Prague, 9 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Hamid Karzai, who is widely expected to win Afghanistan's presidential elections in September, has admitted that he met privately during the past two weeks with several of the powerful warlords who control large areas outside Kabul.
But Karzai has vehemently denied rumors in the capital that he made a deal to form a coalition government with the regional militia commanders.
In an interview with "The Washington Post" earlier this week, Karzai said regional militia commanders have offered not to field a candidate against him in September's elections out of a sense of patriotism. Karzai said the commanders agreed that competitive elections between polarized factions in Afghanistan could easily degenerate into an armed conflict.
Karzai also said he wants to bring the militia leaders into the political process rather than "push them into a corner" or "frighten them away."
Christopher Langton, the head of defense analysis at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, told RFE/RL today that he suspects Karzai may have engaged in some political bargaining with the militia bosses.
"[There are a couple of things to say] about a possible deal between Karzai and people we used to call 'warlords,' who probably still are to some extent -- principally Ismail Khan [in the western Afghan province of Herat], [General Abdul Rashid] Dostum [in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif], and maybe his own Minister of Defense [Mohammad Qasim] Fahim," Langton said. "A couple of weeks ago, they agreed in principal that they would not stand against him as president -- which, in a sense, is the beginning of a deal already. I would suspect that he has said to them: 'In return for this, which also means that you are not going to destabilize my leadership, I will give you a certain amount of autonomy.'"
Langton said he also believes Karzai will try to reach agreements with Pashtun tribal leaders in southern Afghanistan in order to make it easier and safer for election officials to register voters ahead of the September polls.
"Karzai will be saying to the Pashtun tribal chiefs, 'Let's have some peace and quiet and allow this activity to happen -- allow the elections to happen.'"
"When we talk about warlords and chieftains in [the southern] part of the country, I suspect again that Karzai will be seeking a traditional Afghan approach in order to allow registration to go on," Langton said. "In other words, he'll be saying to the Pashtun tribal chiefs, 'Let's have some peace and quiet and allow this activity to happen -- allow the elections to happen.' Now, I'm not quite sure what he will [offer] in return, but it is a truly Afghan way of doing business. We shouldn't be surprised."
Despite Langton's suspicions about what Karzai may be saying to the militia commanders in private talks, he concluded that it would be wrong to imply anything sinister or underhanded about those meetings.
"I think 'deal' is too strong a word," Langton said. "'Deal' tends to imply some kind of underhand wheeling and dealing. I think what they've probably been doing is recognizing the differences in the different parts of the country. And therefore, logically, there has to be a separate approach to each power base in each part of the country in order to make the elections work. Therefore, I suspect behind this story, the fact is probably that Karzai has been talking to them individually and explaining his position -- and explaining that their position is not threatened by this [electoral] process. I think [Karzai's meetings have been] more a process of explanation, rationalization and, maybe, a certain amount of compromise in order that the elections can go ahead. And that is the priority."
Some of the officials in the Afghan Transitional Authority say they have been angered by rumors of coalition talks between Karzai and the militia commanders. Deputy Information Minister Abdul Hamid Mobarez has said Karzai could undermine Afghanistan's fragile democratic reforms by forming a coalition with religious fundamentalists who control their own private armies.
That view is supported by Jon Sifton, a researcher on Afghanistan for the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch. In an interview with RFE/RL, Sifton also said he is unsure about the veracity of rumors suggesting a coalition deal between Karzai and Afghan warlords. But Sifton said his organization is concerned that political bargaining between Karzai and the militia commanders could undermine the long-term prospects for peace and stability in the country.
"We don't know if there has been a deal," Sifton said. "But we do know that President Karzai has been talking to several of these personalities -- these recalcitrant, autonomous regional commanders like Ismail Khan and General Dostum in the north. We are concerned that instead of serving to make the elections more free and fair -- which is what President Karzai claims he is trying to do by talking to these men -- it is [really] no more than political bargaining."
Sifton concluded that Karzai's approach to Afghanistan's rival militia commanders could entrench their powers further rather than accomplish what most Afghans want to see -- a reduction in the powers of the warlords.
"President Karzai has to understand that Afghanistan's future doesn't lie with facilitating a peace agreement between different warlords," Sifton said. "It lies in reestablishing a legitimate civilian government through free and fair elections. Peace is important, and it is important to keep these rival militias from fighting. But the way to ultimately prevent them from being a problem in Afghanistan's future is to marginalize them from the governance of Afghanistan by having free and fair elections. President Karzai has taken a sort of 'go-it-slow' diplomatic approach with the warlords. This isn't working. All it is doing is serving to entrench the warlords and make it more difficult to get rid of them in the long term."
For his part, Karzai has said the most important goal for Afghanistan is to establish a strong and stable government. He said attaining that goal is an even higher priority than creating a perfect democracy.
Karzai told "The Washington Post" that if Afghanistan must choose between peace and security or holding competitive elections, the decision must be made "very carefully."