Remember Phase One?

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Phase three — or is it part of phase two? — in the war on terror is up against some obstacles in Iraq, but there’s no need to worry, or so we’re told. Attacks on our troops will stop, Saddam will be brought to justice, the lights will come on and someday there’ll be an election — it’s only a matter of time. But ask beleaguered Afghans and the soldiers who patrol Kabul, and you’re likely to find that even phase one, which was supposed to dismantle the Taliban regime that played host to terrorists, is far from over.

NATO, which took over the peacekeeping mission in Kabul yesterday, has the unenviable task of patrolling the city, now being described as the eye of an increasingly violent Afghan storm.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) issued a report last week detailing the rise of Pashtun disaffection — one of the factors that fueled the rise of the Taliban in the ’90s. The ICG suggests that the country may be in store for a fresh round of conflict if grievances aren’t addressed:

“Today, insecurity in the South and East, impediments to trade, and continued competition for influence by the neighboring states present a set of conditions dangerously close to those prevailing at the time of the Taliban’s emergence. The risk of destabilization has been given added weight by the re-emergence of senior Taliban commanders who are ready to capitalize on popular discontent and whose long-time allies now govern the Pakistani provinces bordering Afghanistan.”

The U.S. needs to reconcile its short term military objectives with the political goal of rebuilding Afghanistan, including being prepared to take Pashtun and other local sensitivities into greater account when planning actions and investigating civilian casualties. Unless such measures are taken, discontent among Pashtuns and other groups that have received insufficient attention since the fall of the Taliban could put Afghanistan’s fragile stability at increasingly serious risk.”

There are several reasons why Pashtuns are upset with the transitional government, even though it is headed by Hamid Karzai, who is Pashtun. Bonn-based expert Mark Sedra explains:

“…it is widely believed that the Panjshiri Tajik faction, led by Defense Minister Fahim, controls the government. Two of the three power ministries, defense and foreign affairs, remain in the hands of the Panjshiris, and the bulk of the military and intelligence service is loyal to Fahim.

In northern Afghanistan, where Pashtuns represent a minority of the population, they have been attacked and driven out of their homes with impunity, in apparent retribution for the crimes of the Pashtun-based Taliban regime.

Another source of discontent concerns U.S. military operationsÉ In particular, their indiscriminate use of air power, which has killed scores of civilians, and their lack of sensitivity to indigenous laws and customs have been viewed with seething resentment.”

Now that NATO has taken over, the mess outside the capital again raises the issue of whether security operations should be expanded to include more of the country. On Sunday, the UN suspended road travel in the southern part of the country, after a spate of attacks on aid workers. While NATO troops take up patrols in the capital, it’s increasingly evident that the rest of the country is still, as some have called it, “Warlordistan.”

A letter signed by representatives of four aid groups urged the British government last week to push for an expansion of the security force. The letter lamented:

“While efforts to create a national army, police force and judiciary remain at an embryonic stage, the ongoing climate of impunity means that there is no protection for the individual from the arbitrary use of power.

Growing criminality is further compounding the insecurity felt by the Afghan population; there are numerous examples of robberies, thefts and assaults even in (supposedly) one of the most secure regions, Herat.”

All things considered, the prospect of NATO troops facing rejuvenated militias on their home turf is not appealing. A serious initiative to expand the foreign presence in Afghanistan will have to come not from NATO alone but from a major stakeholder. Brig. Gen. Andrew Leslie, commander of Canadian Forces in Afghanistan, tells the Canadian Press, “If we go outside the box [of Kabul], we’ll have to contribute more soldiers or get someone else to do it.” He followed up with, “I think we’re contributing enough right now.” Canada is currently the largest contributor to the Afghan peacekeeping force.

The United States (which didn’t inspire much confidence by outsourcing Hamid Karzai’s personal security to DynCorp in 2002) is playing it safe. The U.S. Ambassador to NATO will say only that after NATO settles into Kabul, the administration will give serious consideration to expansion.

But with Liberia now on the Pentagon’s list of headaches, and $1 billion spent per week on operations in Iraq, what are the chances that the administration will devote the necessary time and energy to a phase of the war on terror that many say should have preceded — not coincided with — the war in Iraq?

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