TIME: Kabul: Tense Moments on the Palace Grounds


The Special Forces soldiers assigned to protect president Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan have learned to trust no one. That lesson was made abundantly clear when a gunman dressed as a soldier in the newly formed Afghan army attempted to assassinate their charge in early September. It's not hard to imagine how a recent altercation between Special Forces and Afghan government troops nearly erupted into a bloody melee inside the Presidential Palace grounds — a confrontation that says a lot about the future of the American presence in Afghanistan.

On September 30 just after 8:00 am, one of Kabul's top generals, Bismillah Khan, commander of the city's garrison and a deputy to the defense minister, arrived at the Presidential Palace to meet one of the former king's advisers. The general and his bodyguard glided past an Afghan army checkpoint at the visitors' gate only to be stopped forty yards later by U.S. soldiers assigned to protect Karzai. The Americans wanted to search the car and the general, but Khan refused. When the U.S. soldiers attempted to physically remove him from the car, fifteen Kandahari mujahedin (bodyguards for the former king) cocked their weapons and took aim at the Special Forces. The other Afghan government troops followed. "It was one of those times when you realize a minute is actually sixty seconds, and that can be an awfully long time," Hayatullah Diani, a royalist official, told TIME. "I thought they were going to start killing each other."

Before the scene turned bloody, members of Karzai's office appeared and negotiations began. Khan was released and the Afghan troops lowered their weapons. What had flared in just seconds was over in minutes. Had violence erupted the consequences would have been catastrophic, ripping open divisions within the new government and unsettling allegiances with factions already feeling sidelined in the new order. The near miss also demonstrates just how delicate a balance the U.S. faces in Afghanistan between appearing as a force of safety for some and source of agitation to so many others.

The incident comes at a precarious time as Washington seeks a deeper engagement in the country, stepping up from combat missions to take on the complexities of nation building. That has meant supporting a relatively isolated president while pacifying, or at least deterring, his rivals. Building up Karzai is seen to have come at the expense of America's allies against the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, which dominates much of the government.

One of the biggest sources of friction comes from the creation of the Afghan National Army, a U.S.- and French-trained force to be commanded by the president, not the defense minister. Weapons, munitions and gear are being flown into a U.S. airbase north of Kabul, unloaded onto Special Forces convoys and distributed directly to the ANA. Already feeling threatened by Washington's support for Karzai, last week's incident has cemented the Northern Alliance's view of itself as a forgotten partner. But the U.S. military is making no apologies. "President Karzai's personal security team will continue to exercise the level of control necessary to ensure the physical security of the President," Central Command spokesman Col. Ray Shepherd told TIME from Tampa, Fl.

In the days since the showdown key Northern Alliance leaders have become vitriolic. "We're asking ourselves is this an Afghan palace or an American palace?" a senior general says. Western diplomats in Kabul are waiting to assess the fallout. "I can't gauge yet whether this is a very very serious thing or whether it will pass as just something that happened," says one. General Sharif's reaction is not heartening. "The U.S. has turned its back on us," he says, "So let me tell you something: the Russians helped the Vietnamese defeat America, then the Americans helped the Afghans beat Russia, and now is the time again for the Russians. America should not try to step forward here in Afghanistan."

Trouble is, that is precisely what Washington intends to do.