With Afghanistan in turmoil and the war against Iraq looming large, the US already has its hands full, reports Iffat Idris from Islamabad
As the United States builds up for the Bush administration's second war, there are disturbing signs that the first one -- in Afghanistan -- is not yet over.
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A field radio operator of the American army's 82 Airborne Division communicates with his command during cave clearing operations about 48 kilometres north of Spin Boldak, Afghanistan. Dubbed "Operation Mongoose", the cave clearings started on 27 January when US and coalition forces came under attack. American soldiers continue cave clearing missions in the area
Last week, American forces were engaged in their fiercest battle since last spring's Operation Anaconda. The fighting took place in the south- east of the country, near the border with Pakistan. The region, which includes the city of Kandahar, is dominated by Pashtuns and was once the stronghold of the Taliban. In recent weeks, there have been persistent reports of Taliban and Al-Qa'eda fighters regrouping there and mounting small-scale attacks on US and allied Afghan troops.
The fighting apparently began after US Apache helicopters followed up a lead from a captured rebel fighter. As they investigated an area near the border town of Spin Boldak, where the prisoner had revealed there was a concentration of rebel fighters, the helicopters came under fire. The Americans responded by sending in B-1 bombers, AC-130 gunships and Norwegian F-16s. US military spokesman Colonel Roger King, said the bombers were in action for more than 12 hours.
As US and Afghan troops combed the hundreds of caves in the region in search of the rebel fighters, Colonel King reported that at least 18 militants had been killed, adding that the fighting might go on for a long time. "There is a lot of ground to cover. It's a relatively large area and rough terrain. It could take a considerable period of time."
The group of approximately 80 fighters being hunted by the US-coalition forces are believed to be loyal to Hizb-i-Islami (Islamic Party) leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar was a mujahideen commander and close ally of the US in the war against the Soviet Union. But once that was over he became embroiled in Afghanistan's bitter civil war and was responsible for a massive bombardment of the capital, Kabul. When the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, Hekmatyar fled to neighbouring Iran. He returned after the ousting of the Taliban, but staunchly opposes both the presence of US forces in Afghanistan and the US-backed Karzai administration. There has been speculation that this opposition has led him to join forces with former Taliban and Al-Qa'eda fighters, now regrouping in the south and east of the country.
Further proof of growing Al-Qa'eda and Taliban activity came on Thursday, when a bomb exploded on a bus in Kandahar. Kandahar is situated just 90 miles from the scene of the fierce fighting between Hekmatyar's forces and American-Afghan soldiers. The bomb exploded near Kandahar police station. Though all 16 victims were civilians, the city's police chief, General Akram Khakrezwal, believes the intended targets were Afghan soldiers. He blamed the attack on Al-Qa'eda, the Taliban and Hekmatyar -- "all forces opposed to us".
No direct link has been established between the bus bombing and the nearby fighting, but authorities believe the same people are involved. The re-emergence of Taliban and Al- Qa'eda opposition to the US and Karzai administration is a clear reflection of the lack of central control in the provinces. Even in Kabul, Karzai depends on the strength of international peacekeepers to maintain order.
Outside the capital, where no international troops are engaged in peacekeeping duties, it is the local warlords who run the show. After the Kandahar bombing a spokesman for the Afghan president reiterated the need for foreign troops to be deployed throughout the country.
The situation in the south is further complicated by the close proximity of Pakistan. American and Afghan officials believe that many Al-Qa'eda and Taliban fighters fled there after the collapse of the Taliban government. Natives in the bordering tribal regions of Pakistan are sympathetic to the Taliban and have been offering them shelter. Pakistani troops have been hunting down Al-Qa'eda and Taliban fighters on their side of the border, but given local hostility in the traditionally autonomous region, this is an uphill task. The election of the Islamist Mutahidda Majles-e-Amal (MMA) provincial government in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province has made it even harder. The MMA won power in last October's polls by running on an anti-US, pro-Taliban platform.
All this has had a significant impact on US- Pakistani relations. Washington has been applying mostly covert, though sometimes overt, pressure on Pakistan to be more active in mopping up Al-Qa'eda and Taliban fugitives on its side of the border. President Musharraf is now caught between yielding to these demands or respecting strong local sentiments.
According to a recent Indo-Asian News Service report, Washington has now asked Musharraf for permission to bomb Al-Qa'eda and Taliban holdouts in Waziristan and the Northern Areas. This is a request Musharraf is highly unlikely to accede to: apart from the local uprising this would provoke, senior military officials have warned that the almost 100,000 soldiers in the Pakistan army who are natives of the region might also rebel.
As the fighting in the south of Afghanistan gets worse, a new UN report highlights the pressing need for peace to allow reconstruction. The report by the UN's Environmental Programme is the first comprehensive look at conditions in Afghanistan since the 1970s. Its findings are depressing: more than 25 years of war, drought and famine have produced conditions that are "a major stumbling block" to reconstruction. Until the fighting ends completely, tackling those conditions will be extremely difficult.
Impossible as it might seem, things could actually be about to get worse in Afghanistan. Given the already strong opposition to the US in the adjacent areas of northern Pakistan and southern Afghanistan, an American attack on Iraq could well spark mass revolt. One aid worker, referring to the humanitarian work some US troops in Afghanistan have been engaged in, warned that, "digging a few wells is not going to offset the impact of going to war on another Islamic country". The Iraqi people are not alone in praying that George W Bush does not go to war for a second time.