- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 11, 2002

The shot that killed Afghan Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir on Saturday was heard around the world, resonating with special significance in Washington. His assassination could cause a host of strategic problems for the United States, both in tactical and less tangible (but no less important) terms. While there is a lively debate about who shot Mr. Qadir, it seems irrefutable that Afghanistan's coalition government and, more to the point, the U.S. government that supports it, was the target.

Mr. Qadir was probably killed in an ethnically or tribally driven power struggle. The Qadir killing is expected to trigger, at the very least, tribal warring in Jalalabad, the capital of the Nangahar province where Mr. Qadir was governor. This region has been a main theater of operations for U.S. troops hunting down al Qaeda and Taliban remnants in Afghanistan. Peripheral infighting will complicate the U.S. mission and could ultimately claim the lives of U.S. troops.

But there is a grimmer scenario to consider as a result of Mr. Qadir's death. Mr. Qadir, a powerful Pashtun tribal leader, represented Afghanistan's ethnic majority. Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, is also a widely respected Pashtun intellectual, but lacks Mr. Qadir's tribal clout. The rest of Afghanistan's government and the bulk of the military is dominated by Tajiks, the ethnic group that primarily manned the Northern Alliance that helped America trounce the Taliban. With Mr. Qadir gone, the cleverly conceived but tenuous coalition U.S. officials helped build could crumble. To make the situation even more worrisome, other key Pashtun leaders, such as Mr. Qadir's brother, Abdul Haq, were killed in October while building opposition to the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan. Remaining Pashtuns, such as Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak who guards the former king, Zaher Shah, and fought against the Taliban have been threatened by people aligned with the Northern Alliance. And, sadly, the wedding party that was rudely interrupted last week by deadly U.S. bombs was also predominantly Pashtun.

These unfortunate incidents demonstrate that U.S. strategy in Afghanistan needs realignment. Understandably, U.S. forces, particularly the CIA, have been keen to bestow favor on allies of the Northern Alliance, which, after all, have been instrumental to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. But many Pashtuns, Mr. Qadir included, also fought against the Taliban and al Qaeda, and it would be foolhardy for U.S. officials to alienate Afghanistan's largest ethnic group.

U.S. forces should also be wary of acting on tainted, Northern Alliance-supplied intelligence, which is sometimes provided as part of a devious bid for revenge or power. Although the matter is under investigation, this kind of dirty intelligence appears to have played a role in the bombing of the Pashtun wedding party last week.

A low-profile, high-impact policy must be the Bush administration's organizing strategy in Afghanistan. While President Bush's decision to keep the Turks in charge of the 5,000-strong peacekeeping force was wise, the administration must move quickly to bolster the security aptitude of local military and police forces, and pare down efforts to arm various tribal groups. Mr. Karzai has hinted he may ask for this kind of help, and Mr. Bush has made clear he would make it forthcoming. The White House must be active behind the scenes to make sure this training is delivered as quickly as possible. Also critical to security will be the gradual expansion of the rule of law in Afghanistan, and here, too, America could lend a hand.

Whoever assassinated Mr. Qadir is clearly seeking to challenge U.S.-supported stability in Afghanistan for tactical advantage. The White House has painstakingly helped construct a democratic infrastructure in Afghanistan. Now, it must take measures to ensure its durability. Tribal thugs in Afghanistan can't be allowed to undermine such critical interests at the point of a gun.


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