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Afghanistan: Talks By Militia Bosses Reveal Pressures On Moderate President

  • Ron Synovitz

Commanders of Afghanistan's powerful private militias have met in Kabul for at least the second time within a week to see if they can unite behind a single candidate for next year's presidential elections. No official decision has been announced about who might run as an Islamist candidate against the more moderate Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai, but several names are being suggested behind the scenes.

Prague, 9 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The most powerful private militia commanders and Islamist leaders within the Afghan transitional government met in Kabul yesterday at the home of Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim to discuss whether they can unite behind a single candidate to challenge Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai in elections next year.

It was at least the second time in a week that the group has come together for unprecedented talks on a future political strategy for Islamist mujahedin factions. In addition to Fahim, the meeting included powerful regional leaders like Herat Province Governor Ismail Khan and ethnic Uzbek Deputy Defense Minister General Abdul Rashid Dostum.

Education Minister Yunis Qanooni and Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah also attended, as well as the radical Islamist leader Abdur-Rab Rasul Sayaf, who is not a member of the transitional cabinet.

No official decision on a candidate has been announced. But an RFE/RL correspondent in Kabul reports that several names are being suggested behind the scenes.

Prominent among them are Sayaf and former Afghan President Hazrat Mujaddidi. Ismail Khan's name also is being suggested. But our correspondent says his chances of being backed by all of the Islamist factions are not as strong as the prospects for Sayaf or Mujaddidi.

Analysts say the gatherings in Kabul highlight emerging divisions between Karzai and Islamist militia commanders within his coalition government.

Samina Ahmed, the director of the International Crisis Group's Afghan and South Asia Program, says there is clearly a political struggle going on in Kabul over next year's presidential elections, as well as over the text of a draft constitution to be voted upon in December by a Constitutional Loya Jirga, or Grand Council.

"What we see happening here is jockeying for whatever will happen during the Constitutional Loya Jirga and the election process itself," Ahmed said. "This is the beginning of, in some ways, electioneering. But [these are] election activities with a twist because the gathering in Kabul was a gathering of warlords who have an interest in retaining the control that they have over the security apparatus of the state that is in Kabul itself, within the coalition, and retaining their control outside of Kabul."

The meeting yesterday at Fahim's residence comes ahead of two major developments intended to increase security in remote regions of the country.

The UN is due in about two weeks to launch a disarmament program that also would bring fighters from private militia factions into a unified Afghan National Army.

NATO military planners this week also are working on details of a plan to expand the mission of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from Kabul into eight other Afghan provinces. The UN Security Council is expected to approve an expanded ISAF mandate as soon as the end of this month.

Both of these international efforts are seen as a way of strengthening the authority of the Afghan central government by reining in the factional militias of figures like Dostum, Fahim, and Ismail Khan.

Last week, after the first gathering in Kabul of those factional commanders, a spokesman for the mostly ethnic Tajik political group Jamiat-i-Islami told reporters that former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani had been named as the most likely Islamist presidential candidate.

But Fahim called a rare press conference on 6 October to explain that the group was not able to agree on Rabbani. Rabbani's presidency from 1993 saw much of Kabul destroyed by factional fighting and the rise of the Taliban movement, which eventually drove him from the capital in September 1996.

"The meetings held in Kabul in recent days were to discuss matters of national interest, but questions also were raised about whether they should make a decision for the future candidate to lead the Afghan government," said Fahim. "No such decisions were made."

Karzai himself was traveling abroad when the regional commanders gathered last week. Upon his return, he lashed out at the potential political rivals within his coalition cabinet. His remarks reflected widespread criticisms raised by Western media and by nongovernmental organizations in Afghanistan -- namely, that warlords within Karzai's cabinet have promoted the interests of their own private militias at the expense of the authority of the Afghan central government.

"The coalition government has brought disaster and desolation to Afghanistan," Karzai said. "In Kabul, we observed difficulties that stemmed from the coalition [approach to implementing] reforms. I emphatically disagree with a coalition regime. There should be one regime to lead Afghanistan to reforms. He who believes in peace and integrity for Afghanistan is my ally. He who can draw and differentiate distinctly between destruction and improvement."

Chaguiz Pahlavan, an independent political analyst who specializes on Afghanistan, says Karzai appears to be making a clear break from the warlords and conservative Islamists within his cabinet.

"Karzai himself does not have the popular support of the Pashtuns or other tribes and ethnic groups. All forces have collaborated with him in the past two years. But he wants to dismiss these forces. This would cause resistance and turmoil later."

An analysis published this week by the U.S.-based Stratfor think tank says Karzai could be trying to widen his support base among Pashtuns -- where loyalties are divided between various tribes, the remnants of the Taliban, and Islamist groups like Hizb-i-Islami.

Stratfor concludes that Karzai is now in a serious dilemma. It says Karzai cannot risk annoying Washington with efforts to gain support among ethnic Pashtuns by courting the more moderate elements of the former Taliban regime. At the same time, Stratfor says Karzai cannot rely solely upon foreign support for legitimacy if he is to advance his political career in a future democratic government.

U.S. President George W. Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has downplayed the significance of the recent meetings by Afghanistan's regional commanders.

But the International Crisis Group's Ahmed says she also sees challenges mounting against Karzai: "Hamid Karzai is a moderate, but these people [in his cabinet who have been meeting in Kabul recently] are the people who have guns. Whether it's Fahim or Mr. Dostum or Mr. Ismail Khan, these are people who have more than just political supporters. They have militias. Karzai's only backing is from the international community. His legitimacy is from the support of the international community."

Ironically, Ahmed says the use of Afghan factional militias by the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition has inadvertently strengthened the positions of Fahim and other Afghan militia leaders at the expense of Karzai.

"The relationship between the [U.S.-led] coalition forces and the warlords has strengthened the warlords. The fact [is] that one of the warlords -- the defense minister [Fahim] -- has been allowed to keep his militia within Kabul despite the fact the Bonn accords specifically stated there would be no militias in the capital itself. [This] goes to show that the international community has, in some ways, failed to live up to its own pledges, which is to provide a fair and even ground for all of the political contenders within Afghanistan. What you have now, unfortunately, is a situation in which the moderate voices are losing out and the more extremist, militant armed elements are gaining. And this includes, of course, the Islamic extremists within government, not just outside government."

Meanwhile, as Dostum was a guest at Fahim's Kabul residence yesterday, militia forces from the factions of both commanders were locked in a fierce battle about 50 kilometers west of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Troops from Fahim's faction in the north, commanded by Atta Mohammad, have clashed repeatedly with fighters loyal to Dostum since the collapse of the Taliban regime nearly two years ago.

A UN spokesman says there is no immediate confirmation of reports that some 70 militia fighters have been killed since yesterday morning. But he said both sides were using tanks and mortars and that the casualties were high.

Military analysts say such fighting -- at a time when Dostum and Fahim are trying to reach a unified political position -- could reflect a lack of discipline along the chains of command within the militia groups.

Others say the militia forces may be trying to seize land and property before the expected expansion of ISAF troops and the deployment of UN disarmament teams.