Afghanistan's internationally backed central government is, once again, involved in a standoff with independent regional leaders in the country. As RFE/RL reports, the Transitional Authority is trying to obtain hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues collected as customs duties by provincial governors outside of Kabul.
Prague, 15 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai has called a meeting for tomorrow in Kabul with more than a dozen provincial governors and regional warlords.
Karzai's office told RFE/RL that the meeting will focus on the need for provincial officials to start sending revenues they receive from customs duties to the central government in Kabul rather than hoarding the funds for their own regional factions.
A spokesman for Karzai told RFE/RL that there are at least 12 provinces in Afghanistan whose leaders are receiving large incomes by having their own private militias or customs officials collect duties on imported goods.
The spokesman said that out of an estimated $600 million collected last year in customs duties by regional officials, only about $80 million was passed to the central government. And so far, no payments have been made to the central government from those 12 provinces this year.
Officials at Afghanistan's Finance Ministry told RFE/RL that the central government's budget has earmarked $550 million for spending this year. About $200 million of that spending is supposed to be funded by revenues generated in areas of Afghanistan outside of Kabul. The remainder is expected to come from international donors.
Among the regional leaders invited to Kabul for tomorrow's meeting is Ismail Khan, the powerful and controversial governor in the western province of Herat. But Karzai's office says it is not immediately clear whether Ismail Khan will make the journey to Kabul.
Western media reports also suggest that Karzai may sack some provincial officials who refuse to start sending their share of revenues to help fund the national budget. But Karzai's office told RFE/RL it is too early to say whether anyone will be removed tomorrow.
The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies this week published a report that says the job of bringing stability to Afghanistan is "unfinished business."
Jonathan Stevenson, editor of the group's Strategic Survey for 2002 and 2003, told RFE/RL that three areas need attention.
"The main concern with Afghanistan, as we say in the report, is to finish what is now unfinished business. Obviously, [a key issue is] solidifying the Karzai government and also making sure that Pashtuns, in particular, are adequately knitted into the political fabric of Afghanistan so that they are less prone to becoming radicalized, as they were by the Taliban," Stevenson said.
Stevenson said the ongoing power of regional warlords is, indeed, a direct threat to the stability of Karzai's Transitional Authority: "Another factor, of course, is the military and political control of warlords who threaten the overall security and stability of the country. In doing so, [they] make it more vulnerable to terrorist co-optation -- or at least to providing freedom of action for terrorists to move back into Afghanistan from the tribal areas of Pakistan, for example, where some of the Al-Qaeda and Taliban holdouts are decamped."
He says outside forces in the region also threaten stability in Afghanistan: "The third factor is to make [Afghanistan] less susceptible to the influences of outside actors, various ones of which are angling for control. These include, for example, Iran and even Russia and some of the Central Asian states. And in particular, to make diplomatically certain that Pakistan, or at least some elements in the Pakistani government, do not attempt to gain undo influence -- which would threaten the stability and counterterrorism objectives in Afghanistan."
Colonel Thomas Loebbering, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, told RFE/RL this week that the security situation outside of Kabul remains tentative.
"There is a clear decrease of [violent] incidents within the vicinity of Kabul and its surroundings [in past weeks]. However, there is an increase of incidents in other parts of the country. So the picture of security is quite split," Loebbering said.
During a February visit to the United States, Karzai himself downplayed the significance of warlordism in areas outside of Kabul.
"I see a lot of the press reports, coming from the Western press especially, of warlords and provincial people [in control of areas outside of Kabul]. It is not like that. The government has much more authority and charge in the country than you can presume. It is probably better than lots of other countries around us," Karzai said.
Still, in his testimony to U.S. congressional committees in Washington, Karzai repeatedly stressed that the refusal of provincial officials to send revenues to the Transitional Authority is one of the key problems facing his administration.
The UN's special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, also is on record saying the profits made by provincial officials from customs revenues have traditionally been spent by regional leaders to bolster private militias.
Speaking in February, Brahimi said: "In the past in Afghanistan, these profits have been used to nurture a war economy. It is crucial during this transitional period that such an economy not be allowed to gain its former proportions."
Brahimi added that the Afghan Transitional Authority's repeated calls to expand the UN mandate for the International Security and Assistance Force into areas outside of Kabul are being made with first-hand knowledge about the threat of warlordism and terrorism.
"They do not clamor for international assistance for the sake of it. But they do understand, too well, how vulnerable they still are to forces that, if unchecked, may consume them again and undo the significant progress that has been made," Brahimi said.
It was reported earlier this week that the United States has started to put pressure on Karzai to get provincial governors to start sending revenues to Kabul. If true, those reports are ironic because Karzai himself has been the one urging the United States for help on the issue.
Stevenson told RFE/RL that the end of the war in Iraq has created a situation that could free up additional U.S. troops for an expanded role in Afghanistan -- a role that could pressure provincial leaders into sending some revenues to Kabul.
But Stevenson predicts the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will not be increased in the near future as long as U.S. soldiers remain preoccupied with security operations in Iraq.