The seams of Afghanistan

April 16, 2002

LATE LAST November, the forces of Gen. Rashid Dostum called a cease-fire in their sporadic fighting against the Taliban in Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan, long enough so that the two supposed enemies could work side by side looting the Kunduz Public Hospital of all its supplies. Then General Dostum's men fled before the advance of their alleged allies of the Northern Alliance, while all but the stupidest Taliban fighters melted away into the population. The Northern Alliance soldiers, shocked to find the hospital so thoroughly smashed, did the only thing they could think of - they dragged the doctors away. There was nothing and no one left to treat all the wounded and sick people of the province.

Finally, a doctor named Mohammed Usman came by to see how he could help. In normal times, Dr. Usman, a gentle and dedicated physician, worked for a Swedish health agency in Kunduz. All he wanted was to do the right thing for the hundreds of injured. He knew what to do. But he had no means of doing it, short of gaining the cooperation of the various groups of gunmen infesting the province. And that was a hopeless proposition.

Today, on a national scale, Hamid Karzai is playing Dr. Usman's role. Mr. Karzai leads Afghanistan's interim government. He is, by all accounts, a dedicated, hard-working and fair-minded man. If he could assert real authority, Afghanistan might find itself on the way to recovery. But he has no way to do so. Kabul, the capital, is like that empty and woebegone hospital. It's not the center of power but of powerlessness. Men with armies - men like General Dostum, still threatening trouble in the north - control for now the destiny of the country.

Over the winter the warlords kept the lid on. Some were undoubtedly favored with foreign currency, though, as one Asian diplomat put it, Afghan commanders can be leased but not bought. None of them, of course, wanted to tangle outright with American forces. All of them no doubt wanted to take the measure of Mr. Karzai and his government and the commitment of his foreign backers.

But now the testing has begun. Warlords are fighting along the Iranian border in the west. A military patrol was attacked with grenades in the east. A United Nations worker was murdered in the north. Soldiers fought a skirmish in the south. International peacekeepers came under rocket fire in Kabul.

Poppy farmers are resisting a campaign to destroy their crops, even with compensation. A bomb apparently intended for the defense minister killed four in Jalalabad. Earlier, the government had rounded up as many as 300 men and said it had forestalled a coup. But most were later released, and it appeared that the arrests had more to do with ethnic rivalry and infighting than safeguarding the state.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord who helped destroy much of Kabul with rockets a decade ago, was a foe of the Taliban but hates the West even more, and he has reportedly returned from exile intent on havoc.

In the face of all this, the United States has been inexplicably uninvolved. The Bush administration has refused to consider a larger international force, a stand that simply makes no sense. As aid money starts flowing into the countryside this spring, it could actually make the situation less stable unless a visible and credible security force is similarly dispersed.

Time is fast running out. In June, Afghanistan is supposed to install a new permanent government. But it won't be worth much -or be able to do much to stanch the bleeding - if resentment, hatred, greed and a mutually shared lust for power have already ripped the country apart.

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