Promising an army, Afghan president faces immediate threats
By Ardeshir Moaveni
Addressing a recent international conference in Bonn, Germany, Afghan President Hamid Karzai pledged to replace today’s ragtag militias with a national army in two years. Some observers say this pledge could leverage international aid to boost Afghanistan’s hopes for long-term stability. But many observers cite several key factors that may inhibit Karzai’s plans.
The December 2 conference marked the first anniversary of accords among rival factions that paved the way for Karzai’s presidency. Karzai’s promise to create an army shows that he intends to remain president and to otherwise stabilize his nation, but delegates knew that Afghanistan’s general security has deteriorated in recent months. There are daily reports of bombings and rocket attacks around the country, and the capital, Kabul, has been hit by a series of explosions.
While Karzai’s national army may bolster security in the long term, he and his donors must traverse serious difficulties to fulfill his vision. These difficulties include the Western powers’ reluctance to deploy troops outside the capital, continued fighting among militias for influence and territory, the ongoing presence of Taliban remnants in large swaths of the country, shortfalls in relief assistance and endemic weaknesses within Karzai’s administration.
According to foreign diplomats and other knowledgeable observers in Kabul who asked for anonymity, blame for recent security failures belongs to the Interior Ministry. In private conversations, some officials in the top echelons of the government support this idea. A source in the Defense Ministry told EurasiaNet that Interior Minister Taj Mohammad Wardak has a reputation for being relatively inexperienced and unprepared to deal properly with the myriad security issues facing Kabul and the surrounding areas. The source alleged that weak management, poor response and even ineptitude plagued the top of the ministry. He cited student protests that rocked Kabul on November 12, which ended in the death of between one and four participants. The protests became violent when over 1,000 university students marching to demand water and electricity in their dormitories met armed riot police, who opened fire. Wardak initially claimed that one student who died from a gunshot wound had probably been shot by another student, but Karzai more roundly condemned the episode and referred to the student as a “martyr.”
The incident, whatever blame one assigns to the Interior Ministry for its oversight of the police, highlights many security conundrums in Afghanistan. First, it shows how hard it is for officials to keep track of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and how easy it is to justify actions by invoking these groups: police and Interior Ministry officials justified their severe response by claiming that the protests were the work of Taliban and Al Qaeda elements. The government later retracted this position, with Karzai himself ordering an immediate investigation into the killings on November 18. He also pledged to investigate both the dormitories’ living conditions and the actions of the police.
Second, the controversy surrounding Wardak illustrates Karzai’s political difficulties. If Wardak is indeed derelict in his duties, it will not be easy for Karzai to replace him. Wardak is an ethnic Pashtun, like Karzai and most of the deposed Taliban leadership. He drew the influential post in a cabinet already heavy with ethnic Tajiks from the former Northern Alliance. Yunus Qanooni, a prominent member of the Tajik bloc, fought publicly with Karzai in June during the Loya Jirga, or grand legislative council, that created the current government. He had served as Interior Minister from December 2001 until the start of the Loya Jirga, and some say he stepped aside to shield Karzai from claims that he was letting Tajiks dominate his cabinet. If Wardak goes, these claims might resurface.
Despite these security and political difficulties, Karzai has visibly tried to assert his control. In the week before the student protests, he reportedly dismissed 28 regional officials for abuse of power. These officials had been accused of anything from extortion and murder to illegal smuggling of historic monuments. But this bold step led to another illustration of Afghanistan’s weak central authority, as some of the dismissed individuals have refused to leave their posts.
Finally, the weak security situation reveals the limits of international aid. One reason Karzai has a hard time extending central authority, according to experts, is that international aid has flowed too erratically to pay government officials’ salaries. Despite the publicity generated by the American-led bombing campaign of autumn 2001, a recent study by CARE found that Afghanistan in 2002 received less in aid per capita than Bosnia, East Timor or Rwanda did after comparable conflicts. CARE also found that Afghanistan’s per capita aid is on track to fall annually by 2006. Afghanistan’s infant government, lacking a proven treasury, has struggled to collect donations. According to Yousuf Pashtun, Minister of Housing and Urban Development, the government has received a small part of the aid intended for Afghan citizens. The rest has gone to the United Nations or to various international relief agencies. Pashtun has remarked that the UN spends mightily on transporting officials around the country.
An army, once it functioned efficiently, could redress some of these security woes. For this reason and because international attention has not vanished, many Afghans take heart even though they view Karzai’s predictions in Bonn as somewhat unrealistic at the moment. Sheida Mohammad, Karzai’s First Secretary, insisted to EurasiaNet that despite all the hardships, most Afghans support their government. “Coming from the destruction of war, all Afghans are determined to set aside their differences to rebuild the country,” he asserted. “There is tremendous goodwill for this government because no one wants to see a return to the old days again. This government is aware of it and will fulfill its promises.” —EurasiaNet