Afghanistan struggles to forge a new esprit de corps

Efforts continue this week toward forming a national army free from the centrifugal pull of warlords.

Hamid Karzai is looking for a few good men.

In a message broadcast widely on local television and radio, Afghanistan's interim leader is calling for 200 able-bodied recruits from each of the country's 32 provinces. They are to make up the core of a new national army.

"They should be men of patriotic spirit, aged 20 to 25, and be fit from a physical point of view," says the message, stressing that the final mix will evenly represent Afghanistan's patchwork of often-hostile ethnic groups. Anyone with a criminal record or prior political connections, the message adds, will be disqualified.

It was previously assumed that any national force would commingle existing fighters from the country's dozen-odd militias, though most of them now remain under control of local warlords with various degrees of loyalty to the central government in Kabul. However, these rag-tag armies know mainly guerrilla tactics and have questionable human-rights records. Some have been implicated in recent attacks both on civilians and on aid convoys bringing food to the country's hunger belt.

Efforts have begun to decommission these soldiers and eventually employ them in rebuilding projects.

Analysts say the push to recruit new soldiers may reflect Karzai's growing realization that the key to long-term stability is outgunning the country's many gunmen. While Karzai, who heads to Washington today to meet with President George Bush for talks on Afghanistan's reconstruction, commands respect from most ordinary Afghans and the international community, he has no military force of his own.

The main Afghan powerbrokers, including Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum in the north, Ismael Khan in the western city of Herat, and Pashtun leader Gul Agha in southern Kandahar, have all publicly pledged allegiance to the central command. However, there are fears that fealty may wane as the six-month term of the interim government draws to a close, and key decisions on longer-term control of the country are made.

"I think we are in a honeymoon period as far as the warlords are concerned," says one local analyst, who asked not to be named. "In the coming months, we could see them return to their old ways."

Concern grew last week when fighting erupted in northern Kunduz Province between troops loyal to Gen. Dostum and ethnic Tajik soldiers who back Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim. There was also posturing in the south and west of the country between rival warlords.

One senior diplomat who has had extensive contact with the various warlords since the fall of the Taliban says the long-term stability of Afghanistan remains a major worry. "It's a very fragile situation at the moment," said Francesc Vendrell, the departing UN special envoy to Afghanistan. Before leaving the country with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who made a one-day visit last Friday, Vendrell called for an expansion of the international security force now patrolling Kabul to the country's other major urban centers. Under the UN-brokered agreement signed in Bonn, the British-led peacekeeping force that will eventually total 5,000 soldiers is confined to the Afghan capital.

Although various regional commanders have rejected the need for international forces in their zones, Karzai has said he believes the foreign troops should spread into the provinces and remain through the establishment of the next administration, thus giving time for the national army to be formed and trained.

One question is how far the international community is prepared to go - and how much it is willing to spend - to ensure long-term stability in Afghanistan. US officials say privately that their central concern is routing the remaining Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, rather than policing inter-Afghan squabbles, and Bush has repeatedly stressed his distaste for "nation building."

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