US: tribal leaders still in charge of Afghanistan
Jeremy Page South Asia Correspondent, From Times Online - February 28, 2008
President Karzai of Afghanistan controls less than a third of his country despite six years of international aid and billions of pounds of international aid, according to the top intelligence official.
Michael McConnell, Director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the resurgent Taleban controlled up to 11 per cent of the country, while Mr Karzai's government controlled up to 31 per cent.
But more than six years after a US-led invasion toppled the Taleban government, the majority of Afghanistan's 32 million people live under the authority of tribal leaders, Mr McConnell told a committee hearing on Wednesday.
His bleak assessment directly contradicted comments made last month by Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary.
“The Taleban occupy no territory in Afghanistan on a continuing basis,” Mr Gates said during a Pentagon briefing in January. Mr McConnell's analysis also backed up a series of damning reports about Afghanistan that have worsened tensions between Mr Karzai and the international community, especially Britain, in the past few months.
Since December, Mr Karzai has expelled two alleged Western spies, criticised the British military campaign in Helmand province, and blocked the candidacy of Lord Ashdown of Norton-Sub-Hamdon to be UN “super-envoy” for Afghanistan.
Yesterday, his Defence Ministry dismissed Mr McConnell's views as being “far from reality” and insisted that the Afghan Government was in control of all 34 provinces and most districts in the country.
However, some Western diplomats in Kabul fear that Mr Karzai's weakness and antipathy towards his Western backers could turn Afghanistan back into a failed state and sanctuary for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Mr McConnell said that the Taleban had suffered “significant degradation” in its leadership and was unable to take on Nato forces directly, resorting instead to suicide attacks and roadside bombs.
“They'll fill in an area when we withdraw, or they will influence a village or region if our presence is not there,” he said. He added that the Taleban was using safe havens over the border in the tribal areas of northern Pakistan to “train, recruit, rest and recuperate and then come back into Afghanistan to engage”.
Lieutenent-General Michael Maples, the Defence Intelligence Agency director, told the same committee hearing that Pakistan's Government was concentrating on the safe havens in the tribal areas. But he said that neither the Pakistani military nor the tribal Frontier Corps was properly trained or equipped and it would take three to five years to improve their ability to fight the militants.
“Pakistani military operations have not fundamentally damaged al-Qaeda's position in the region,” he said.
“The tribal areas remain largely ungovernable and, as such, they will continue to provide vital sanctuary to al-Qaeda, the Taleban and regional extremism more broadly.” US and British officials are also concerned that a new coalition government in Pakistan could impeach President Musharraf, removing their key Muslim ally in the War on Terror.
They are especially worried that the new government might renege on an agreement with Mr Musharraf to allow the CIA to intensify operations using pilotless Predator drones launched from inside Pakistan.
A suspected Predator attack destroyed an al-Qaeda and Taleban hideout in one of Pakistan's tribal areas yesterday, killing 13 alleged militants including several Arabs, according to Pakistani security officials.
Residents of Azam Warsak village, in South Waziristan, said that a house was blown up by a missile fired from a pilotless drone.
US drones have made several strikes on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, but neither Washington nor Islamabad ever confirms such attacks as they would violate Pakistan's sovereignty.