Afghan Warlords, Formerly Backed By the CIA, Now Turn Their Guns On U.S. Troops

They defeated the Soviets with Washington’s help, but now they attack Americans as the new occupiers.

Haqqani in 2001, when he was the Taliban's minister for tribal affairs.

Haqqani in 2001, when he was the Taliban's minister for tribal affairs.

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At the highest levels, Hekmatyar and the Haqqani network cooperate and find sanctuary in Pakistan, where the country's political turmoil and suspension of operations in the lawless tribal areas have facilitated increased attacks in Afghanistan. Of the two warlords, Hekmatyar, by U.S. military estimates, "has a wider geographic coverage" and greater political credibility. A recent press release issued by Hekmatyar's spokesman thanked the Pakistani "mujahideen" for their support in the Afghan war against American and other "occupation forces." It noted, however, that the efforts allow the international community to blame Pakistan for meddling in Afghan affairs and requested that fighters restrict their activities for now to "U.S. installations and interests within Pakistan."

A former politician, Hekmatyar founded the Hizb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (known as hig), an offshoot of which remains a popular party in the Afghan parliament. "There's blue—or 'good'—hig and red—or 'bad'—hig," says the senior U.S. military official. "About half of his group sides with the government; the more recalcitrant are still joining the insurgency."

But though the Hekmatyar and Haqqani networks have loose alliances and similar goals, each has its own turf. "They are swimming in the same stream, but they are not unified. There is no Ho Chi Minh," says the U.S. military official. "They have the same broad generic approaches, and it works. The bottom line is that if your only mission is to wreak havoc in Afghanistan, you don't have to be coordinated—and what they're doing is plenty good enough to stir up problems in this country."

In the course of conducting these operations, insurgents have benefited greatly from the shortage of U.S. and allied troops here, say U.S. officials. Earlier this month, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that he is "deeply troubled" by the increasing violence in Afghanistan but emphasized that troop levels in Iraq precluded a further increase in forces. "We need more troops there," he said in Washington. "But I don't have the troops I can reach for."

There are signs, however, that the Pentagon's priorities are shifting as conditions improve in Iraq. The Defense Department last week moved an aircraft carrier from Iraq war duty in the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea, shortening the distance that strike planes must fly to provide air support in Afghanistan. And the Pentagon recently announced that it is extending by one month the seven-month deployment of 2,200 of the 3,200 marines sent to Afghanistan in March.

Still, U.S. officials are in widespread agreement that there aren't enough forces in the country. There are currently 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan backed by some 25,000 allied troops under NATO command, in total roughly 37 percent of force levels in Iraq. "There should be another 20,000 marines" in Afghanistan, says the U.S. official. "We're advancing, but we're doing it with troop levels that are unacceptably low." Mullen, too, has raised questions about the consequences of what he calls an "economy of force" campaign. "What we're going through right now is an ability to, in almost every single case, win from the combat standpoint," said Mullen. He added, however, that "we don't have enough troops there to hold. And that is key, clearly, to the future of being able to succeed in Afghanistan." l

With Kevin Whitelaw in Washington and Aamir Latif in Pakistan