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Economist:Afghanistan Needs More Troops


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Karzai seeks more troops

Jun 15th 2004

From The Economist Global Agenda

As Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, visits Washington, security in his country worsens. Many now doubt whether NATO can make voting in September’s elections safe beyond Kabul without more troops

SUPPOSE the western powers occupying Iraq were largely to withdraw to the capital, leaving the warlords, their militias and remnants of the former regime to divide the rest of the country up among themselves. Suppose they were to cut their troop numbers to a sixth of the current total, and were to offer half as much aid per person. Suppose, in short, that the western powers were to do less and risk less but leave themselves less exposed to insurrections, sabotage or bad publicity as a result. Iraq would then look much like the West’s other post-9/11 protectorate, Afghanistan. There, little is ventured, precious little is gained, but, as a result, not much is reported either.

Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, owes his position largely to the Americans who back him. His writ runs little further than theirs. This makes him highly dependent on America’s continued interest in his fate. On Tuesday June 15th, he is due to visit his main sponsor, President George Bush, in Washington. Mr Karzai has already been promised most of the money he wanted for the coming year, some $4.5 billion, at a conference in Berlin in March. Now he will tell Mr Bush that more NATO soldiers are needed (though he said on Monday that he would not specifically ask for American troops), so that his Kabul government can assert its authority beyond the city limits. Without them, the delayed parliamentary elections, currently scheduled to take place in September, might have to be postponed again.

The United States currently leads a military contingent of around 20,000 in Afghanistan, or around 15% of its troop deployment in Iraq. But most of this American-led force is pursuing remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda scattered throughout the south of the country. It is not there to provide security for the Afghan people. That task falls to ISAF, a separate force of 6,500 international peacekeepers from over 30 different countries, now under the command of NATO.

NATO, the world’s most formidable military alliance, has so far done a good job of keeping the streets of Kabul relatively quiet. Earlier this year, it ventured a little further afield, setting up a German garrison in the northern city of Kunduz, which was subsequently seen as one of the safest in the country. But last week, 11 Chinese road workers were shot dead as they slept in their camp not far from town. That attack followed a lethal assault on five aid workers from the French charity, Médecins Sans Frontières, in the north-western province of Badghis on June 2nd. In all, more than 800 people have been killed in Afghanistan since last August. Reviving opium-poppy production is topping up the warlords’ coffers with the cash to buy weapons: their annual income from this is estimated at about $2.3 billion, or almost eight times the government’s tax revenues.

Rick Hillier, the Canadian general in command of ISAF, told NATO ambassadors this week that the September elections might have to be postponed for a second time. He worries that the polls, which are supposed to provide a new political dispensation for Afghanistan, might fall prey to warlords and criminal gangs, “determined to protect their fiefdoms”, as he puts it. Some of the parties who will contest those elections share his concerns. In a recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a well-informed think-tank, Sebghatullah Sanjar, the liberal leader of the Republican Party of Afghanistan, complains that “young parties like ours won’t be able to take part in the election if ISAF is not expanded to ensure our security outside Kabul. Obviously, we can’t compete with provincial governors who have guns.”

But General Hillier says he lacks the “assets”—the troops and equipment—to extend ISAF’s presence, as planned, to the northern and north-eastern provinces, let alone to the inhospitable south. As a result, international forces may not be on hand to deter militants from disrupting voter registration and the casting of ballots. So far, only about a third of eligible voters have been registered, most of those in the centre and north of the country. In the predominantly Pashtun provinces of the south and south-east, registration rates are much lower. But despite Mr Hillier’s warnings, a second delay in the elections seems unlikely. After all, Mr Bush has an election of his own to fight in November.

Efforts to disarm, demobilise and reintegrate the militias are coming to a spluttering end

NATO’s failure to establish its own garrisons around the country mirrors the failure of America and its partners to dismantle the rival militias maintained by local warlords or to build a viable national army under the Kabul government’s command. The Japanese have funded a project to “disarm, demobilise and reintegrate” (DDR) about 40% of the Northern Alliance militias that helped America win its war against the Taliban. But the pittance offered to the militiamen to give up their guns is not much of a carrot, and the programme wields no stick at all. “The DDR process is coming to a spluttering end,” General Hillier remarked.

Meanwhile, efforts to build an Afghan national army have spluttered from the beginning. The minister of defence, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, a Tajik, is in charge of building a force that, it was hoped, might number 40,000 troops. But Mr Fahim initially stuffed the army with his fellow Tajiks. The Americans have since widened the recruitment drive, but with limited success. Only about 7,500 have been enlisted. And not all of those who sign up stay for long. Last summer, 10% deserted.

The warlords, including those, such as Mr Fahim, who sport ministerial titles, are predictably reluctant to disband the militias that provide the real basis of their authority. But the Americans too find the militias useful for their own purposes. The ICG says their special forces are overstretched, with units having to make do with just eight, not the usual 12 members. So they are hoping to poach willing Afghan guns to help them in the hunt for Taliban diehards and foreign terrorists in the unruly south. The pay and conditions on offer from the Americans are rather better than the stipends offered to militiamen by the Afghan ministry of defence, the ICG reckons. As a result, it argues, many militiamen who might otherwise be tempted to demobilise are instead keeping their guns in the hope of joining one of these counter-terrorist teams.

In a country such as Afghanistan, law and order must be backed by force of arms. But that force is hopelessly dispersed among the American counter-terrorists, the ISAF peackeepers, the Afghan militias and the ragtag army. If the defining characteristic of a state is the monopolisation of violence, Mr Karzai heads a state lacking all definition.

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