- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 25, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan They lined up under a blistering sun, looking ready for action, 200 camouflage-clad recruits, billed as the vanguard of Afghanistan's future army. But whether they represent their country in anything but name and uniform is another matter entirely.

As the meeting that will decide Afghanistan's future approaches, many worry the newly minted military and the government overseeing it are controlled by a tightly knit group bent on retaining power even as the international community tries to spread it around.

Afghanistan has long been a volatile cauldron of ethnic groups, political alliances and local and tribal agendas that have either caused wars or fought them for outsiders. But for the past six months, under Hamid Karzai's interim administration, much of the overt violence, at least in the capital, has been kept in check.

Still, deep disagreements about how power should be shared indeed, if it should be shared at all cast a shadow over what the government is touting as unfettered optimism about a nation ready to leave old hatreds behind.

"They say this government is multiethnic and multipolitical. But in practice, it's not," said Ghulam Hassan Gran, a security specialist in Kabul who advocates a wider distribution of power. "They put the power in the hands of one group."

The group he refers to is the Panjshiris a subcluster of the northern alliance of opposition groups that fought the Taliban for five years and displaced them from Kabul in November after a month of U.S. air strikes.

The faction, from the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul, was led by Ahmed Shah Masood, a charismatic military strategist who was assassinated on Sept. 9. Mr. Masood was among those ruling Afghanistan before the Taliban came to power a period when factional fighting killed 50,000 Afghans.

Today, under the interim government drawn up in Germany last December, Panjshiris hold the three key ministries foreign, interior and defense and, by extension, most of the power.

Some say they also dominate the group of 600 military recruits being trained by U.S. Special Forces east of Kabul.

"We need to rebuild the army like a building from its foundation," said Wahidullah Sabaoon, a Pashtun who was defense chief and later finance minister in the Afghan government-in-exile during the Taliban rule.

"The previous army was soldiers. The army right now is political," he said. "We cannot claim they are representative of all Afghanistan. People should not criticize this army. They struggled against terrorists. But if any tribe, any group, any province wants to participate in the army, it should be open to everybody."

Yet three weeks before the loya jirga, a traditional grand council, convenes to choose a new temporary government, Panjshiri partisans in fatigues, some with Calvin Klein and Versace logos on their breast pockets, remain ubiquitous on Kabul's streets. Many are armed. Most have pictures of Mr. Masood festooned on their vehicles, persons or guns.

Their presence violates the agreement that led to formation of the interim regime and the formula that calls for the loya jirga. However, the United Nations, which brokered the agreement, said it would ignore the violation.

"This will not go forward unless there is some redistribution of power from the Panjshiris," said Alexander Thier, Kabul representative of the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization.

The group's recent report on the loya jirga sounded a note of caution, saying the Panjshiris were "essentially given six months to consolidate their hold on power."

Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim has refused to withdraw soldiers from Kabul and rejected suggestions that a new national guard unit chosen specifically to be multiethnic be used as an "elite presidential guard."

As a result, several of the men trained by British peacekeepers have turned in their uniforms, disillusioned, and have gone home.

Mr. Fahim, through a spokesman, refused requests for an interview this week, saying he was too busy. His spokesman did not return calls.

The obstacles to true power-sharing are as formidable as ever. A sampling:

•Ethnic Hazaras are suspicious both of the newly returned king, who they believe did little for them, and of the Panjshiris, who shelled their neighborhoods during 1992-96 factional fighting.

•Southern Pashtuns, weary of being equated with the predominantly Pashtun Taliban, are wary of being excluded from power.

•The United Nations estimates there are 100,000 irregulars scattered through the country men with guns and intricate local allegiances. Warlords would be hard-pressed to contribute such forces and arms to a national military that won't defend their interests.

Zalmay Rasul, the new civil-aviation minister and a former secretary to the ex-king, acknowledges what he calls "an imbalance in the Cabinet."

But he noted that the arrangement was approved by the international community in December.

"We had reasons to believe that choice at that moment was the best thing for Afghanistan," Mr. Rasul said. "But that was a very different situation than now. And I think that the men who will lead the next government will see that."


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