Border province breeds potential Afghan revolt
A low-paid, poorly trained force in Afghanistan's northeast struggles to secure the province against a regrouping of Islamic guerrillas.
ASADABAD, AFGHANISTAN — As a former Islamic guerrilla against the Soviets, Najibullah remembers watching the long lines of Russian tanks, artillery, and disciplined soldiers coming to take over the Konar province.
In 1989, with just a few thousand men armed with Kalashnikovs, grenades, and antiaircraft missiles, he and fellow resistance fighters liberated Konar, the first state to be returned to native Afghan control.
Now the tables have turned. The former rebel is himself in charge of securing the northeastern province, which borders Pakistan, against Islamic guerrillas. But, with a poorly trained force of 1,800 men, and with none of the necessary resources or arms to secure the peace - Najibullah is worried. His men earn just $1 a month - enough for a few rounds of tea - and they haven't been paid in six months. Meanwhile, all around him, in rural areas and border towns, hundreds, perhaps thousands of Islamic guerrillas - from the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and from Afghan religious parties - prepare for their moment to strike.
"How can we defend against this staggering number of enemies?" he says in exasperation. "We can't trust our own men. Somebody could offer them thousands of rupees, and I can only offer them 10. It's possible for even 300 men to take everything from us, not just the city but the province."
About 10 miles south of the province's capital, Asadabad, is a US base manned by Special Forces, estimated to number about 500 soldiers. They conduct joint patrols with local Afghan soldiers, looking for weapons in the homes and properties of supposed Taliban sympathizers, and watching the Afghan-Pakistani border for Al Qaeda infiltrators.
But the real enemy, Afghan officials say, is already within the province. Konar remains a base for the radical Islamist party Hizb-I Islami, led by the anti-Soviet hero Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Afghan intelligence sources say Mr. Hekmatyar, who helped topple the Soviet-backed government in 1992 only to help destroy the country by fighting with rival guerrilla groups for control of Kabul, is now regrouping in Konar and recruiting leading Afghan commanders and political leaders for a coming revolt.
"In this region, Hizb-I Islami is very strong, because the local people fought with Hekmatyar against the Soviets," says Sher Hassan, the local deputy chief of the Afghan intelligence agency Amniat. But Hekmatyar and his party would be nothing without money, he adds, and Amniat believes Hekmatyar is receiving money from "neighboring countries."
"All the bordering countries are interfering in our affairs, sometimes in their own interests and sometimes in the interests of their friends," says Mr. Hassan. "China has always had good relations with Pakistan. All the weapons we used during jihad [the Soviet war] came from China, but they have not given them directly to us. They gave the weapons to Pakistan. Now it is working the same way, with weapons and money going to Hekmatyar.
"They [Hekmatyar and his party] haven't started any big attacks, just some guerrilla attacks on the US base," says Hassan. "But if they are backed by foreign countries, they can do anything, they can even take Konar from us."
Hekmatyar appears to be rallying his main party organizers, top-level leaders, and commanders of Hizb-I Islami, say Afghan officials both here and in Kabul. In addition, Hekmatyar's party is rallying public sentiment against US forces and the Karzai government through leaflets and mobile radio broadcasts from both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Gul Adad, chief of the Afghan border security force at Nawa Pass checkpoint, says his men often listen to Hekmatyar's speeches on their radios. The range of their radios is only 12 kilometers, which suggests that the mobile radio station is quite close to the border.
Both China and Pakistan vehemently deny supporting Al Qaeda terrorists, or other enemies of Afghanistan. As evidence of its loyalty in the war on terrorism, Pakistan touts the more than 400 alleged terrorists captured on its soil since the fall of the Taliban - all of whom have been handed over to American law-enforcement officials. More than 340 of these accused terrorists were captured in the Pakistani tribal areas along the Afghan border, says Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, spokesman for the Pakistani military and for President Pervez Musharraf.
"There is very close logistical and intelligence cooperation between the US and Pakistan," says General Qureshi in a phone interview. "Some people say that Al Qaeda is hiding in the tribal areas, but every time a foreign reporter has been there, they find nothing there."
Yet Afghan, Pakistani, and US military authorities have repeatedly cited shadowy "training camps" along the 1,500-mile Afghan-Pakistani border as posing the greatest challenge in routing terrorism in the region.
In Asadabad, Security Chief Najibullah can only tick off the cities and areas that he doesn't control. In Barikot, a border city north of Asadabad, there are reports of more than 300 foreign fighters receiving refuge in the hometown of a top Hizb-I Islami commander, Kashmir Khan. Similarly, Dangam, Asmar, and Narai are in enemy hands, even though the appointed leaders there still talk of supporting the Karzai government. "Up there, they are against the government, and against us," says Najibullah. "And the reason they are against us is that we haven't brought them anything. No hospitals, no doctors, no roads, no security. Nothing has changed, only the faces of the leaders."
A group of US Army civilian affairs personnel, which had been stationed in Asadabad to begin the reconstruction of schools, hospitals, and roads, has been withdrawn to Kabul due to ongoing rocket attacks against the US base there.
The atmosphere of uncertainty in Konar leaves many citizens with a sense of foreboding. "I am sure that in the very near future, this province will be the center of a big clash of two regimes," says Mohammad Nasser, a shopkeeper in Asadabad, who says he welcomes US forces and the new Afghan government. "On one side are the old radical Islamists of the Taliban, and on the other side are the new liberal Muslims. And I am not sure which side will win."