- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 26, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan Akhter Mohammed slipped his holstered pistol onto his shoulder and recalled a brutal battle against the Taliban, fighting side by side with U.S. Special Forces.

They were brave, heroic, he said. But now he wants America to leave the battlefield behind and begin rebuilding his homeland.

"We don't need them to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda anymore. We can do that," Mr. Mohammed said, expressing a sentiment voiced by many Afghans. "We need them to help build our country."

More than a year after the United States undertook Operation Enduring Freedom, the war that toppled the Taliban, American troops soldier on in Afghanistan, hunting down holdouts in a campaign that these days produces scant results.

The new government remains vulnerable and the economy stagnant, awaiting the jump-start of reconstruction aid. And the Kabul leadership worries that Washington's shift of focus to Iraq could leave it adrift.

In conservative and tribal Uruzgan province, where Hamid Karzai ignited the anti-Taliban revolt that quickly took him to the Afghan presidency, Mr. Mohammed feels it's time for new directions.

Mr. Mohammed is a military man himself, head of security at the provincial governor's residence. In an interview in Uruzgan, he remembered a particularly vicious battle at Shah Wali Kot, where Afghans and Americans fought and died together.

Guns roared. Men fought hand-to-hand. Overhead, American AC-130 aircraft blasted the ground with their heavy guns, and B-52s streaked through the skies. There was dust everywhere. The front line blurred.

A bomb from a B-52 slammed into Mr. Mohammed's position, and 25 of his men were killed, along with three American soldiers. Mr. Mohammed was slightly hurt by razor-sharp shrapnel, but he doesn't blame his American comrades.

"They helped us finish the Taliban."

Uncounted thousands of Taliban and civilians, and 16 Americans, died in the war that began Oct. 7, 2001, and wound down after Taliban resistance collapsed in December.

The U.S. command, however, doesn't believe that the Taliban, and their al Qaeda terrorist allies, were truly finished, and has kept up the hunt, month by month, in the Afghan highlands, with 7,000 to 8,000 American soldiers who remain even after some allied forces, notably the British and Canadians, pulled out.

The Americans will be here for a "long, long time," theater commander Gen. Tommy Franks said in August. But, one year on, their soldier's work and its mistakes and everyday intrusions is a growing irritant for ordinary Afghans.

When they entered Afghanistan, the Americans stepped into a world ruled by tribal customs, feuds and cultural taboos. They were confounded.

"They don't understand our traditions," said an official who gave his name as simply Hassan, deputy head of intelligence in Asadabad, capital of the eastern province of Kunar.

"We know that if they leave, there will be war, but we are afraid if they continue to stay because people are so angry and so afraid of what they are doing, searching people's homes, searching women."

Many Afghans, like Mr. Mohammed, see less a need for continued defense against a resurgent Taliban than a need for an economic offensive, led by the Americans, to rebuild their country.

After the Taliban fell, Afghans had soaring economic expectations for their desperately poor country. More than 1.6 million refugees, mostly from Pakistan, flooded back to their homeland.

Today, however, some have begun to return to Pakistan and Iran because they have no homes or jobs, and because Afghanistan's roads, bridges and other infrastructure remain unrepaired after the destruction of 23 years of war.

The U.N. envoy for Afghanistan said things will only worsen in the coming months. "Winter is going to be very, very difficult," Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi said recently at U.N. headquarters in New York.

Mr. Karzai took the Afghan case to New York on Sept. 12, telling the U.N. General Assembly: "The Afghan people urgently need the pledges in Tokyo to be turned into reality in other words, cash."

At a Tokyo conference last January, international donors promised $4.5 billion for reconstruction, but only a fraction an estimated $100 million, or 2.2 percent has reached Afghanistan.

The Afghan president, seeking a quick start to high-visibility projects, won assurances of $180 million in aid from the United States, Japan and Saudi Arabia to rebuild the main highway running from Kabul, the capital, through Kandahar to Herat in the southwest, starting in January.

His government's credibility rests squarely on the shoulders of the international community and the speed of economic recovery, Mr. Karzai says.

The same warning can be heard in the countryside, with Afghan after Afghan saying young men without jobs could be enticed into joining an opposition movement, which some fear could coalesce among ex-Taliban, followers of renegade commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and even groups whose opposition to the Taliban is outweighed by their dislike of Mr. Karzai and the U.S. military presence.

Mr. Karzai's authority hardly extends beyond Kabul.

Provincial warlords who swept into power when the Taliban fled are still in place a year later, and are even stronger today in the judgment of the International Crisis Group, an independent think tank. Afghanistan's ethnic politics contributes to the disunity.

Formation of a multiethnic Afghan army foundation for a secure Afghanistan has run into resistance from the Defense Ministry, which is dominated by members of the Tajik minority that led the successful ground war against the largely Pashtun Taliban.

The first several hundred Afghan soldiers trained by international officers have not been paid, armed or given responsibilities by the Defense Ministry, which relies instead on Tajik militiamen.

The government's vulnerability became dramatically apparent last month in the daylight assassinations of two government ministers, in a failed assassination attempt on Mr. Karzai himself, in dozens of bombings or foiled bombing plots. One powerful blast killed as many as 30 people in a busy Kabul market.

An analyst for the International Crisis Group, Sameena Ahmed, sees ethnic divisions growing deeper and more hostile, and defiant local warlords more powerful, in part because of alliances with and funding by the Americans. She says it has been a year of lost opportunities for Washington, as it focused on military objectives and neglected the political.

But that may be changing.

On Sept. 20, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill, in a new kind of U.S. initiative, went to Herat to broker peace between two rival commanders, Herat's Ismail Khan and Kandahar's Gul Agha Sherzai. Both are powerful provincial governors with thousands of armed men on call.

After passing the one-year mark, Operation Enduring Freedom may be finding it necessary to look for political formulas to tame the old warlords of the new Afghanistan.

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