Washington pretends that the war against terror is over in Afghanistan even though peace in the war-torn country remains as elusive as ever, writes Negar Azimi
United States Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has announced that major US combat operations have come to an end in Afghanistan, marking the symbolic end of an 18-month foreign presence in the country that started with the fall of the Taliban in November 2001.
On the ground, however, it seems that little has changed, as peace continues to be elusive. Rumsfeld's announcement came on the heels of talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and marks the culmination a whirlwind week-long tour of seven countries in the Middle East and South Asia.
Rumsfeld called the present time in Afghanistan a "period of stability and stabilisation and reconstruction" -- ambitious words considering the limbo that continues to characterise the state of affairs in a country that has not known peace in 23 years. His announcement is widely perceived as an attempt to co-opt other nations in a reconstruction effort that has been painfully slow in gathering momentum.
Karzai is said to have been pushing Washington to make an announcement of this nature -- presumably a means of attracting sorely-needed funds for his cash-strapped government.
Today, 11,500 troops are stationed throughout Afghanistan, 5,500 of which are international peace-keepers forming the Kabul-bound International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) -- preserving a "peace" that is nothing short of precarious in nature.
In recent months, attacks against American interests in Afghanistan have become the norm, while multi-national forces continue to launch frequent large-scale attacks against suspected Al-Qa'eda and Taliban militants throughout the country.
Militant efforts aiming at destabilising both the US presence and the Karzai regime are widely believed to have been encouraged by the emotional furor born of the US-led invasion of Iraq.
On Monday, rebels fired five rockets at US special forces training in eastern Afghanistan near the city of Gardez, missing the soldiers by 800 metres.
Earlier in the day, Afghan police arrested eight persons who allegedly shot at passengers in a car belonging to the Afghan Development Agency, killing the driver. The suspects belong to the Hezb-i-Islami faction, led by former exile and mujahidin leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar is believed to be actively trying to undermine the government of Karzai, and is said to have allied himself with Taliban factions despite having been at odds with them for years as a central player in anti-Taliban movements.
Remnants of the broken Taliban regime have been regrouping for some time, often launching attacks from the Pakistani border in the southeastern corner of the country. Earlier this week, the departing commander of US-led military forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Daniel K McNeill, criticised Pakistan for its failure to actively police the border, and furthermore, for knowingly housing militants.
At the same time, he praised the country for arresting roughly 470 Al-Qa'eda and Taliban suspects, while providing the US with military transit, fly-over and basing rights.
Also on Monday, former Taliban leader Mullah Mohamed Hasan Rehmani told Reuters that a "holy war" against the American presence would persist, while he dismissed Karzai as "an American clerk and a toy in the hands of the Northern Alliance".
Rehmani's declaration is not the first of its kind from a former high-ranking member of the Taliban. Last month, former Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah also publicly espoused a revolt against the foreign presence in Afghanistan.
Despite the fact that Karzai is himself an ethnic Pashtun, there is widespread sentiment that the current administration is peopled with members of the Panjshir faction of the Northern Alliance, the US-backed coalition that has been polarised against the Taliban regime for the better part of a decade.
Meanwhile, international aid workers within the country have been subject to near-daily attacks, discouraging countless aid organisations from entering the country, while effectively pushing others, who once had a presence in the country, away.
Four US troops have been killed since March, while one aid worker with the International Committee for the Red Cross was killed in late March.
Last week's visit was Rumsfeld's third visit to Afghanistan since 11 September. Earlier this week, Rumsfeld announced that the US presence in the Gulf would significantly decrease, starting with an end to military operations in Saudi Arabia and a removal of virtually all its forces from that kingdom. Rumsfeld's trip, focussed on reducing the US military presence in the region, effectively ended a relationship dating back to 1991, when Washington used Saudi Arabia as a launching pad during the Gulf War. As for the fate of US troops in Afghanistan, matters remain less clear.
General McNeill recently noted that US-led military successes, combined with improved recruiting by the new Afghan army, signals that Americans stationed in Afghanistan could start going home as early as summer 2004 -- when 9-12,000 newly trained Afghan National Army soldiers are to be sent out throughout the country.
But for now, the US presence in the country is not anywhere near an end, particularly given the ongoing fight for control of pockets in the country by regional warlords. While the US is widely viewed as crucial in protecting the fragile Karzai government, they will also be instrumental in carrying out reconstruction efforts in a country that is virtually without basic public works, a civil society infrastructure, or functioning institutions.
The timing of Rumsfeld's announcement was an interesting one as it coincided exactly with US President George W Bush's announcement of the launch of the reconstruction effort in Iraq.
While painfully clear parallels exist between the two countries, Afghanistan may represent the true test of American commitment to reconstruction in the region, for Afghanistan's story is one that started long before the tides of change would even begin to materialise in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.