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War Nerves Shake Kabul

There are fears that the US attack on Iraq will shift international attention away from Afghanistan.
By Shoib Safi

As the United States’ attack on Iraq gets underway, Afghans are worried that attention and resources will be diverted away from their own peace effort. Cuts in the number of foreign troops in Afghanistan, they fear, could allow extremists to re-establish a foothold.


Abdul Hameed Zalmai, a student at Kabul University, reflected the feelings of many, when he said, “We will be forgotten and the enemies of humanity will again impose war on Afghanistan, ending the one-year peace and security.”


News of the action in Iraq cast a shadow over celebrations of the Afghan new year, which began with a public holiday on March 20. The streets of Kabul, which would normally be crowded with people shopping, eating and meeting friends, were quiet and deserted.


By the afternoon of the following day, public celebrations were in full swing again, but many Afghans remain apprehensive about the likely effects of the war. “Attacks by the remnants of the Taleban will increase,” predicted Fatima Nasemi, a student at Kabul University. "If the US attacks Iraq, the Islamic fundamentalists will become incensed and could restrict education for females. The security of the country will be threatened.”


In Kabul, ordinary people have come to rely on the international peacekeeping force, ISAF, to build and maintain a level of security that has eluded much of the regions. In the autumn, the night-time curfew in the city was finally lifted after 23 years. Less stability has been achieved in the provinces, where the central government has had difficulty exerting control over local commanders and warlords.


Under the Turkish command of ISAF, which ran for seven and a half months until February, security arrangements were thoroughly overhauled, according to former commander Major General Hilmi Akin Zorllu.


“The various security forces were totally uncoordinated and didn't even have uniforms to distinguish them from ordinary people,” he said. “ We created a joint operation centre in Kabul and established working relationships between ISAF, the ministry of defence and interior ministry.”


The peacekeepers also set up new checkpoints for people and vehicles, built six security posts around the capital and drew up detailed plans against any sudden terrorist attacks, added the general.


However, attacks on ISAF and American troops in the capital, Khost and Kandahar in recent months provide a foretaste of what could be ahead, said Kabul resident Sayed Noorullah Mujahid, “Once the Americans get caught up in Iraq, they will forget Afghanistan. Opposition forces will take advantage of this to undermine democracy, especially in Kabul.”


He added that since the attack was announced the price of oil had risen and the value of the afghani had fallen.


Germany took command of ISAF last month, and some Kabulis feared that the Bonn government's anti-war stance could undermine their commitment to the peacekeeping force. But its commander General Norbert van Heyst moved quickly to quash such rumours. “ISAF forces will not leave Afghanistan if the war on Iraq starts, [it] is a totally independent mission," he told IWPR a few days before the war began.


ISAF troops have also attempted to reassure people that their presence will not diminish. In their regular contacts with mullahs and community leaders, in schools and on the street, they have told the people that they will continue their work just the same as before.


As US airstrikes began, police and ISAF patrols around Kabul increased and checkpoints were set up at most major intersections, but the streets remained calm. “ISAF's job is to help Afghan officials maintain security,” said Van Heyst. “Kabul is calm and secure and will continue to be so during the attack on Iraq. People should rest assured that we will maintain security.”


Shoib Safi is an independent journalist in Kabul.


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