A Threatened Afghanistan

New York Times (Editorial)
, July 15, 2004

Afghanistan's coming elections are in jeopardy, and not just because of a revived Taliban. The warlord armies that Washington used to oust the Taliban in 2001 now pose an even greater danger, as Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, made plain this week to Carlotta Gall and David Rohde of The Times. President Bush is largely responsible for this situation, having first decided to fight the war against the Taliban on the cheap and then leaving the job of nation-building undone while he diverted American forces to Iraq. Now the administration must heed Mr. Karzai's warning and do much more to help him curb these private armies and the exploding opium business that finances them.

Mr. Bush's blunders in Afghanistan followed decades of shortsighted American policies that built up the power of these warlords. Many of them got their start in the American-financed guerrilla movement that forced Soviet occupation troops out of Afghanistan a decade and a half ago. Soon after, they began fighting one another, terrorizing civilians and opening the way for the Taliban.

The warlords got an unexpected chance to rebuild their power when the Bush administration chose to rely mainly on their private armies to eject the Taliban from Kabul in late 2001. After the war, with the Pentagon already intent on sending troops to Iraq, the United States kept only a limited combat force to battle Taliban fighters and their local allies in southeastern Afghanistan, leaving Mr. Karzai largely at the mercy of the warlords.

Moving effectively against the warlords will be difficult now that the United States has allowed the situation to deteriorate so far. Together they have far more troops than Mr. Karzai's nascent national army, and he has been forced to cut dangerous short-term deals with them. The first step should be to mobilize international pressure against one or two of the most notorious warlords, in the hope that others will get the message and fall in line.

The warlords and private militias who were once regarded as the west's staunchest allies in Afghanistan are now a greater threat to the country's security than the Taliban, according to the interim president, Hamid Karzai.

The Guardian (London), July 13, 2004

A prime target should be Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a militant Islamist, long backed by Saudi Arabia, whose fighters have been responsible for multiple human rights abuses and war crimes over the years, including a 1993 massacre of civilians in Kabul. At this year's constitutional assembly, he was prominent among those trying to intimidate delegates, particularly women. The constitution that ultimately emerged struck an uneasy balance between secular liberties and harsh Islamic strictures. Now Mr. Sayyaf and his armed followers are trying to make sure that Afghanistan's highest court interprets the constitution in accordance with their fiercely fundamentalist views. Mr. Sayyaf's private army gives him the power to impose his nominees for security and judicial positions. Disarming his followers should be an international priority.

Another dangerous warlord is Marshal Muhammad Qasim Fahim, who, in addition to being the government's defense minister, commands a private army of at least 50,000 fighters. Mr. Fahim hopes to be Mr. Karzai's vice-presidential running mate in the election now scheduled for October. He should not be allowed to do so unless he disarms his private militia, a step he has repeatedly resisted.

To curb the warlords further, NATO should expand its peacekeeping role. New jobs also need to be found for those now making their living as fighters for hire. There is no need to extend the area of American combat operations. Even in the southeast, where the United States has concentrated its military efforts, the results have been mixed at best. The Taliban have never been thoroughly routed, and local resentment over the long-term presence of foreign forces and claims of errant bombs that kill civilians seems to be creating new recruits.

Ultimate victory in Afghanistan requires an effective national government, freed from both the Taliban and the warlords.

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