TIME: Losing Control?


If the U.S. has won the war in Afghanistan, maybe somebody should tell the enemy it's time to surrender. The bad guys are still out there, undetectable in the rocky, umber hills of eastern Afghanistan--until they strike, which they do with growing frequency, accuracy and brazenness. These days American forward bases are coming under rocket or mortar fire three times a week on average. Apache pilots sometimes see angry red arcing lines of tracer bullets rising toward their choppers from unseen gunners hidden in Afghanistan's saw-blade ridges. Roads frequented by special forces are often mined with remote-controlled explosives, a new tactic al-Qaeda fighters picked up from their Chechen comrades fighting the Russians. With phantom enemy fighters stepping up attacks and U.S. forces making little headway against them, General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, felt compelled to acknowledge last week, "We've lost a little momentum there, to be frank."

Is Afghanistan slipping out of America's control? It's an especially relevant question at a time when Pentagon planners are holding up Afghanistan as a template for possible "regime change" in Iraq. Failure to pacify Afghanistan could make it tougher for the Bush Administration to sustain support for a new war against Saddam Hussein. "If Afghanistan falls," says an Army officer in Washington, "Iraq just got that much harder."

The fear of failure in Afghanistan has lately prompted some hard new thinking in both Washington and Kabul. General Myers' candid remarks to the Brookings Institution suggests the Pentagon is trying to be more creative in its pursuit of stability in Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, for his part, flashed some atypical steel last week when he fired 15 provincial officials, all of them connected to powerful warlords, on charges of abusing authority, corruption and drug trafficking. Until now Karzai has avoided conflict with the various local potentates, who often ignore the national government.

Diplomats in Kabul say Karzai can enforce his announced purge only if the U.S. backs him. After all, two men on Karzai's list of wrongdoers--the intelligence chiefs of Kandahar and Mazar-i-Sharif--are tough characters whom the U.S. has used as proxies in the war against al-Qaeda. U.S. policy had been to avoid involvement in what it calls "green on green" fighting in Afghanistan: conflicts between militias at least theoretically loyal to the new government. But lately U.N. officials in Afghanistan say they have witnessed a sea change in the American attitude. The new stance was illustrated most vividly last month when U.S. paratroopers seized an enormous cache of weapons and ammo--42 truckloads full--belonging to Pacha Khan Zadran, a chieftain in eastern Afghanistan. Zadran was supposed to be a U.S. ally, but U.S. intelligence officers say Zadran was selling weapons on the side to al-Qaeda. U.S. officers suspect that some of the al-Qaeda rockets now careering into American forward bases near Khost came from Zadran's fire sale. The Americans destroyed many of the weapons they seized and gave the rest to the nascent Afghan national army.

Even without Zadran's stores, al-Qaeda and Taliban survivors clearly have the capacity to keep fighting. U.S. forces have managed to uncover a number of arms depots in the eastern part of Afghanistan, where the enemy is still active, still the weapons flow has not ceased. Says a senior Afghan military figure in Paktika province on the border: "Here, the Taliban and al-Qaeda have no shortage of weapons; they're channeling them in from Pakistan." Afghan intelligence officials believe the Taliban and al-Qaeda have set up a network along the border of what the military calls "enablers," those who provide money, hide weapons and spy on U.S. troop movements. The Taliban, they say, have secretly re-established councils throughout most of Paktika province.

Lately the enemy has grown better and bolder. A bunker at a U.S. base in Lawara was hit last month by an incoming rocket. There were no casualties, but it was the first time such a hit-and-run attack had scored. Six days later, a rocket was launched at the U.S. special forces' Chapman Army airfield at 10 a.m. It was the first daytime rocket attack since the Taliban's collapse.

The enemy is even contracting out jobs. In Kandahar, U.S. forces recently figured out that a rocket attack on their Bagram base in June was carried out by one of their own Afghan allies. The Americans had fallen behind with the payroll, and al-Qaeda offered the turncoat quick cash, according to Taliban figures connected with the commander. He now resides, according to an aide to the governor of Kandahar, in a prison cage in the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Catching the perpetrators of such assaults after the fact is usually all but impossible. After enduring a barrage of wildly aimed rockets on their Camp Salerno base last month, commanders of the 82nd Airborne Division decided to mount a helicopter-and artillery-backed assault of 520 infantrymen on a high mountain valley rumored to be used as an al-Qaeda staging post. Up in the valley, this massive invasion force encountered only a lone man, who popped off a few rifle shots and then fled. He was never caught.

General Myers, in his assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, gives Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants credit for responding well to U.S. tactics, for instance, by improving their ability to communicate and move money undetected. "They've adapted their tactics," he says, "and we've got to adapt ours." In particular, Myers argues, "intelligence flow has to be a lot more exquisite than it's been." He says that in the early months of the war, the U.S. kept the enemy off balance with "bold" actions that carried "a large element of risk." Now, he says, "we've got to get back to the point where we can ... act ... faster than they can."

Of course, pursuing enemy elements more aggressively carries the risk of further alienating innocent Afghans who invariably get hassled during security sweeps. "No one ever forgets that American soldiers came into their house and trawled through their women's clothing. Nor do they forgive," says Mullah Mohammed Khaksar, who despite having served as the Taliban deputy interior minister, is a relative moderate. "Doesn't the U.S. realize that with every one of these operations, their enemy is not decreasing but increasing with fresh, embittered new recruits?"

Ideally, the U.S. would like to see Afghanistan pacified by the Afghan national army. But building that force is proving a slow, arduous project. Because regional warlords are loath to contribute soldiers and weapons to a military force that could be used against them later, the national army so far consists of only about 1,200 raw, poorly armed recruits. Says a State Department official, with understatement: "They are not yet ready to take the field." Given the vacuum of authority, Washington seems to be coming around to the idea that Afghanistan is a long-term project for the U.S. "We're going to have to be there for the long haul," says David Johnson, the Bush Administration's coordinator for U.S. policy on Afghanistan.

General Myers also suggests there is growing consensus in Washington that Afghanistan's needs require a greater commitment from the U.S. In the strip of Afghanistan stretching from Kabul eastward to the Pakistan border, where al-Qaeda and the Taliban are still potent, the principal mission of the U.S. must for now remain military, Myers says. But in the remaining three-quarters of the country, it might be time to "flip our priorities," he says, and make reconstruction paramount. "That's what we're debating right now inside government." Myers says rebuilding Afghanistan would not be "a U.S.-only effort" and would require "a lot of help from the international community." But given that the war was driven by Washington, the initiative for a global effort to reconstruct Afghanistan will likely have to come from there too.

Repairing Afghanistan's infrastructure and economy might have the secondary benefit of improving security by reducing the ranks of malcontents and extremists. Mullah Khaksar says he has just returned from Kandahar, where young men fill the teahouses talking of their hatred for America. "I asked, 'Why are you here?' They answered that there was no work and no jobs; what else did they have to do?" He adds, "It's the only time they talk politics, when they are without work. Every unemployed man is the President of Afghanistan." Or a possible recruit for the enemy.

--With reporting by Massimo Calabresi and Mark Thompson/Washington and Kamal Haider/Maidanshah