them, yes.''
Some Afghan leaders, particularly Defense Minister Mohammad Qassem Fahim, have bridled at the thought of more UN-led troops here, but joint patrols between Afghan forces and some of the peacekeepers have gone smoothly so far.
Other Afghan leaders have been privately critical of the US-led bombing campaign, particularly after recent strikes appeared to kill civilians, not Taliban or Al Qaeda forces. But Karzai insisted that he has not heard complaints about continued US bombing raids, and vowed to find each and every terrorist still in Afghanistan.
''They are fugitives,'' he said. ''We will keep looking for them and find them.''
After three weeks of meetings, Karzai said, he realizes that his countrymen want a strong central government to unite the country after years of factionalism among Afghanistan's ethnic groups. A national army, police force, and central-based government, he said, have emerged as key organizations for all Afghans including former feuding warlords.
Jobs were also important, he said, for Afghanistan's thousands of unemployed workers, as well as desperately needed funds to repair the country's shattered education and health systems. The United Nations estimates there is an average of one doctor for every 50,000 people in Afghanistan.
Karzai stressed the need to integrate women - who once made up the bulk of the country's doctors, lawyers, and teachers but were banned by the Taliban from working outside their homes - back into the Afghanistan's work force.
But asked why he had not yet announced that women here could remove the head-to-toe burka covering the Taliban required them to wear in public - an announcement that many professional women here are waiting for - Karzai demurred.
''It will come; it is a gradual thing,'' he said.
Karzai will lead his nation for only six months. A loya jirga, or tribal assembly, will then convene to choose a new government, with elections to follow in two years. But it is the next six months that may prove the most critical for Afghanistan in determining whether the country again dissolves into civil war.
Karzai admitted he will need immediate results in order to hold his fractious nation together.
''Legitimacy rests on delivery of services,'' he said. ''I have no right to expect the Afghan people to keep liking me, or this government, while I just offer them words. I will deliver what I can. I will make sure to do whatever I can in a span of six months to make their lives easier.''
By ERIC SLATER, TIMES STAFF WRITER
ISHPONI BABA, Afghanistan -- Ayub slowed as he approached the random checkpoint, manned, as it were, by a boy with an AK-47 slung across his chest. The instant the young guard lowered his hands from his gun, convinced that the car was stopping, Ayub stomped on the accelerator.
The feint earned the station wagon a precious second or two. The guard whirled as the car sped past, unslinging his weapon. But he was perhaps 100 yards back and fading quickly into the distance by the time he had nestled the rifle into his shoulder and taken aim. He didn't fire.
"Ah, ha, ha!" called Omar Nassih, a translator in the front passenger seat, slapping Ayub on the back. "He probably wouldn't have shot anyway. He might get in trouble." Such incidents are hardly unusual now in many parts of Afghanistan. The day before, two shots rang out as the same car drove through the Shomali plain, three hours to the northwest. The day after, just up the road from here, it was three shots, with an armed guard in the car answering with a burst of his own.
As Afghanistan's interim government tries desperately to move this demolished country into the category of somewhat functional Third World nation, one problem looms, perhaps above the myriad others: rampant lawlessness.
The outside world is trying to help bring some measure of stability to the country. The United States, or "the Big Boss," as many here call it, continues to bomb suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban hide-outs almost nightly in the south and east of the country in an attempt to root out terrorists. International peacekeepers are beginning to patrol the capital, Kabul. Aid agencies are flying and trucking humanitarian supplies as quickly as possible into a country where the United Nations operates on its highest threat level.
Despite such efforts, this is a land so perilous it can boggle the mind of anyone who has lived in peace. Afghans say that, since the fall of the Taliban, murder, bribery, kidnapping, extortion--crimes committed primarily by soldiers working for one warlord or another, most believe--have only grown worse.
Leaders here and abroad are beginning to ask the question: How can a nation be rebuilt when moving about it sometimes means courting death?
"Security is the most important thing in any crisis in any nation," said one Western diplomat in Kabul. "If a country is secure, people will stay, refugees will return, food will come, things will improve. More than drought or famine or anything else, insecurity is the most destabilizing force."
Here in Ishponi Baba, insecurity is almost all there is.
Forty miles east of Kabul, the village--if 15 men with a lot of weapons, a one-room hut and a bag of onions can be called a village--is perched 50 feet above one of the most dangerous roads in Afghanistan.
The Kabul-Jalalabad road has been a home for mayhem since it was only a donkey trail between the capital and the eastern city. For perhaps hundreds of years, several different tribes have claimed various parts of the route and fought over it almost constantly.
The geography of the area also makes the route a bandit's paradise. The road, mostly dirt and gravel, is so rutted that vehicles can often travel no more than 5 or 10 mph. Heading east from Kabul, the sheer Mahipar mountains on the left are a stone barrier to escape and a hide-out for brigands. On the right is another nearly vertical drop, down to the Kabul and then Panjshir rivers.
"Somebody who loves his life cannot live here," said Gul Agha, one of the soldiers here.
The same is increasingly true for those who simply want to pass through. Four international journalists were stoned and shot to death in November just up the road, near Sarobi. A taxi driver, who was last seen picking up a group of Northern Alliance soldiers in Kabul, was found dead recently with four bullet wounds in his chest. His car is missing.
Traveling British aid workers were stopped last month, robbed and relieved of their vehicle. They were the only recent robbery victims, as far as anyone can recall, who were not killed.
Here, as in many parts of this mostly rural country, robberies that don't lead to murder seem increasingly rare, with highwaymen apparently finding it safer to eliminate witnesses then and there.
Since the fall of the Taliban, everyone is convinced that the murder rate has risen, although no one has the slightest idea of any statistics. Though brutal and repressive, the Taliban did create a society of very little violent crime.
What is certain is that early optimism in the new government's ability to keep order has waned considerably in recent weeks.
Adding to the growing sense of fear is the unpredictability of the violence; one day a road is clear and safe, the next it's a gantlet of unofficial checkpoints, where the guards may want $100 for passage, or wheat bound for refugees, or your truck and in turn your life.
"Maybe you will go to Kabul safely," said Rahmatullah, a tall, shy soldier stationed at Mahipar Dam, a few miles up the canyon. "Maybe your pockets will be robbed. Maybe you will be killed."
The men here in Ishponi Baba are all ethnic Pushtuns, as were the vast majority of the Taliban. They say they weren't Taliban, though everyone else up and down the road says they were. Those who say the men of Ishponi Baba were Taliban are themselves ethnic Pushtun soldiers, and likewise are identified as former Taliban by virtually everyone at every other post.
Regardless of former allegiances, almost every man living or working along this road is a soldier, and in the service of a warlord, not Afghanistan.
Those here say they have not been paid for months. They have water, but only the onions to eat. Most can't read, and those who can have no books. They have no radio. They have nothing to do but climb around in the rocks with their Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenade launchers and watch the road below.
"Our area is safe, but don't go any further," said the commander, Ghuncha Gul. "Back that way where you came from is also maybe not safe."
This is a refrain heard all along the route. The soldiers at the previous outpost said the same thing, as did the ones farther up the road.
They may all be telling an odd truth. It is commonly believed that bandits, whoever they are, strike travelers in another group's territory, then rush back to their own. The safest place in this canyon may be at the home base of a pirate.
When asked if the men at Ishponi Baba and other outposts on the road were bandits as well as soldiers, Atiqullah, a guard at the checkpoint at the western entrance to the canyon, demurred. "Allah knows," he said.
Without the national army that interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai hopes to build, there is no way to close the pass and clear the armed men out. Doing so would hardly address the problem, anyway, because this route is not unique.
Although a handful of regions is considered relatively safe--mostly in the northeast and southwest--many more are deemed the opposite by international relief and other agencies.
The United Nations is operating in Afghanistan under rules known as "Phase 5," meaning no workers are allowed to travel alone, or at night. They cannot go anywhere without a two-way radio, or anywhere out of radio range. In Kabul, U.N. workers must be in their homes by 9 p.m., an hour before the official government curfew. In Kandahar, the former Taliban stronghold, workers have been ordered to stay in their homes and not go to work for more than two weeks now.
The British-led International Security Assistance Force has begun patrolling in and around Kabul during the past few days, with 1,500 international troops on the ground and 3,000 more expected to arrive over the next several weeks.
During negotiations in December near Bonn over the peacekeeping mission, Interior Minister Younis Qanooni fought effectively to limit the number of international soldiers and to restrict their operations to the capital.
After several kidnappings and killings in Kabul in recent days, apparently for money, and amid a growing sense of instability in a city that just a week ago appeared to be the one relatively stable urban center in the country, Karzai and Qanooni have begun to suggest publicly that they may ask for more troops--both for Kabul and other cities.
The kind of peacekeeping Afghanistan needs, however, may be enormous.
"If you really want to stabilize Afghanistan, you're looking at estimates ranging from 50,000 to 200,000 troops," said a U.S. diplomat in Kabul.
At Ishponi Baba, Ghuncha Gul, the commander, had no hopeful words for those expecting change in Afghanistan.
He adjusted the wool hat on his head, pulled at his beard and pointed down at the Kabul-Jalalabad road.
"There are more problems now than before," he told his visitors. "Robberies happen all the time, and if they can kill the people, they do that. We don't care about our lives here. People who care about their lives should go. The sun is going down."
More troops will leave Kabul next week
The defence ministry in Afghanistan says it will maintain about 1,500 troops in Kabul, despite an agreement with the international peace-keeeping force to remove all soldiers from the city.
Thousands of soldiers have left the Afghan capital, under the agreement that from the end of Saturday, Kabul would be solely in the hands of civilian police and international troops.
This Kabul policeman is a victim of rising crime
Most of the 10,000 fighters who entered Kabul after the defeat of the Taleban in November will be redeployed to military bases in provinces to the south, west and east of the city, defence spokesman Regeftani said.
He said only ministers and about 10 senior commanders would be allowed armed body guards, all of whom would have to carry permits.
Other commanders entering Kabul would have to leave weapons at the entrance to the city.
The troops, who have been in Kabul since the fall of the Taleban in November, almost all come from the Jamiat-i-Islami faction of the Northern Alliance.
Security is officially in the hands of a civilian police force aided by troops of the International Security Action Force, led by the UK.
But military commanders, mainly from the Jamiat-i-Islami faction, have taken over houses as makeshift barracks all over Kabul.
Spokesman Regeftani said the men have now been evicted from 70% of these houses.
The interim Interior Minister Younis Qanooni has admitted that what he called "irresponsible armed men and posts in the city" had undermined security - a reference to an upsurge in robberies and violent crime.
Soon, he promised, only authorised people would be allowed to carry weapons. But many residents are also wary of the police force.
There are some professional police officers, but most are former soldiers who have had minimal training.
Mr Qanooni has said the administration is planning to form a new national police force using officers recruited from across Afghanistan.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell is to visit Afghanistan next week.
Multinational troops will help police Kabul
He will be the most senior American politician to visit the country since Washington began its military campaign against the Taleban and Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda movement last October.
His visit comes as US officials have expressed great concern about the whereabouts of three Taleban ministers who surrendered to the authorities in the province of Kandahar on Tuesday
America believes the former ministers could hold vital clues as to the whereabouts Bin Laden and Taleban leader Mullah Omar.
The Kandahar authorities allowed the men to go free after they had given themselves up.
On Saturday the interim government in Kabul distanced itself from the men's release.
"It has happened without our permission," Mr Qanooni told AFP.
Mr Qanooni insisted the men should face trial.
The former ministers "do not come under the amnesty for ordinary Taleban," he said.
|Back to News Archirves of 2002|
Disclaimer: This news site is mostly a compilation of publicly accessible articles on the Web in the form of a link or saved news item. The news articles and commentaries/editorials are protected under international copyright laws. All credit goes to the original respective source(s).