Will Afghan Chaos Make U.S. Reluctant Nation-Builder?

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Sgt. Jason Deer flies in a Blackhawk as he mans his M-60 Delta machine gun

The U.S. says it has no intention of engaging in nation-building in Afghanistan, and yet it can't allow the collapse of the new regime it has installed in Kabul. Nothing would boost the fortunes of the Taliban and al-Qaeda — and imperil the security of U.S. forces in Afghanistan — more than a slide back into civil war. And the obvious fragility of the Karzai government in the face of an increasingly perilous security situation may force the U.S. military, despite its desire to steer clear of Afghanistan's warlord rivalries, to become increasingly involved in actions that involve neither the Taliban nor al-Qaeda.

Last weekend U.S. warplanes flew bombing sorties in support of pro-government fighters under fire from forces of a rival warlord. The absence of Taliban or al-Qaeda from that fight — and previous warnings by interim president Hamid Karzai that he would call for U.S. air support against armed challenges to his government — prompted speculation that American forces were being drawn directly into Afghanistan's tribal wars. The Pentagon disputes that, stressing that it was simply helping out allied forces who had been ambushed in the course of an anti-Taliban mission. But as Afghanistan runs out of Taliban to go after, those distinctions promise to get blurrier and blurrier.

Like it or not, the U.S. is already involved, by dint of the alliances made in the course of its campaign against the Taliban and al Qaeda. Warlords who worked with the Americans benefited immensely in terms of cash, equipment, and often also air support and special forces advisers. Naturally, that strengthened their position against rivals, some of whom have begun making alliances of convenience with America's enemies and others who remain independent but increasingly hostile to the U.S. and its local allies. The CIA has reportedly warned the U.S. government that the danger is mounting of a renewed outbreak of ethnic and tribal fighting in Afghanistan. And that potentially raises the dangers to American personnel deployed in Afghanistan.

In Kandahar, for example, the U.S. chose former governor Gul Agha Sherzai as the warlord to help them unseat the Taliban. Sherzai is back in power, now, but much of the local resentment bred by the corruption and lawlessness of his first term in office persists. U.S. support for Sherzai has alienated some local commanders with no loyalty to the either the Taliban or al-Qaeda. And their resentment is being exploited by some long-standing U.S. enemies. The forces of the local Ittehad e-Islami faction, for example, appear to have made common cause with the Hizb e-Islami of Tehran-based warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has vowed to fight the U.S. and its allies in Kabul. Intelligence sources in Afghanistan even fear that these forces may be forging links with the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda to harass American and allied forces. Local sources allege that Hekmatyar's loyalists may have been behind the three attacks on the U.S. airbase at Kandahar in the past month.

Sherzai is also under pressure from some of his own tribal allies over the allocation of spoils, and disaffected elements are being courted by more militant opponents of the new government. A landscape teeming with posses of armed fighters of fluid loyalty may already be challenging the U.S. military's determination to avoid involvement in inter-Afghan power struggles.

In Kabul, too, the new order is looking a little shaky. Last week's mob murder of a government minister is being interpreted as a sign of mounting ethnic tension within Karzai's government (always an unlikely alliance of Northern Alliance commanders and Pashtun royalists). And two attacks on British peacekeeping troops in Kabul in the past week has underscored a sense that even the capital's streets are not entirely secure.

What can the U.S. do about it? Karzai has appealed for the international community to beef up its 4,000-strong peacekeeping force and extend its operations beyond Kabul. But the response, thus far, has been tepid. Although the U.S. remains opposed to participating, the State Department has proposed that the U.S. offer logistical and intelligence support — and offer rescue missions — to entice others to send more troops. But the Pentagon prefers accelerated efforts to build a new national army for Afghanistan, which the U.S. would help train, organize and equip in order to allow Afghans to do the job themselves. That, however, would take many months, if not years, during which the security situation looks set to become increasingly perilous.

Nation-building may be anathema at the Pentagon, but the campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda has necessarily eliminated the only structure of centralized power in Afghanistan — along with the only enemy a working majority of Afghanistan could agree on. And if the U.S. decides that it cannot let the ensuing vacuum swallow the nation it boasted of liberating, it may have to let the Pentagon drop the increasingly arti ficial-looking distinction between missions against the designated enemy and missions in support of the designated ally.