Reining In The Warlords

Afghan warlord Ismail Khan, the governor of Herat province, tries his best to sound like a loyal subordinate. When asked if he submits to President Hamid Karzai's authority, Khan laughs and points to a portrait of the president hanging on the wall behind his desk. "If I didn't respect him and his authority I wouldn't have his picture hanging up there." But posters plastered on shop windows around Herat City come closer to the truth: they feature a large, imposing portrait of Khan with a smaller image of Karzai tucked away in the background.

Indeed, Khan, the self-styled "Emir of the Southwest," pays little more than lip service to Karzai and Kabul. With a military--force some 25,000 strong, Khan keeps a tight grip on the trade routes from Iran and Turkmenistan. Last year his control of this border trade netted him an estimated $100 million to $300 million in customs revenue alone. With that kind of money, Afghanistan's warlords need not answer to anyone, least of all Karzai. They run their expansive provinces as personal fiefdoms. And, like the caliphs of old, it is their word--not Karzai's--that is the law in their lands.

As the United States contemplates rebuilding Iraq as a multiethnic, democratic state--with minimal troops and a footprint that lasts less than a year--it would do well to consider what similar haste has wrought in Afghanistan. There, too, the Americans identified local leaders and put power in their hands. The problem is that they've kept it. More than a year into the job, Karzai still cannot enforce his paper mandate outside Kabul. Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim--a warlord in his own right--controls Afghanistan's Army, which largely consists of his own Northern Alliance militiamen. Only the most paltry sums are making their way to the coffers of the national treasury. And now strongmen like Fahim and Khan, who were U.S. allies in the successful war to topple the Taliban, are beginning to suggest that the United States is overstaying its welcome in Afghanistan.

Worse still, the warlords and hard-line Islamists seem to be making common cause, which may explain why Taliban remnants are staging a slow but steady comeback in the countryside. Both camps want to limit American influence in Afghanistan as well as Western-style freedoms and democracy. Socially at least, progress has stalled, and some observers fear reforms are more unlikely than ever. "I see 2002 as a wasted year," says Afghanistan expert Ahmed Rashid. "Now that the warlords are strong and the Taliban is coming back, it may be too late to start focusing on nation-building."

For his part, Karzai is still occupied with establishing the rudiments of government, a task made nearly impossible by a lack of revenues and military muscle to project central-government control beyond Kabul. Early on, the most powerful warlords--notably Khan in the west, Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammed in the north and Gul Agha Sherazai in the southeast--verbally agreed to hand over their staggering provincial windfalls to Kabul. But the central government is still waiting on the warlords to follow through. "They never say no to us," complains Karzai's chief spokesman Said Fazel Akbar. "They always say yes, then don't deliver. Right now the provinces simply are too independent." Kabul has so far received only a pittance, some $7 million from Khan. Kandahar's warlord Sherazai has "never given us a penny," gripes a Kabul government official.

Nor have the warlords been any more generous when it comes to giving up their weapons. "The wealth of these guys is tied to their guns," says Abdul Malik, 40, a notorious former northern warlord who is now a businessman and aspiring politician in Kabul. "Without guns they can't extort money, collect taxes or customs duties. Their rivers of revenue will dry up." Disarmament efforts so far have involved little more than regional warlords' taking the weapons of weaker, rival commanders. And the progress --toward building the new Afghan National Army has been halting at best. In the past eight months British, French and U.S. military instructors have trained only seven undersize battalions of fewer than 500 men each. Only two units have been deployed, in both cases to areas in which they were unlikely to tread on a warlord's turf. "We should have moved more quickly in mobilizing the national army," says Central Bank governor Anwar Ulhaq Ahadi.

For those living in a warlord's dominion, life is a far cry from the liberation that many believed would follow the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban. In Khan's Herat, for example, women, who may only venture out in public wearing burqas, are barred from going to parks at night, from riding in cars or from walking in public with men other than their husbands or close relatives. Khan even banned wedding parties in hotels and restaurants because men and women tended to mingle or dance. Infractions of the rules can lead to a forced virginity check at the local hospital. While local television broadcasts are permitted, cinemas are banned, and Khan rails against Western videos that "contaminate" Islamic and Afghan cultural values. The atmosphere is sadly familiar to many in Herat. "We have traded one Mullah Omar for another," laments one resident, referring to the former Taliban chief.

They may not have to wait long for the return of the man himself. In February Mullah Mohammed Omar issued his first call to arms since the Taliban collapsed in late 2001. This month his message is appearing in pamphlets being clandestinely distributed in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. Referring to Karzai and his American backers, the Taliban fliers command: "Now you should rise up and use your sword against infidels and their puppets." Some are clearly heeding the call. Over the past few weeks barely a day has gone by without Taliban forces launching an ambush, fire fight or mortar attack against U.S. soldiers or Afghan military bases. Late last month Taliban gunmen executed an International Red Cross worker on the orders of one of Mullah Omar's senior commanders.

The country seems to be sinking into a vicious cycle: the longer Kabul goes without reining in the warlords, the more difficult that crucial task will be. "The continuing security vacuum throughout Afghanistan has fundamentally and perhaps fatally undermined the confidence that Afghans initially placed in the Karzai regime," says Edmund McWilliams, a retired U.S. State Department officer and Afghanistan expert. "The people are frustrated and are losing their patience," adds one of Karzai's ministers.

They are not alone. In a recent speech to provincial governors, Karzai publicly threatened to sack any senior officials who fail to control the Taliban resurgence. And once again he reminded the governors that the customs revenues they collect must be handed over to the central government. But many Afghan officials believe the warlords need more than a reminder. "It's not in Karzai's nature to be confrontational," says one government official. "But soon he will have to take a risk and move forcefully against these guys."

That seems likely to happen only if the United States makes it clear that it's willing to stand in Karzai's corner against the warlords and stop depending on them. "It's up to Washington," says Afghanistan expert Rashid. "As long as it keeps relying on the warlords for protection and fighters, the warlords won't cooperate." Before Karzai can bully his country's strongmen, he may first need to talk tough with the Bush administration.