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By Barry Newhouse
Islamabad
03 March 2008

Afghanistan's top intelligence officer is rejecting a U.S. estimate that only 30 percent of the country is under the control of the central government in Kabul. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Islamabad that Amrullah Saleh suggested U.S. officials misunderstand Afghanistan's traditional governing system using local tribes.

Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell (l) and Defense Intelligence Agency director, Lieutenant General Michael Maples on Capitol Hill, 27 Feb 2008
Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell (l) and Defense Intelligence Agency director, Lieutenant General Michael Maples on Capitol Hill, 27 Feb 2008
Last week, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell said most of Afghanistan is controlled by local tribes, about 10 percent is controlled by Taliban fighters and less than one third of the territory is controlled by President Hamid Karzai's government.

On Monday in Kabul, Afghanistan's intelligence chief dismissed the claim.

He said the percentage in that statement was totally baseless.

Amrulleh Saleh said that eight of the country's 364 districts, which account for about five percent of the land and two percent of Afghanistan's population, are outside central government control.

Amrullah Saleh, the head of Afghanistan's intelligence service, speaks during a press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, 03 Mar 2008
Amrullah Saleh, the head of Afghanistan's intelligence service, speaks during a press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, 03 Mar 2008
During a news conference in Kabul, he blamed the widely divergent estimates on U.S. officials misunderstanding how Afghanistan's traditional tribal governing system functions.

"While in America, an administration fully backed by tribal chiefs or dominated by tribal chiefs may be seen as a liability," said Saleh. "But here we see it as a very strong asset."

But there are questions about how loyal these local tribal leaders are to carrying out the agenda of the Karzai government.

London-based Paul Burton is a policy analyst with the Senlis Council, a research organization studying drug and security issues in Afghanistan. He says the loyalty of local tribal leaders to the central government depends in a large part on Kabul's ability to deliver benefits to them.

In southern Afghanistan, Burton says the central government struggles to provide even basic services.

"We document, on a regular basis, an appalling lack of aid going to core infrastructure such as hospitals - in Kandahar for example," he said. "So within that context I think it is impossible for local tribal leaders to feel a great degree of warmth toward the center when they are seeing their people ravished and impoverished."

Burton says the security situation in parts of the country has severely impeded efforts to develop government infrastructure.

Last year Afghanistan experienced the most intense fighting since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. News agencies have estimated that more than 6,000 people, most of whom were militants, were killed in the fighting in 2007.

Burton says there is evidence that some families are simultaneously backing Taliban and Afghan army (ANA) and police forces (ANP), merely because they are unsure who will prevail in the struggle for control.

"We have evidence to suggest that people are putting one fund into the Taliban and another fund into the ANA and another into the ANP," he said. "They are hedging their bets - they are seeing which side is going to win - purely driven from a sense of desperation."

One important indicator of the strength of the U.S.-backed Karzai government has been its ability, or inability, to curb opium-poppy cultivation. This week, the U.S. State Department reported that narcotics production in the country hit historic highs in 2007 for the second straight year.

U.S. analysts said the estimated $4 billion in illicit opium accounted for more than a third of Afghanistan's gross domestic product.

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