Tensions Overshadow Gains in Afghanistan

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 16, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan, Sept. 15 -- Despite scattered gains by international troops fighting Taliban insurgents in the country's south, Afghan and foreign analysts here have voiced concern that a recent peace initiative is backfiring and that lapsed Afghan militias could be drawn into the conflict unless it is quickly quelled and replaced by aid and protection.

NATO and U.S. military officials here said this week that an intensive two-week operation against Taliban fighters in Kandahar province had been a tactical success, killing more than 500 insurgents and forcing others to retreat. Afghan and foreign forces also retook a district in neighboring Helmand province that had been seized twice by the Taliban.

But these pockets of progress on the battlefield are part of a larger, murkier political map. As other Afghan militias begin defensively rearming, ethnic tensions have risen, raising the specter of the kind of civil conflict that devastated the country in the early 1990s.

A call for additional troops by NATO's senior commander has so far drawn only one positive response, Poland's offer of 1,000 personnel. Military officials here say pro-government forces need to win key areas soon and to begin delivering aid and security if they are to halt the slide in public support.

"We can't just keep fighting endless battles without having something to offer the next day," a senior Western military official said. "We have killed a lot of Taliban, but they are not running out of foot soldiers, and for every one we kill, we create new families that hate us."

On Sept. 5, Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, announced a peace pact with domestic Taliban forces operating in the tribal areas of Pakistan along the Afghan border. The next day, he traveled here to promote the agreement and to try to ease tensions with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, saying the two leaders should work together to fight the Taliban and terrorism.

Under the peace deal, Taliban groups in Pakistan pledged not to cross the border to attack in Afghanistan. But since Sept. 5, assaults on Afghan and foreign forces near the Pakistani frontier have continued.

Musharraf, meanwhile, infuriated Afghan officials by making comments in Europe this week that equated members of the Taliban with Pashtuns, the largest Afghan ethnic group, and suggested they were more dangerous than al-Qaeda.

"Associating the Pashtuns with the Taliban is an affront to a community who is eager to establish security and sustainable stability all over Afghanistan," the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. The ministry expressed "profound regret over Pres. Musharraf's attempt to attribute a murderous group and the enemy of peace to one of the ethnic groups living on the both sides of the Durand line."

The Durand Line, arbitrarily drawn by the British in 1893 to separate Afghanistan from what is now Pakistan, is a perennial irritant for both countries. It divides Pashtun tribal lands and is not accepted by many Afghans.

Many Afghans say they suspect that Musharraf's deal with Taliban forces in his own country is an attempt to wash his hands of a domestic problem and push it across the border into Afghanistan. At the same time, they say, he has gratuitously insulted a neighbor that had hosted him just days before.

Musharraf has stood by his pact and denied intending to give offense. He and Karzai are scheduled to meet separately with President Bush in Washington this month. The Bush administration strongly backs both rulers and is eager to patch up their tense relations. Since the overthrow of Afghanistan's Taliban rulers in late 2001, the United States has made a major investment in troops and money in an effort to bring stable and democratic rule to the region as an antidote to Islamic extremism.

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