Warlords are Afghanistan's new worry number one

, Dec 12, 2002
By Mike Collett-White

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Hours before Afghan President Hamid Karzai left on his latest high-profile trip abroad, unruly warlords with old scores to settle were back doing what they know best -- killing each other.

Fierce fighting broke out between rival groups in the west of the country in early December and at least 13 people were killed. A U.S. B-52 bombed the battle zone when U.S. special forces posted close to the Iranian border got caught up in the clash.

Similar turf wars flare up frequently in the north, southeast and east as warlords tussle for power, land and money.

The stark truth for Afghans and the international community wanting to avoid costly mistakes of the past is that the suave, media-friendly Karzai does not yet control his country, despite enjoying the backing of the mighty U.S. military.

Western dignitaries fly to Kabul and hail the success of the last year -- the Taliban is defeated, al Qaeda is disrupted, a million girls are back at school, two million refugees are back in Afghanistan. They are huge achievements.

But as Karzai and his officials acknowledge, for savage conflict to be put firmly in Afghanistan's past, unruly local leaders and their militias need to be disarmed, arrested or convinced to fight for their country, not for themselves.

One problem is that many of the warlords were instrumental in helping the U.S. overcome the Taliban last year. The United States was happy to attack from the safety of 30,000 feet, but the ground assault was mainly won by Afghan forces.

Afghan officials admit security is a problem, and that to tackle it they need resources -- the very resources many warlords seem determined to keep to themselves.

"We cannot have national revenues paying for personal militias that do not fall under the national army or police programmes underway," foreign ministry spokesman Omar Samad said.

Officials estimate that less than 10 percent of revenues earned in the key western province of Herat and northern regions around the city of Mazar-i-Sharif make it to central coffers.


A visit to Ismail Khan's fiefdom in the ancient city of Herat is enough to explain why he decided not to join Karzai in Kabul.

The bearded, turbaned veteran fighter numbers his personal army at 25,000, he earns millions of dollars a month in duties on goods coming from Iran and Turkmenistan and enjoys popularity bordering on a personality cult among his people.

When asked in a recent interview why he was not in Kabul, he replied: "People really got upset... They wrote a letter to Karzai which was three metres long and signed by thousands of people. Karzai accepted the people's request. It was the will of the people, not for my personal business or benefit."

It was Khan who led his troops in the latest clashes against commander Amanullah Khan.

Or take Abdul Rashid Dostum, the ethnic Uzbek commander who lives in a grand palace in his stronghold of Shiberghan west of Mazar-i-Sharif.

He has a force of several thousand troops, controls huge swathes of land, and explained recently that he feared an eruption of violence in the north if he moved to Kabul.

Mazar itself is controlled by Ustad Atta Mohammad, an ethnic Tajik and old enemy of Dostum's but now formally on the same side under a council that represents Karzai in the north.

Thirteen_year_old Nahida Hassan became a symbol for Afghan women and girls who were raped during the two decades of war. When a commander and twenty of his troops broke into her Kabul apartment, killing her 12_year_old brother and gunning down her other male relatives, Nahida understood she was the target. To avoid being sexually savaged, she leapt from the sixth_floor window to her death. Today, there is a shrine on the spot where she fell. "Everyone knew who the commander was. But no one dared touch him," said the girl's 64_year_old grandfather, Mohammed Hassan. The commander enjoyed the protection of his party, whose fundamentalist cleric leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani, headed the government at the time and, more recently, the Northern Alliance, which holds key positions in the new interim administration.

Jan Goodwin,
THE NATION, April 29, 2002

Yet forces loyal to the two strongmen often clash in towns around Mazar, and dozens of civilians and fighters have been killed despite several attempts to disarm the factions.

The veneer of unity between them is thin. When asked in Mazar last month to describe his relations with Dostum, Atta said:

"Our relations are normal. My only question is why the fighting in the north is not stopping and why he is not acting honestly?"

Both commanders say it is unruly elements within their ranks that are to blame, but that assertion rings hollow to some.

"There is a power struggle going on and their troops are very well controlled," said Ahmed Rashid, an expert and author on Afghanistan. "There are power struggles going on all over the country quite independent of the central government."

The southeast of the country has not been spared, with renegade warlord Padshah Khan Zadran losing recent skirmishes with Khost governor Hakim Taniwal but vowing to fight against Karzai, whom he accuses of failing to keep his promises.

Former Afghan prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose whereabouts are unknown, has also called for the removal of Karzai's government and U.S.-led coalition forces in the country.


To force local leaders and warlords to lay down their arms would require the support of a large and well-equipped army.

Karzai's plans for a national army of up to 70,000 soldiers has got off to a painfully slow start. The force numbers between 1,000 and 1,500 a year after Karzai came to power.

Defence Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim controls what was the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban force of mainly ethnic Tajiks who hold many key posts in the post-Taliban government despite being a small minority in Afghanistan.

To turn that into the army would not be acceptable to the majority Pashtuns, many of whom already feel excluded from power.

Amanullah Khan in the west, for example, is demanding a share of power near the Iranian border before he lays down his weapons.

Afghan and Western political analysts believe that U.S. military support will be needed to bring warlords into line.

The United States and Britain have already revealed plans to send military/civilian teams out to local power bases to help bring people closer to the centre.

But they will be dealing with warlords empowered by U.S. military support and hard cash during the war against the Taliban and the subsequent hunt for al Qaeda and Taliban operatives.

Efforts to disarm unruly elements and the civilian population have had mixed results. The United Nations says thousands of weapons were handed in to commissions in the northeast, but that fell to just a few hundred in areas under Dostum and Atta.

Mistrust between the factions is intense.

Haji Amon and Nematullah, both in their mid-40s, were in Mazar recently urging Atta to give back weapons they had handed in, saying Dostum's fighters were now robbing and terrorising them and their families in the nearby town of Sholgara.

Early last month Karzai took a first, tentative step towards consolidating his grip on power outside Kabul by sacking up to 20 mid-level officials on charges including drug trafficking.

Some are trying to hang on to their jobs, but "they will eventually have to leave" under local pressure, an official said.

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