Warlords And B-52S

In Afghanistan these days, when two warlords want to settle an argument, they call upon a phantom in the skies. This is not another medieval superstition common to this rocky, primitive land, which is still dominated by fierce men in turbans and beards who look--and behave--much as their ancestors did. The warlords point upward and warn their rivals that "B-52 justice" could soon fall like a curse on their houses--that Afghans who break the peace will suffer devastation from the stunning assortment of precision-targeted weaponry that destroyed the Taliban. They warn, in short, that the Americans will strike. "This is happening all over the country," says Abdullah Mujahid, a local police commander. "The B-52 is called 'the peacekeeper'."

Some in the Bush administration still hope that peacekeeping from on high--and a minimal U.S. presence on the ground--will be enough to establish the young Afghan government of interim leader Hamid Karzai and stabilize his country. With the help of a 4,500-strong, European-led peacekeeping force inside the capital city, Bush wants to avoid any more U.S. casualties, and to devote American troops mainly to mopping up Qaeda and Taliban holdouts. He may also want to be spared the embarrassment of taking back much that he has said since he first ran for office: that "nation-building" doesn't work, and that the world's only superpower should focus on big strategic tasks, like taking on the rogues' gallery of nations Bush has dubbed the "axis of evil," and leave the scut work of peacekeeping to smaller nations.

But as the administration turns its attention to new fronts in the war on terror, Bush's tidy ideology is running into an increasingly messy reality in Afghanistan. That has provoked debate between Colin Powell's State Department, where several senior officials support deploying some 25,000 peacekeepers (not including Americans) to shore up Karzai's government, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who worries about getting trapped in a quagmire. In meetings last week, the administration appeared to rule out large-scale peacekeeping in favor of sending in small training teams that would act as liaisons to the warlords, seeking to integrate them into a national army.

The problem, many Afghan officials fear, is that working mainly through warlords will undercut Karzai and possibly impede the nation-building that, like it or not, the United States has already been drawn into. Under U.N. guidance, Afghanistan is preparing a "loya jirga," a kind of Afghan political convention that will determine its future for years to come. In picking the delegates who will decide on Karzai's successor in July, members of the new Loya Jirga Commission in Kabul are going on the assumption that the only way democracy in Afghanistan can work is to exclude warlords and favor educated elites.

Washington's conservative view of peacekeeping also does little to salve Afghanistan's deeper wounds. It could take at least two years, according to the estimate of a U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, to form the Afghan national army that Bush hopes will eventually provide security. But right now, whole provinces are cut off from commerce and aid as fear of banditry and terror still rules the nation's wrecked road system. In the impoverished town of Gardez, a mere three hours from the capital, a simmering power struggle between warlords has kept aid workers away. Doctors in the dark, unheated local hospital say the Americans recently air-dropped critical medical equipment, including oxygen cylinders and suction devices. But one of the chutes failed to open and the equipment shattered. A day later, a 2-year-old with a chest infection died from lack of oxygen.

B-52 peacekeeping, Afghan officials argue, has also begun to stymie America's main mission: rooting out Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Increasingly, warlords once used by Americans as a proxy force have stopped caring about terror as they jockey for power. U.S. Special Forces on the ground, who typically call in strikes, are too often getting bad intelligence, Afghan and international sources say. The vast majority of warlords "are misleading the Americans," said Alhaj Khaksar, a prominent Taliban defector. The Pentagon is increasingly sensitive to charges, moreover, that it is killing innocent civilians because of such bad information.

Col. Wayland Parker, who leads the U.S. observer contingent in Kabul--just 36 strong--conceded that Operation Enduring Freedom may "suffer" from its continued dependence on warlords. "You fundamentally don't have militias. You have gangs," said Parker. "They're squabbling over sheep, for chrissakes." While he expressed doubts that more peacekeepers would be needed, he conceded that the United States was caught in an awkward moment between fighting a mop-up war and its "next mission" of reconstructing the country.

Now the Afghan government is trying to seize that moment. Hoping to wean the Americans away from the warlords, Karzai has proposed that the initial core of the new Afghan Army--a brigade now in training--be dedicated to targeting Al Qaeda. Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah told NEWSWEEK that he laid out such a mission last month to Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. The Bush administration fears the kind of open-ended commitment to peacekeeping it saw in the Balkans in the 1990s. But the stakes are much higher now. Even those who oppose peacekeeping concede that more than 3,000 innocent Americans died on September 11, in part because an obscure nation halfway around the world was once allowed to "fail."