Afghan Clash Signals Karzai's Weakness

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Hamid Karzai arrives at London's Heathrow Airport

Hamid Karzai spent his week huddling with President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair and being feted on Capitol Hill as a symbol of U.S. success in Afghanistan. But back home, events on the ground offered a cruel reminder that Karzai is an acting president without a state.

The simplest measure of statehood, after all, is a monopoly of force in a sovereign territory. And two days of fierce fighting in the southeastern town of Gardez have shown the limits of Kabul's authority. When the shooting stopped, Thursday, the warlord appointed governor by Karzai, Padsha Khan Zadran, had been repelled from the city by forces loyal to rival warlord Saifullah.

U.S. special forces in the area remained confined to base and warplanes circling overhead declined to intervene. Other Afghan forces loyal to Karzai's interim government in Kabul also declined to get involved in the fighting at Gardez, which saw as many as 60 people killed. The reason was simple: it was hard to pick a side. Both sides fielded former Taliban fighters, and the dispute centered simply on the allocation of power among rival warlords.

Saifullah had been chosen to lead the region by the local shura, or council of tribal elders, while the government in Kabul picked Zadran. Kabul's man accused his rivals of being Taliban and al Qaeda sympathizers, a charge they strongly deny. Tensions reached a boiling point last December after U.S. warplanes destroyed a convoy they claimed was carrying al Qaeda fighters, but which local elders insist was carrying tribal leaders to Kabul for Karzai's inauguration. Saifullah supporters accuse Zadran of having deliberately misinformed the U.S. about the nature of the convoy, in order to have his rivals eliminated. Zadran, in turn, vigorously denies the charge. And when his forces tried to claim the seat of power on Tuesday, they were dispatched by Saifullah's men in a two-day battle.

The fighting at Gardez will not have helped Karzai's efforts to recruit a larger peacekeeping force. The interim leader has urged the United Nations Security Council to expand the current force of almost 5,000 deployed exclusively in Kabul, in order to help the new government project its authority beyond the capital. But although President Bush offered U.S. help in training a new national army (when such a force becomes possible), he remained politely but firmly opposed to committing any American troops to peacekeeping duties. And Thursday Britain's Tony Blair, whose soldiers are leading the Kabul mission, also rebuffed Karzai's call for more troops.

Karzai's basic problem is that he lacks a monopoly of force, and is looking to the international community to provide the enforcers that will give his government the muscle to function as the law of the land. But foreign reluctance to participate is based on the very real dangers that lurk in a mission that would ultimately require disarming hundreds of local and provincial warlords. After all, it's not only in isolated cases such as Gardez that the post-Taliban power arrangement threatens to break down into new fighting.

Iran has been accused of arming and funding forces loyal to its longtime client Ismail Khan in the western city of Herat, who are challenging the authorities in Kabul. Rival warlords have squared off around Kandahar. The Northern Alliance itself remains divided among various factions, and most of southern Afghanistan's major towns were simply taken over by coalitions of local warlords, many of whom continue to seek to expand their fiefdoms at the expense of their rivals. Into the mix throw thousands of Taliban and al-Qaeda holdouts (including most of their senior leadership) still roaming the hills in various pockets of resistance. And also the tens of thousands of Afghan Taliban fighters who simply went home once their movement lost its grip on power, and signed up for duty with various local warlords.

Before September 11, Afghanistan was a failed state run by a militia (the Taliban) and exploited by an international terror consortium. But the effect of the U.S.-aided victory over the Taliban in large parts of of the country has been more or less a reordering of the power balance among the various warlords (and a redistribution among them of most of the Taliban's troops). In order to make Afghanistan a functioning state, the feuding warlord armies will have to be either disarmed, or else incorporated into a disciplined national army — a Herculean challenge that may require tens of thousands of peacekeepers, or more correctly, peace enforcers.

And now that Afghanistan is no longer the headquarters of a global terror corporation, the international community's appetite for pacification may have waned. Karzai may be given the seat of honor at the State of the Union and invited, like Bill Clinton before him, to address the British Cabinet. But so far there are no signs he'll be given the troops he needs. And that may mean the new dawn for Afghanistan trumpeted by President Bush on Tuesday doesn't extend much beyond Kabul. Karzai's tour and the battle back home showed that while Afghanistan's interim leaders have inherited the trappings of statehood, they have not inherited its power.