September 18, 2002


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The Rediff Special/Rahimullah Yusufzai

Two deadly strikes in Kabul and Kandahar on September 5 last claimed 30 people and nearly killed Afghanistan's transitional President, Hamid Karzai.

The car bomb explosion in the Afghan capital was the deadlier of the two but the war-ravaged country would have plunged into yet another uncertain phase if the lone gunman had succeeded in eliminating Karzai in Kandahar.

The attacks were a timely reminder that Afghanistan remains a dangerous place a year after September 11, 2001. The intense and costly United States-led military campaign that began on October 7 may have removed the Taliban from power and inflicted losses on Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda, but America's self-centred war on terror in Afghanistan is far from won.

In fact, the presence of Western forces in the country is provoking a violent reaction not only from isolated pockets of Al Qaeda and the Taliban but also from non-politicised Afghans who have suffered due to US bombing. The US and its allies are responding to the attacks with new and bigger military operations, thus setting the stage for yet another round of confrontation and instability in war-prone Afghanistan.

Several smaller explosions in different parts of the city preceded the car bomb blast in central Kabul. There were also some landmine explosions during recent weeks, including one near the Bagram airbase, which serves as the headquarters for the more than 8,000 US troops based in Afghanistan.

That even this tightly defended airbase, located in the heart of the pro-US Tajik and Northern Alliance heartland, wasn't safe was underlined on September 11 last when a gunman fired at it with small arms. The attack, which reportedly failed to cause any human losses, came hours before a ceremony was to be held at the airbase to commemorate the first anniversary of September 11.

Other intended targets of the bomb explosions in Kabul have been the US embassy, the 5,000-strong International Security Assistance Force's headquarters, a UN guesthouse, and Afghan government installations.

Though the US and ISAF military spokesmen described the blasts as non-threatening, five unexplained explosions within three weeks shows that all is not well in Kabul. The American and ISAF authorities are still investigating the alarming development.

The September 5 car bomb explosion was the biggest to date in the post-Taliban period, killing about 30 and injuring 150. The taxi, packed with explosives, was parked next to the Spinzar Hotel and near the information and interior ministry buildings. The fact that the car would have driven past several checkposts exposed the security lapses on the part of the Afghan police and the ISAF personnel and their failure to provide security to the people of Kabul.

They were even unable to prevent the daylight murders of two members of the Karzai Cabinet: Civil Aviation Minister Dr Abdul Rehman was assassinated in February while Urban Planning Minister Haji Abdul Qadeer, who was the vice-president, was murdered in July. The killers are still at large and investigations have made little headway. Given Afghanistan's history of political murders, it is unlikely that the assassins would ever be captured.

A few hours later on September 5, Karzai survived the assassination attempt in his hometown, Kandahar. He was on one of his rare trips outside Kabul and those wanting to eliminate him were probably waiting for this opportunity. The attacker, one Abdul Rahman from the former Taliban stronghold of Helmand province, was killed before he could hit Karzai. Two other Afghans, including one who shot dead the attacker, were also killed.

It was later claimed that Karzai's American bodyguards had killed the attacker. Karzai was provided 50 American commandoes following Haji Qadeer's murder. Twenty of them travel with Karzai while the others guard his presidential office at the Arg (palace) in Kabul.

The decision to replace the Afghan bodyguards with Americans had upset Defence Minister Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, whose ministry had deputed the soldiers to protect Karzai. The move by the pro-US Karzai and his American sponsors amounted to a lack of trust in the Afghan soldiers and their boss, Fahim, and indicated that all wasn't well between the two most important men in interim government.

Reports in the Western media spoke of a tussle between Karzai and Fahim. Karzai, lacking military muscle, was said to be helpless before Fahim, who succeeded the late Mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Masood and is now leader of the Tajik-based Shura-i-Nazaar faction that controls Kabul. That Fahim firmly controls Kabul was evident on September 9 when Masood was honoured as a national hero with official ceremonies and a national holiday.

While Masood was popular among his fellow Tajiks, it is believed that many Pashtuns, along with some Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Turkmen, disliked him. The Tajik-dominated interim government is trying to promote Masood in a big way through the official media and Afghanistan's diplomatic missions all over the world. The fact that two Arabs posing as journalists killed Masood a couple of days before September 11 has enabled his followers to blame bin Laden and Al Qaeda for the murder and seek the sympathies of the international community.

Certain members of Afghan government blamed Al Qaeda, Taliban and former Mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar for the bomb blasts in Kabul and the attack on Karzai. However, Karzai and the US military spokesman in Bagram, Colonel Roger King, did not name Hekmatyar as one of the suspects. Hekmatyar has denied any role in the Kabul blasts and the attack on Karzai.

Nevertheless, King did say that the US was trying to get Hekmatyar because he is a destabilizing factor in Afghanistan. Earlier, the ISAF's Turkish commander in Kabul, General Hilmi Zorlu, had almost withdrawn his direct criticism of Hekmatyar by noting that he had denied his links with Al Qaeda and Taliban.

It appeared to be a belated effort on Zorlu's part not to become involved in Afghanistan's internal politics. Hekmatyar, it may be pointed out, had sent an audiocassette a few days before the Kabul blasts and the attack on Karzai calling for a national uprising against all foreign troops in Afghanistan. The tape, reportedly smuggled out of Afghanistan and delivered to journalists in Peshawar, said the uprising would be a jihad against the US and its Western allies on the lines of the one waged between 1979-89 to expel Soviet troops from Afghanistan. It was Hekmatyar's first time in five months after going underground following his expulsion from Iran.

The US had tried to kill Hekmatyar on May 6 in the eastern Kunar province by firing a Hellfire missile from a pilotless Predator spy plane. And despite his denial, Hekmatyar is unlikely to win any reprieve. His statements have placed him in the same league as bin Laden, Mulla Omar, and the US and its allies would now be trying equally hard to capture or kill him.

The US's quick victory over the Taliban and Al Qaeda prompted Washington to claim a premature victory. It now seems Al Qaeda, Taliban and other like-minded groups never gave up completely and are biding their time to strike back. The recent happenings in Kabul and Kandahar and the almost daily attacks on Western forces in the Pashtun-populated southern and eastern provinces are indications that henceforth, the US isn't going to have a smooth sailing in the treacherous killing fields of Afghanistan.

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