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The battle over peacekeeping

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As the fighting in Afghanistan drags on, American troops risk being dragged into a messy civil war

Remember "mission creep"? the Pentagon does. In 1993 what started as a humanitarian operation to feed starving Somalis turned into an exercise in "nation building" and ended with the death of 18 American soldiers on the streets of Mogadishu. Nobody in the U.S. military wants to repeat the experience.

Trouble is, given the current conditions in Afghanistan, mission creep may be hard to avoid. U.S. special forces, allied with "friendly" Afghan tribes and militias, are roaming the country, looking for remnants of the Taliban and senior members of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden's terror network. Defense Department officials acknowledge that, given the rivalries among Afghan factions and warlords, the U.S. could easily be perceived as favoring one side or another. That would make targets of American forces. To prevent that from happening, Washington has begun a debate over exactly how peace can be established and maintained in Afghanistan--and what the long-term role of international peacekeepers and the U.S. in that exercise may be.

"We are not involving ourselves in internecine politics," insists Douglas Feith, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, "including politics backed by guns." So why did U.S. aircraft recently conduct two bombing missions outside the eastern city of Khost, aimed at militias opposed to Afghanistan's interim leader Hamid Karzai? In an interview, General Tommy Franks, commander in chief of U.S. Central Command, told TIME that the bombings were a response to attacks on American forces. As Franks put it, there were some "bad guys" in the region. When friendly Afghan forces conducted a sweep, they were attacked. "Then our people went with them," said Franks, "and our people were shot at." Hence the air strikes.

There may be more to it than that. A Western diplomat in Kabul says intelligence reports indicate that Iranian agents have been seen around Khost--far to the east of where they were thought to have been most active--buying off tribal commanders in a deliberate effort to undermine Karzai. That's why the Americans thought there were "bad guys" in the region. But nobody supposes that Karzai can demand the application of American force against his rivals whenever he feels like it. "We keep telling [the government], 'Don't cry wolf,'" says a European official in Kabul. "They can't just click their fingers and call down U.S. firepower." Franks underlines the point. "We support the interim government in Afghanistan," he told TIME, "but we are not picking sides between groups on the ground."

Feith says the main focus of American military activity is "finishing the job against al-Qaeda and the Taliban," the initial goals of the American war effort in Afghanistan. Indeed, there is a job to finish: bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda leaders remain unaccounted for. But even if every member of al-Qaeda had been shipped to Guantanamo Bay and every former Taliban had gone back to his farm, the American job would not be done. Feith acknowledges that the U.S. has an interest in making Afghanistan sufficiently stable so that it is less likely to become a base for terrorist operations. "We want the current Afghan political experiment to succeed," he says. The question is, How can that objective be attained without the very nation building that Washington doesn't want to do?

Feith's boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, thinks the answer is to help the Afghans build their own army, which--as Rumsfeld conceded last week--"they really don't have." To that end, Major General Charles Campbell, chief of staff at U.S. Central Command, arrived in Kabul last week to start the process of training a new Afghan national army. But American intelligence sources fear it may take many months, if not years, to build up such a force--a period during which local warlords would probably continue to consolidate power.

Karzai acknowledges the danger. He would like to see the International Security Assistance Force, which has been deployed since Jan. 3, beefed up. But the British-led team from 17 nations is limited to operations in the capital. Karzai wants the ISAF's mission extended to sweep roads of bandits and drug runners and provide security in cities like Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar. "If the security environment doesn't improve further," he said last week, "we'll make sure that the international peacekeeping forces are asked to take a stronger role."

He has some convincing to do, both in Washington and among his "allies" in the interim government. The defense, interior and foreign-affairs ministries in Kabul are all controlled by erstwhile leaders of the Northern Alliance. Strengthening the ISAF would weaken those ministers' clout; one international peacekeeper says that many of the armed robberies and car thefts in Kabul are committed by Northern Alliance forces. Last week a group arrested while trying to break into a rich Kabuli's house included several bodyguards of Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim's.

In Washington an internal debate on peacekeeping is under way in something like public view (unusual for this Administration). Feith maintains that "there's no great inclination" to expand the ISAF's mandate, and in comments to airmen at Nevada's Nellis Air Force base last week, Rumsfeld reiterated his preference for building an Afghan army ("which is where my brain is") over increasing the size of the ISAF. But the State Department thinks a bigger peacekeeping force is needed. Richard Haass, the department's head of policy planning, has said that a peacekeeping force throughout the whole of Afghanistan would have to be about 25,000 strong, compared with the 4,700 in the country now. Franks will say only that "the national decision has not yet been made on the strategic approach."

It seems highly unlikely that any American forces will ever join the ISAF, even though Karzai would love to have them. Policing Afghan cities isn't Rumsfeld's idea of a critical mission for U.S. forces. British officials deny press reports that Tony Blair's government asked for American peacekeepers and was turned down by Rumsfeld. What the British have asked for, these officials say, is American help on airlift, communications and logistical support for the ISAF. Discussions between the British and the Americans on that request, and on sending ISAF forces outside Kabul, are now under way. In London and Washington--notwithstanding the views of Pentagon hard-liners--the betting is that both will happen.

Even if the ISAF's authority is extended, policy in Afghanistan will remain fuzzy. In April Britain is set to give up its role as lead nation in the ISAF, at which point the blueprint, such as it is, calls for Turkey to take over. But in Ankara it is widely expected that the timetable will slip, and the Turkish government would like to know exactly how the peacekeeping force will be paid for. As for American involvement, even under Rumsfeld's minimal plan, building and training an Afghan army will take time. "You're watching a sausage being made," says a senior U.S. official. Sausagemaking isn't pretty, but it sounds so much nicer than mission creep.


Cover Date: March 4, 2002


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