Diverse Afghan groups behind unrest

A rocket attack that killed two US soldiers Wednesday is the lastest in a spate of attacks ahead of a September vote.

Afghan officials are concerned that a spate of recent attacks shows renewed vigor from Islamic militants in the region, as well as a convergence of disparate groups interested in destabilizing the country in the run-up to parliamentary elections.

Though blame is often laid at the feet of Al Qaeda and the Taliban for most of the unrest here, security officials say that drug profiteers, warlords reluctant to disarm, rival politicians, and ordinary Afghans with personal vendettas are behind many violent incidents.

While there are no indications that these disparate groups have joined forces with insurgents, many share a common desire to disrupt September's vote, say officials. A freely elected parliament would bolster the US-backed government in Kabul, and could strengthen the rule of law - a direct threat to warlords and drug traders who rule by gun.

"Most people don't realize how many layers of terrorists and criminals the government of Afghanistan is trying to fight," says Latfullah Mashal, the Ministry of Interior spokesman. "What goes out in the press is mostly about Al qaeda and the Taliban, but there is much more."

Mr. Mashal says last month's kidnapping of CARE worker Clementina Cantoni was the work of a local criminal gang whose leader is suspected of killing a wealthy businessman last year. The government said Thursday that Afghan negotiators are in regular contact with the kidnappers and are hopeful Ms. Cantoni would soon be released.

Investigations concluded that criminal gangs were also to blame for the kidnapping of three United Nations workers last November. The three were held hostage for about a month.

"These gangs kidnap internationals purely for economic reasons, they want ransom," says Nick Downie, who heads an independent body that advises aid organizations on security in Afghanistan. "Their motive isn't to kill, but they think internationals equal big money."

Kidnappings have been a tactics to extort money from reconstruction projects. According to security experts, dozens of Turkish and Chinese road workers and engineers have been kidnapped or killed because their employers have refused to pay bribes to local commanders. However, immediate news reports of such events often suggest these to be acts of terror by rebels.

To be sure, insurgents linked to the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and renegade warlord Gulbudin Hekmatyar are to blame for much violence. Mashal estimates that 70 percent of the incidents are planned and carried out by these three rebel groups.

On Wednesday, two US service members were killed in a rocket attack on a base near the Pakistan border. American planes failed to locate the attackers, who are believed to be insurgents.

Analysts in Pakistan say that a recent string of suicide attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan that killed 50 people are an attempt to show Washington that Al Qaeda remains a credible force in the region, despite recent blows.

The three major suicide attacks in a fortnight, all seen as tied to Al Qaeda, came after the arrest of what some consider the No. 3 in Al Qaeda, Abu Faraj-al Libbi.

"It seems to be in retaliation to operations against Al Qaeda," says Lahore-based analyst Khalid Ahmed. "With suicide bombings, Al Qaeda wants to divert attention of the security agencies from the hunt and also send warnings to President Bush and his key allies."

But in Afghanistan, where warlords have become politicians, personal vendettas and political killings have taken place under the guises of the Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgency. "A lot of the country is still in the hands of warlords and local commanders and when the central government tries to replace or rearrange them, there is some sort of violent backlash," says a high-ranking Afghan security official.

One of the recent suicide bombings in Afghanistan may have more to do with political rivalry than international terrorism. Among the 19 people killed in the June 1 bombing of a mosque in Kandahar was Kabul's newly appointed police chief, Akram Khakreezwal.

Contradicting government assertions that the attack was planned by Al Qaeda, Mr. Khakreezwal's brothers have said the attack targeted Khakreezwal, who was originally from Kandahar. They say he was very supportive of a strong central government and was rapidly moving up the security ranks.

Zaher Azimy, a Defense Ministry spokesman, says there are many groups that don't want to see the central government gain any more power - making the September poll a focal point. "The parliamentary elections will be the final step in legitimizing the Karzai government and giving us representatives from all over the country," he says.

Although the Afghan government has promised a full investigation into the mosque attack, most of these incidents are in the end deemed random acts of violence by "the enemies of Afghanistan."

Owais Tohid contributed to this report from Karachi, Pakistan.

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