Oct. 7, 2002 — It was a rude awakening, and not only for Afghan President Hamid Karzai — the target of an assassin’s bullet last month while he attended his brother’s wedding in southern Afghanistan. When news of Karzai’s scrape with death reached Washington, where attention has drifted toward toppling Iraq’s leadership, Afghanistan quickly popped back on the White House radar screens, but for how long?
A characteristically nonchalant Karzai brushed off the Sept. 5 attack in Kandahar, the former Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan. “I expected these things to happen,” he said.
But Karzai uttered those words before it became clear how close a call it really was. Two bullets passed within inches of the Afghan leader, lodging in his car seat. Karzai was lucky to escape with his life.
He wasn’t the only one counting his blessings. His good fortune also was felt in Washington, which has been consumed by a potential war with Iraq and had been planning to withdraw some of its forces in Afghanistan.
But the near loss of Washington’s man in Afghanistan — the one tribal leader with the ability to heal the wounds of Afghan wars — has refocused the gaze of many a policy and military planner. For now.
ATTENTION ON AFGHANISTAN
Indeed, after 23 years of bloodletting, nobody needs to tell Afghans how fleeting the focus of the United States, let alone the international community, can be.
When the defeated Soviet Army retreated in 1989 after a disastrous 10-year occupation, Afghanistan’s battle-scared landscape was largely forgotten by the world.
With the Soviet threat gone, covert funding for U.S.-backed Afghan resistance fighters dried up. Raped and pillaged by vicious Afghan warlords, the lawless land was fertile ground for the rise of the radical Islamic Taliban, and its al-Qaida patrons.
So when the role that Afghanistan’s deep descent into chaos played in the 9/11 attacks became clear, the White House promised things would be different this time around. The world would not abandon Afghanistan again.
Yet a year after the start of the air war that ousted the Taliban, Afghanistan could be forgiven for feeling neglected.
In New York for the U.N. General Assembly the week after he was nearly gunned down, Karzai was warmly received by the international community, which pledged more than $5 billion in aid over five years to rebuild Afghanistan. But only a small part of the money this year has been received.
The nation’s humanitarian crisis is undiminished — and exacerbated by the who fled the country over the last two decades. Heartening as their return is, these “reverse refugees” are coming home to drought and unemployment.
Afghanistan’s security situation isn’t much better. A bloody string of murders and bombings has targeted other top officials, including the country’s defense minister. He survived, but Afghan Vice President Haji Qadir did not. Bombings the Afghan government blames on al-Qaida remnants have killed more than a dozen civilians in Kabul and other cities.
The International Security and Assistance Force, or ISAF, has a mandate to keep the peace while Afghanistan rebuilds, but its 5,000-strong contingent is limited to Kabul. Securing the Afghan capital, teeming with well-armed peacekeepers and well-meaning international aid organizations, is mostly symbolic. A country roughly the size of Texas, Afghanistan’s far-flung regions, with their patchwork of ethnic minorities, are where the real problems lie.
In the north, ethnic Uzbek general Abdul Rashid Dostum, ethnic Tajik leader Gen. Atta Mohammed and Mohammed Mohaddeq, head of the Shiite Hazaras, are old rivals each trying to carve out influence in post-9/11 Afghanistan. Their bitter fighting in the early 1990s killed tens of thousands of civilians. The northern leaders, who occupy positions in the new Afghan government, publicly say they will work together for the country’s future. But they all keep private armies numbering in the thousands.
In western Afghanistan, a region still influenced by neighboring Iran, warlord-turned-governor Ismail Khan has grabbed power and defied Karzai’s central government.
And, roaming the country, former Afghan prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar spouts anti-American vitriol to rally supporters to attack U.S. forces in the country. Hekmatyar’s crusade has landed him on the military’s hit list.
These domestic challenges have Washington worried over Karzai’s safety. This summer, at Karzai’s request, his Afghan security detail was sacked amid rumors of a coup attempt. U.S. special forces now are in charge of the president’s personal security, and it was an American sharpshooter who killed Karzai’s would-be assassin last month.
Until the attempt on Karzai’s life, the United States had virtually ignored the Afghan government’s pleas to extend the peacekeeping mandate beyond Kabul — which Karzai argues would bring wayward warlords in line. Shortly after Karzai’s brush with death, however, the Bush administration reversed itself and dropped its opposition to larger security force.
But there is little international political will to expand the force. Turkey will lead the peacekeepers for another three months, when another country will have to be persuaded to take over — and expand their ranks to unruly cities like Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif. There are no takers so far, and with the U.N. Security Council consumed by talk of a war in Baghdad, Afghanistan is at risk of becoming a casualty of another war.
Washington, meanwhile, refuses to commit American troops to peacekeeping duties, arguing that the U.S. military’s search for al-Qaida fighters and Osama bin Laden is a fair share of post-war duties in Afghanistan.
It’s no surprise that the Pentagon is shying away from a long-term troop commitment. There are other battles to fight in the war on terrorism, and the tragedy of Somalia — when a 1992 U.S.-led peacekeeping mission got bogged down in clannish feuds — is still fresh in Washington’s mind.
Fresh, too, is the Soviet experience in Afghanistan — a decade of occupation commonly known as “Russia’s Vietnam” — during which Moscow’s attempt to prop up a pro-Kremlin government ended in a costly defeat in 1989.
Arguably, America’s intentions in Afghanistan are different. But photos that hit the front pages after Karzai’s brush with death last month startled many, including the Pentagon’s top brass: Karzai’s American special forces security detail was very nearly indistinguishable from local Afghans. The next day, his U.S. guards were ordered to shave and wear uniforms.
The United States may not want to appear to be settling in for the long haul, but the fragile state of Afghan affairs may demand it.
(Preston Mendenhall is MSNBC.com’s international editor. )