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Analysis: Afghan Demonstrations Test Warlords-Turned-Administrators

Demonstrations rocked two of Afghanistan's five largest cities on 7 March -- Kandahar in the south and Mazar-e Sharif in the north. While the reasons behind these protests varied and the central government's response to them was markedly different, one factor connects the incidents: the presence of former warlords acting as governors of the two provinces.

According to a statement by the Afghan Interior Ministry on 7 March, Kandahar residents took to the streets in protest over "security issues and child kidnapping." The central government made a quick and high-level response to the incident, sending Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali to Kandahar on 8 March. An Interior Ministry spokesman said President Hamid Karzai is very concerned about recent abductions and overall insecurity in Kandahar and dispatched Jalali to personally investigate the situation.

The demonstrations, in which people chanted slogans against the United States and in support of the ousted Taliban regime, must have had a deja vu effect in Kabul's circles of power. After all, it was popular disgust with insecurity in Kandahar that propelled the Taliban onto the political scene in 1994. The Taliban later became instruments of foreign powers and international terrorist organizations, but their initial popularity stemmed from their ability to stop kidnappings, rapes and assaults on civilians by warlords or gangs who exploited the lack of security provided by the central government.

Demonstrators in Mazar-e Sharif, the administrative capital of Balkh Province, were demanding the resignation of Balkh Governor Ata Mohammad Nur and the dismissal of Sayyed Habib, the head of the community section of Balkh's health department. The protesters claimed that Nur has usurped people's land and that the health department has fired doctors without legitimate cause.
Both Balkh and Kandahar provinces are governed by former warlords who have been absorbed into the government structure, but who have remained in the same geographical area over which they exercised power through their private militias.

It remains unclear whether Kabul has intervened in or commented on the demonstrations in Mazar-e Sharif. Certainly, no high-level investigative team has been dispatched to the north.

Nur, called "the founder of democracy" by state-owned Balkh Television, said in an interview on 7 March that the protesters were "stupid people" who misused democracy and had come to Mazar-e Sharif from neighboring provinces. Nur also dismissed the charges that he has taken people's land and claimed the dismissed doctors were lazy.

"I will not let anyone take their pushcarts to the streets and impose their wishes on me by staging rallies. This cannot happen. If they have documents, I ask them to come to me. I am sure the crimes of those who have organized the demonstration will be revealed one day," Nur added.

Back in Kandahar, the security situation -- particularly the kidnapping of children for ransom or sexual assault -- has been deteriorating. According to a BBC report from Kandahar, an average of one child is kidnapped per week. There are fears, however, that the real number is much higher as some parents do not to report kidnappings for fear of reprisals or out of shame if their child has been a victim of sexual assault.

Kandahar's worsening security may be linked to an array of issues, such as the increasing dominance of drug lords in the province; lack of resources devoted to personal security as the hunt for neo-Taliban militants continues; and the shifting of focus by some groups from militancy to criminality.

However, both Balkh and Kandahar provinces are governed by former warlords who have been absorbed into the government structure, but who have remained in the same geographical area over which they exercised power through their private militias.

Nur formerly commanded Military Corps No. 7, which in 2002 and 2003 battled forces loyal to General Abdul Rashid Dostum's Junbish-e Melli-ye Islami party in northern Afghanistan. Karzai appointed Nur as Balkh governor in August 2004, apparently in exchange for his agreeing to hand over some of the heavy weapons in his possession (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 5 August 2004). Nur's militia, though officially dismantled, continues to be the main force in Balkh.

Gul Agha Sherzai served as Kandahar governor from late 2001 until August 2003, when in an effort to improve security there and reduce the power of local warlords, Karzai replaced him with Mohammad Yusof Pashtun. Sherzai was called to Kabul to serve as minister of urban development, but reportedly rejected the offer and remains idle. Under Pashtun's administration, the overall security situation in Kandahar took at sharp turn for the better. However, in the latest Afghan cabinet reshuffle in December 2004, Sherzai was reappointed as governor of Kandahar with an added, albeit symbolic, portfolio of minister adviser to Karzai (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 30 December 2004).

So far, the most successful transformation of a former warlord to a central government administrator has been the case of Mohammad Ismail Khan, who ruled the western Herat Province until his dismissal and later appointment in December as energy minister (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 22 January 2005). Ismail Khan not only no longer rules Herat, but he has proven to be a good administrator in Kabul.

In the absence of any clear-cut method to disenfranchise warlords, commanders and their like, the best way to absorb them into Afghanistan's central administrative system seems to be to remove them from their geographical zones of power. The situation in Balkh and certainly in Kandahar suggests that leaving local strongmen in their strongholds does not lead to better security in those regions.