McNeill meets Ismail Khan; and Development Aid
The fighting between ethnic Tajiks (Sunni Persian speakers) around the northwestern city of Herat with ethnic Pushtuns brought a visit from the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill. He met with Herat’s governor/ warlord Ismail Khan, offering US good offices in ending the regional fighting. Ismail Khan denied there was much of a problem, and branded the Pushtuns against which the Tajiks were fighting as “Taliban.” Pushtuns throughout northern Afghanistan have faced reprisals and collective punishment because they were identified with the largely Pushtun Taliban. It seems a little unlikely that the Pushtuns around Herat are actually Taliban, and this appears to be an ethnic conflict.
Sunday and Monday Tajik fighters had battled Amanullah Khan’s Pushtun forces, leaving perhaps 25 or so dead and more wounded. A ceasefire was reached late Monday with central government officials acting as mediators.
The subtext of McNeill’s visit is surely not only an offer of help but an implicit threat of US involvement if Ismail Khan does not resolve the situation himself. It also appears to have been a way of pressuring him to greater deference to Kabul. He was careful to proclaim his allegiance to President Karzai, and affirmed that he would send more money to the center if they needed it. This phraseology cannot be very assuring to the Karzai government. It is rather as though Gov. Engler of Michigan should pledge that he would consider remitting to the Federal government Michigan’s Federal tax receipts “if W. needed it.” On the other hand, AP reports that the Herat region is possibly the best governed in the country, with kept-up paved roads, schools, and even gas stations. In contrast, US troops and Afghan allies discovered a big cache of anti-aircraft weapons near Khost in the southeast, and apprehended 5 persons, though whether these were Taliban or al-Qaida was not specified.
Meanwhile, some Afghan cabinet members met with US officials in Washington, D.C., pleading for more of the $4.5 bn. aid pledged at Tokyo by the industrialized nations to be released (only $1 bn. has come in, and about half of that had to be spent on food and humanitarian activities.) US AID reported that it has rebuilt 70,000 homes and 30 schools, which seems to me a goodwill story that has not been sufficiently reported in the press. In particular, the agricultural sector needs to be revived if Afghanistan is to get back on its feet after 20 years of war and 3 years of drought.
The buzz about Afghanistan’s continued instability strikes me as overdrawn. What is amazing is that a country that has undergone such a major revolution in governance in the past year has as much order as it does. Older tribal mechanisms have clearly been resurrected. These work well enough when they do not devolve into major feuds. Afghanistan has not done well under extremely centralized governments, such as those of the Communists or the Taliban.
The the virtual autonomy of an Ismail Khan is probably not a pressing issue at the moment. Eventually the warlords will have to be integrated more effectively into a new Afghan state. That cannot come until the Kabul bureaucracy and army is capable of asserting itself. But Ismail Khan should be made to understand that his forces must give up any vendetta against the Pushtuns, or risk military intervention at Karzai’s orders. Ethnic strife among the winners is the one thing that could destabilize the country again in a major way. The nightmare is that Afghanistan will return to the chaos of the mid-1990s. Karzai must not let that happen, but his major military force, the old army of the Northern Alliance, is Tajik and it may not be willing to intervene against other Tajiks. He may have to appeal for US help, and McNeill was surely attempting to gauge whether such a US intervention is warranted.