KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The United States says Afghanistan is no longer a combat zone, but revived Taliban and other radical guerrilla bands are targeting American soldiers, foreign relief workers and the government — sometimes with deadly results.
Emboldened by allies like Iranian-backed rebel leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, they have even made claims to controlling remote areas.
With President Hamid Karzai at his side, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declared Thursday that "major combat activity" in Afghanistan was over — just hours before President Bush speaking on an aircraft carrier declared that combat in Iraq also had concluded.
"We're at a point where clearly we have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction activities," Rumsfeld said in Kabul, the Afghan capital. "The bulk of this country today is permissive, is secure."
Yet most Afghans say their nation is overrun by thieving warlords, the countryside is perilous and the government's control is largely limited to Kabul, which is protected by nearly 5,000 international peacekeepers.
While the resistance in Iraq is loose and disjointed, in Afghanistan there is coordination. The Taliban have forged an alliance with rebel forces led by Hekmatyar, a former U.S. ally now declared a terrorist and hunted by U.S. special forces.
Hekmatyar loyalists control a mountainous swath of the country in the northeast where hit-and-run attacks against U.S. forces are common.
Western intelligence sources as well as former Taliban tell The Associated Press that resurgent Taliban have re-established a command structure, and have divided the country among fugitive leaders who are ordered to organize and carry out guerrilla attacks.
Military operations in the dangerous south and southeast of Afghanistan are commanded by former Taliban Interior Minister Abdul Razzak, according to Western intelligence sources and former Taliban.
Razzak's area of operations stretches from Kandahar to Zabul, Uruzgan and Helmand provinces. It was one of Razzak's right-hand men, Mullah Dadullah, who ordered the March 27 killing of Ricardo Munguia, a 39-year-old Red Cross worker, according to an eyewitness interviewed by AP.
The eyewitness — a government military commander also held by the Taliban — was threatened with death unless he stopped working for Karzai's government.
In the last week, the remote mountain districts of Shenkai and Chapan in southeastern Zabul province have been caught in a seesaw battle between Taliban and government forces. Taliban fighters have sworn to keep U.S. special forces out of the region.
Khalid Pashtun, a spokesman for Kandahar Gov. Gul Agha Sherzai, says the battles with Taliban forces have been fierce. He says they have been dislodged, but residents say Taliban forces remain.
Rumsfeld's promise of reconstruction seems a distant dream — as vast swaths of Afghanistan are ruled by warlords who have only a flimsy allegiance to the central government; as marauding bands of Taliban fighters establish roadblocks in broad daylight on main highways, killing foreigners so others will flee the country,
Rumsfeld cited a return of millions of refugees as proof that Afghanistan was secure.
"They're voting with their feet, they're saying that the circumstance here is something they want to be a part of and that's a good thing," he said.
But some Afghans have been forced to return home: Britain began repatriating refugees this week, deporting 30 of the 30,000 Afghans who have sought asylum there since 1985.
Others who returned of their own accord have been unhappy to find no reconstruction. And some have left again, crossing the mountains to neighboring Pakistan.
The United States and the French, at odds over Iraq, are working together to train a new Afghan army that is supposed to bring security to Afghanistan. But so far, it has only about 3,000 men and few of them have been embraced by Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, whose private Tajik-dominated army still controls that key ministry.
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