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Afghanistan: Warlordism Proliferates, Threatening Security And Reconstruction

  • Ron Synovitz

Clashes between rival Afghan warlords in recent weeks have erupted in the north, south, east, west, and central parts of Afghanistan. The battles have been sporadic and localized, but on the whole, they emphasize a critical security crisis -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government does not command a military force strong enough to impose authority over any of the private armies of Afghan warlords.

Prague, 25 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Since the completion of the Loya Jirga that confirmed Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan's president five weeks ago, clashes between rival Afghan warlords have become common occurences.

Each of the conflicts has been localized and has involved commanders from different ethnic or political groups who are fighting for control of trade or smuggling routes through their territory. In some cases, there also are allegations of fighting motivated by simmering ethnic tensions.

As is typical with the guerrilla warfare of Afghan mujahedin fighters during the last 23 years, many of the battles have been brief engagements lasting no more than a few days before the combatants withdraw and regroup for their next hit-and-run operation.

But in broad terms, the sporadic battles all serve to emphasize a critical fact about the security situation in Afghanistan today. Karzai's central government does not command a military force strong enough to impose authority over even one of the private armies of Afghanistan's rival warlords.

The danger posed by Afghan warlords is a phenomenon that U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has been warning of for months.

Human Rights Watch's Washington director on Asian affairs, Mike Jendrzejczyk, told RFE/RL that he is disappointed the international community hasn't paid heed to the warnings issued by his nongovernmental organization early this year. As a result, he says, the situation increasingly is getting out of hand.

"We're deeply concerned about the resurgence of warlord activity in virtually all parts of Afghanistan -- especially the north and now the west. This threatens not only the stability of the civilian government, but also threatens those returning to Afghanistan from outside of the country [and the] internally displaced. Obviously, it's been a serious impediment as well to the delivery of reconstruction and humanitarian assistance."

A recent study published by Human Rights Watch says that the resurgence of warlordism in Afghanistan is fueled, in part, by international factors.

It says the unwillingness of the international community to deploy peacekeeping forces outside of Kabul, combined with the frequent presence of U.S. troops and their apparent cooperation with regional warlords, has left the impression among many Afghans that the warlords enjoy U.S. support.

Indeed, the United States and its coalition forces have an active presence in southern Afghanistan and have used the troops of Afghan warlords in combat operations against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Human Rights Watch notes that the official U.S. policy in Afghanistan has been driven by a desire to minimize the commitment of U.S. combat troops. That has meant a reliance on local warlords -- regardless of their human rights records -- to provide security and to help with ground operations.

U.S. officials have confirmed that troops from Afghan factions are working with U.S. Special Forces in the war on terror. But Washington does not view that policy as active support for local warlords.

Human Rights Watch says it also has received unconfirmed reports of active support for different warlords by Iran and Pakistan.

The latest clashes to erupt between the private Afghan armies occurred early this week in the western provinces of Herat and Farah.

That fighting involves troops that had not confronted each other since the signing of the Bonn accords last December. They are ethnic Tajik fighters of the pro-Iranian Herat Province Governor Ismail Khan and ethnic Pashtun troops from the south under the command of Ammanullah Khan.

Lieutenant General Dan McNeill yesterday offered to help resolve tensions between Ismail Khan and the ethnic Pashtuns.

But the Herat governor reportedly told McNeill that he does not need the United States to play the role of mediator. Ismail Khan's private army is thought to number about 30,000 troops.

Significantly, the fighting this week broke out along the transport corridor that passes through Kandahar and Herat to link western Pakistan to Turkmenistan and the rest of Central Asia.

Truck drivers at the Afghan-Pakistan border crossing near Spin Boldak and Chaman have been on strike this week to protest dozens of illegal road blocks along the route that make their jobs dangerous and unprofitable.

Earlier this month, a nongovernmental organization that delivers aid into western Afghanistan for the United Nations temporarily halted its work because troops from Ismail Khan's private army were charging prohibitory tolls at road blocks along the transport corridor.

The site of this week's fighting also is significant because it is at the center of the proposed route for a pipeline that would deliver natural gas from Turkmenistan to western Pakistan. If allowed to continue, the factional fighting could seriously impact attempts by a U.S.-led consortium to obtain financing to build the proposed pipeline.

Parts of six northern Afghan provinces have seen medium-intensity fighting in the past month between ethnic Uzbeks, ethnic Hazaras, Pashtuns, and ethnic Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley. That fighting also has spread into some ethnic Hazara areas of central Afghanistan.

In the eastern province of Nangarhar, there have been clashes between local commanders who are attempting to consolidate power within a power vacuum created there by the assassination earlier this month of Afghan Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir.

Qadir also had been the governor of Nangarhar Province and was a powerful local businessmen who publicly supported the cultivation of poppies that produce opium and heroin. The trade routes through Nangarhar Province are known by international drug control officials to be a major conduit for the heroin that is smuggled from Afghanistan into Pakistan.

U.S. forces and the main Afghan army commander in Nangarhar, Hazrat Ali, have confirmed that there have been fire fights between troops under the command of Qadir's son, Haji Zaher, and a rival local warlord named Maulvi Noor Ahmad.

Sporadic fighting also continues in the southeastern provinces of Paktia and Khost where troops of the renegade warlord Padshah Khan Zadran have launched a series of artillery and rocket barrages against civilians in the provincial capitals this year.

The dispute between Zadran and his ethnic Pashtun rivals in the south has complicated efforts by the U.S.-led antiterror coalition to track down remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Some western analysts now say the confusion caused by Zadran's blood feud with his Afghan rivals made it possible for hundreds of Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters -- possibly even Osama bin Laden himself -- to escape from Tora Bora and the Shar-i-Kot Valley into the autonomous tribal regions of neighboring Pakistan.

Despite the proliferation of regional skirmishes, Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said after a meeting in Washington yesterday with U.S. President George W. Bush that the security situation in his country is improving.

Abdullah is trying to convince international donors to provide some $4.5 billion in reconstruction aid that was promised for Afghanistan during a donors' conference in Tokyo in January. So far, less than $1 billion has been disbursed -- and many donors say they are wary of providing more of the promised aid as long as stability in Afghanistan appears threatened by warlordism.

Nevertheless, Jendrzejczyk of Human Rights Watch says he is encouraged by the latest report to the UN Security Council by the UN's special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi.

That report represents an official UN confirmation of the warnings issued by Human Rights Watch since the beginning of the year.

Brahimi told the Security Council that a security void exists in most of Afghanistan and that even a token expansion of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force would improve the situation.

But despite Brahimi's report, representatives of key council members such as the United States, Britain, and France say they will instead focus on building up an Afghan government security force.

French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte said few countries are ready to contribute the troops needed to patrol Afghanistan's provinces. U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte said the United States will continue to help train an Afghan national army.

"The Transitional Authority must create a representative multiethnic and apolitical Ministry of Defense and national army that works on behalf of all Afghans. The Afghans must work together to prevent a recurrence of the recent violence in the north and to end the tolerance for violence reflected in the shocking assassination of Vice President Haji Qadir."

Earlier this week, the first battalion of Afghanistan's fledgling national army graduated from intensive training by U.S. and ISAF troops.

But recruitment efforts have been slow. As a result, the first battalion and the two others still undergoing training are smaller than the standard size of 600 soldiers.

By the end of the month, the total size of the Afghan national army will be less than 1,200 soldiers. According to the original plans for the force announced in February by the Afghan government, there already should be more than 30,000 trained and fully equipped Afghan troops under the command of the central government.

A recent article in "Foreign Affairs" magazine by attorney Anja Manuel and academic scholar P.W. Singer contends that plans for the Afghan force are disorganized and not clearly linked to a central command structure.

Manuel and Singer note that the new force also must compete with separate U.S.-organized antiterrorist units.

They point out that the formation and operation of Afghan antiterrorism units has not been coordinated with Kabul. And they predict that the higher pay being offered to those in the U.S.-led units will continue to attract potential recruits away from any national army directed from Kabul.

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