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On the precipice in Afghanistan
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - The United States military is now engaged in its largest operation against insurgents in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, involving the deployment of 2,000 of the 11,500 US-led troops in the country to violence-plagued sections of the east and south.

The offensive is codenamed Operation Avalanche, which carries with it the unfortunate connotation that the country is heading for a precipitous slide into complete chaos. And all the indicators point that way.

On Tuesday, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan presented his report on Afghanistan, and warned that international efforts to rebuild the country may fail unless the security situation improves. He called for better protection for UN and relief workers and another international meeting to boost financial and political support for Afghanistan. Another aid worker was killed this week, the second in a month.

Annan warned that the lack of security was hindering what he called the "critical political process" - an apparent reference to Afghanistan's meeting this week to adopt a new constitution. The grand council, or loya jirga, was to open meetings in Kabul on Wednesday. But it has been delayed until at least Saturday because delegates face delays in traveling to the capital.

Also on Tuesday, the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, speaking in the heavily fortressed embassy in central Kabul, warned of more attacks by the Taliban and its "terrorist" allies in the coming days. "We anticipate that they will try to be more active to go after loya jirga-related activities and the loya jirga itself." Khalilzad said that "fighters of the Taliban, the al-Qaeda network and their allied Hezb-i-Islami would target a major US-funded road project in south Afghanistan, which is expected for completion later this month".

Asia Times Online sources within Afghanistan confirm that the resistance has established many pockets of power in rural areas, including in strategic locations in the villages and towns close to Kabul, including Logar, Ghazni, Jalalabad and Mezana.

As reported before in Asia Times Online, the real engine behind the resistance is the legendary guerrilla fighter from the days of the jihad against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s and former Afghan prime minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hezb-i-Islami. Insiders say that his immediate short-term objective is to play havoc with the loya jirga program.

The loya jirga, a traditional gathering of tribal, provincial and ethnic representatives which debates events of national importance, will bring together 500 elected representatives for several weeks to discuss and ratify the country's new constitution ahead of national elections planned for next year.

The resistance strategy appears to be coherent and well coordinated, and it has gathered considerable momentum. The loya jirga gatherings in the past have been opposed by all Islamic Afghan parties, including the Jamiat-i-Islami (now the largest and leading component of Northern Alliance that forms the backbone of the government in Kabul ), the Ittahad-i-Islami (part of the Northern Alliance) , the Hezb-i-Islami led by Hekmatyar and the Hezb-i-Islami led by Moulvi Yunus Khalis. Their opposition was based on charges that such councils were undemocratic and non-Islamic.

Over the past days, pamphlets and night messages - a traditional method of disseminating information in Afghanistan - have been distributed, mostly signed by Hekmatyar in Jalalabad and Kunar, and by Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, in Kandahar, Khost and Paktia. Hekmatyar himself has been active in holding talks with different tribal leaders and warlords to thrash out strategies to win broader support in the country.

On the other side of the fence, the coalition forces are acutely aware of the growing resistance, which threatens to undermine all of their gains since the ouster of the Taliban in December 2001. Operation Avalanche was launched in direct response to this.

State-run Kabul Television said that US-led and Afghan forces had wounded two militants and detained 15 in the Sayed Karam district of the southern province of Paktika and discovered caches of artillery and mortar ammunition. It gave no other details. However, the offensive could not have got off to a worse start than the bungled attack on the weekend in which nine children were killed by a US air strike on the village of Petaw in the southern province of Ghazni.

A US military spokesman said that the strike by A-10 "tankbuster" aircraft firing 30mm high-explosive and incendiary rounds had been carefully planned to kill a "known terrorist". "Unfortunately, when we got there, we found the bodies of nine children and one adult man."

Such incidents play right into the hands of the resistance, and a man such as Hekmatyar is certain to make as much capital as he can from it. In addition, he is using all of the capital that he gained as a mujahideen, when his name was known throughout the country and he had a large following. Many of these people, although they have ostensibly switched sides and joined the Northern Alliance, still maintain strong allegiance to the "Engineer" as he is known from his days at the Engineering University in Kabul as a fiery student leader. He is also rare in that he commands support among different ethnic communities.

In Kandahar - the former spiritual capital of the Taliban - Zabul, Paktia and Paktika, the resistance is led by Taliban commanders. But despite having a very strong support base among the masses, the resistance is still at this stage a guerrilla movement. In Jalalabad, Kunar and Logar, where Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami is calling the shots, the resistance has more of a political, mass movement color as local warlords, tribal chiefs and ordinary citizens are more directly involved. As a result, resistance supply lines for arms, food and human resources have been been established in these regions.

Significantly, these areas are not far from Kabul.

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