The Ways Of A Warlord

Like most Afghans toting assault rifles and grenade launchers, the men loitering beneath the walls of the mud-brick fort outside the northern town of Aliabad look like they're spoiling for a fight. But the turbaned warriors do little more than gawk when Gen. Atiqullah Baryalai rolls up. Baryalai, a hyperkinetic 38-year-old and one of Afghanistan's top-ranking military leaders, blows through the crowd while peppering their commander with queries, orders and the occasional joke. His real question: "How many people have you disarmed?" The commander mutters a reply. "Not enough," declares Baryalai. A pause. "OK, you can have that cotton for the men's beds, and I'll increase your cooking-oil ration. But you have to collect the rest of those guns by the end of the week. I'll be back on Saturday."

No wonder the fighters look stunned. Taking guns away from Afghans seems one of the more hopeless and quixotic tasks in the effort to rebuild the ravaged country. Peace remains tenuous. The interim government led by Hamid Karzai--a star on the world stage but a figure of debatable authority at home--is struggling to restore institutions shredded by war. The administration's writ barely runs outside Kabul, which is secured by a British-led peacekeeping force. Last week in Gardez, the capital of southeastern Paktia province, the central government could neither defend the current governor against local opposition, nor ensure a smooth transition for his replacement. Fighting between the two reportedly resulted in nearly 50 deaths.

In fact, Baryalai stands at the same crossroads as the country--between a vision of a certain kind of order and a return to what is known in Dari as qommandonsolari ("warlordism"). He has been appointed by the central government as military leader of four northern provinces--Baghlan, Takhar, Badakhshan and Konduz. Yet like many commanders around the country, he continues to face pinprick attacks from others trying to carve out turf for themselves. One such mini-warlord recently instigated a rebellion in the town of Qala-e-Zel; Baryalai claims he tried to resolve matters peacefully before sending 1,000 troops, as well as tanks and artillery, to rout the rebels. He blames the notorious Uzbek Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum--to whose territory the remaining insurgents fled--for fomenting the violence. "It's this hobby he has," says Baryalai. "He gives people money, and then he sends them at you, like attack dogs coming at your face."

That kind of factional infighting has the potential to doom Afghanistan's recovery as surely as in the early 1990s, when squabbling among mujahedin leaders led to the rise of the Taliban. Peace in Afghanistan, and attendant hopes for reconstruction, can endure only if the warlords who still hold most of the power in the country are willing to go along with the program. Baryalai says he is. A Tajik from Badakhshan who made his career as a military commander under the famed Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, he has modeled himself after his well-respected mentor. He walks fast to make everyone around him keep up, projects a studied calm, emphasizes proper dress, grooming and physical fitness among his men, and espouses a liberal rhetoric aimed at ethnic inclusiveness. Now Baryalai is betting that the desperate longing for peace among ordinary Afghans will reward any politician who can deliver, and a politician--not a warlord--is precisely what he says he would like to become. "Whoever wants to serve the people later on will be able to do it only if he gives them peace now," he says.

Fulfilling that demand means first addressing more petty concerns. Racing across the countryside in a motorcade of SUVs and Russian-made jeeps, he stops at one point to tell a tribal elder to cut back on the number of bodyguards packed into the back of his pickup truck--and to get them cleaned up and put in uniforms. At the former Taliban stronghold of Baghlan, he solves a property dispute involving 100 sheep and inspects a military barracks under construction. No matter where he goes, local commanders are always around, seeking handouts for them and their men. "It's about who gets how many cars," says Baryalai. "They're always saying, 'Give me money, give me gasoline, give me carpets'." The demands are not entirely frivolous: if the chaotic militia units of the past are to be integrated into a national army, they will need proper housing, food and clothes--all in short supply.

But the most pressing task for Baryalai and his superiors in Kabul is restoring a sense of security. Key to that effort is disarming the thousands of so-called fighters who are little more than local thugs. An estimated 1 million weapons are scattered throughout Afghanistan, in the hands of everyone from farmers to tribal militias. Unless those guns are taken away, Kabul's influence will remain weak, the threat of violence will continue to flare and any serious rebuilding efforts will be hamstrung.

Baryalai seems to be making some headway. He estimates that his men have collected 6,000 of the 20,000 guns in Baghlan province. In Konduz, where the campaign started, "80 percent of the guns have already been collected," he claims. "It was a very dangerous province before. But now you can go early in the morning or at night without guns." In Baghlan, a 34-year-old villager named Nurava cites a similar feeling of security when he hands over his Russian-made heavy machine gun and ammo box. "It's calm here, and my country is calm, so I don't need it," he says. Ranged around the walls of the room he's in are more than 100 other weapons, from AK-47s to bazookas, that have been collected that morning. Of course, given the high concentration of Pashtuns in his area, Baryalai has an added incentive to make sure only his supporters have guns.

Even still, the odds are stacked against him, and the central government. Many, if not most, Afghan men--all too familiar with treachery and shifting circumstance--are loath to give up their weapons. In most of the Pashtun-dominated south and east of the country, the interim administration has little ability to enforce disarmament. In the west, where Iran has reportedly been smuggling weapons to friendly warlords like Ismail Khan, and even in the north, where Dostum rules a swath of territory around Mazar-e Sharif virtually unchallenged, commanders who are nominally loyal to the Karzai administration show no indications of relinquishing any of their authority to Kabul. For now, generals like Baryalai may unfortunately have to spend much of their time making war as well as peace.