AFGHANISTAN: Karzai vs. the Warlords

February 15, 2005

Backgrounder
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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What’s at stake in the government’s confrontation with warlords?

Many experts say it is directly related to the upcoming presidential election. They say the October 9 vote, the first direct presidential election in Afghanistan’s history, is the latest round of the ongoing power struggle between interim president Hamid Karzai and the regional strongmen known as warlords who control most of the country. Karzai’s appointed government rules Kabul, the capital, but "the warlords are the main power-holders in most of Afghanistan," says Barnett R. Rubin, director of studies at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. Efforts to disarm the militias controlled by the warlords have been largely ineffective.

Do warlords participate in the current government?

Yes. Some have held--or continue to hold--significant posts, including first vice president, defense minister, education minister, and as governors of several important provinces. This arrangement is part of a power-sharing agreement worked out at a Bonn conference after the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban in 2001 and later at a nationwide loya jirga, or grand council, in June 2002.

Why were warlords given government posts?

Karzai and the international organizers of Afghanistan’s political transition hoped that including the warlords would spur them to support the establishment of a strong central government. But that plan hasn’t succeeded, experts say. Instead, the warlords have largely used their official positions to cement their own authority in the regions they control and have resisted attempts to disarm their personal militias or meld them into the national army.

What has Karzai done to exert control over the warlords?

He dismissed Ismail Khan, the governor of the western Herat province, on September 11. The new governor will be Sayeed Mohammed Khairkhwa, the former Afghan ambassador to Ukraine. A series of attacks against Herat in August led by rival warlord Amanullah Khan forced Ismail Khan to call in the Afghan National Army for help. Some experts say Karzai and the Americans who advise the army capitalized on the unrest to force out Ismail Khan, a powerful regional leader who had ruled Herat as his personal fiefdom since the Taliban’s fall in 2001. Ismail Khan was offered the post of minister of mines and ministry in Kabul. It is not clear if he will accept.

In July, Karzai dropped a powerful warlord who also serves as first vice president and defense minister, Mohammed Qasim Fahim, from his presidential ticket. Many experts saw that moves as a sign of Karzai’s willingness to challenge the warlords. "It was ... very courageous," says Kathy Gannon, Associated Press bureau chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan and the 2003-04 Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Karzai has also stepped up his anti-warlord rhetoric. In a July 12 interview with The New York Times, he called warlords the greatest threat to Afghanistan’s security--more dangerous than the remnants of the Taliban regime.

Are the main warlords supporting Karzai in the presidential election?

No. Instead, they are either running for office themselves or supporting other candidates. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a general with Uzbek roots, is running for president. Fahim is supporting fellow Tajik Yunus Qanuni, who resigned as education minister to run against Karzai. Voters will elect a president and two vice presidents.

Who is expected to win?

Karzai is heavily favored, and no warlord appears to have national appeal. However, in an 18-candidate field, Karzai may fail to muster a majority. Under those circumstances, a runoff election between the two leading candidates will be held within two weeks.

Where does the presidential election fit in Afghanistan’s democratic transition?

It is a midway point. The June 2002 loya jirga chose Karzai to head the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan. The group also drafted a constitution that was ratified by a constitutional loya jirga on January 4, 2004. Under the terms of this constitution, presidential and parliamentary elections were due to be held by June 2004.

Why didn’t they occur on schedule?

The presidential election was delayed twice because of security fears and organizational difficulties caused by attacks on election monitors and workers trying to register voters. Efforts to take a new census have also been disrupted by violence, experts say. The parliamentary vote has been put off until April 2005.

What happened in Herat over the summer?

The August showdown in Herat province left more than 70 dead after Amanullah Khan’s forces attacked Ismail Khan’s militia. The attackers took over an abandoned Soviet air base at Shindand, 60 miles south of the capital city, also called Herat, and pushed to within 18 miles of the capital. The conflict, which threatened to turn into all-out war, was quelled after more than 1,000 newly trained members of the Afghan National Army--and their U.S. advisers--were flown to the region at Ismail Khan’s request. After Karzai dismissed Ismail Khan from his governor’s post, rioters burned several U.N. offices in Herat on September 12. Clashes with police left at least four people dead and several dozen injured. More than 60 U.N. workers were evacuated from the city.

Were other parts of the country also affected by violence?

Yes. Dozens of Afghans and foreigners have been killed in attacks targeting election workers and international aid workers. A busload of female election workers on a voter registration mission in the eastern town of Jalalabad was bombed June 26, killing two and injuring 12, including three children. A U.N. voter registration office in Kandahar, a southern province, was hit by a series of bombs August 20, injuring six policemen. Officials blame members of the Taliban, which has regained strength in the country’s south and east, for trying to prevent Afghans from participation in the election process.

Why are warlords contesting the election?

They are running to "flex their political muscle," says Sam Zarifi, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. If they win enough votes, experts say, the warlords will be in a better position to bargain for powerful posts in a new Karzai government. Some experts say the warlords, like good businessmen, are keeping their options open. "There’s a high degree of uncertainty [in the country], and they’re trying to diversify their portfolios," Rubin says. "They know a transformation is in the works."

If Karzai wins, is he expected to take additional measures against the warlords?

It depends on his margin of victory. "He could take 60 percent of the vote or more," Zarifi says; if he does, Karzai would likely take it as a mandate to rein in the warlords. A landslide, Karzai hopes, would give his government political legitimacy in the eyes of Afghans and the world. This, in turn, may help him get more international support to extend the rule of law outside Kabul; he has been asking for additional contributions of troops and money for months. "Karzai’s done all he can," Zarifi says. "The ball’s in the court of the U.S. and NATO now."

How many warlords are there?

There are a handful of very powerful warlords with regional and national reach. In addition, each province in the country also has hundreds, possibly thousands, of smaller-scale leaders, Zarifi says. "It ranges from leaders who have thousands of men under arms to the guy on the corner who has 20 guys with guns."

Are the warlords leaders of ethnic tribes?

Not necessarily, although most of them have strong support from their ethnic communities. Zarifi says the warlords are men from across Afghanistan "whose political authority derives solely from their military capabilities." Many served as mujahadeen fighters against the Soviets in the 1980s.

Who are the major warlords?

  • Mohammed Qasim Fahim, vice president and defense minister. Fahim is an ethnic Tajik and commands a large militia that controls both parts of Kabul and sections of the northern Pansjir Valley. A former deputy of the late Northern Alliance leader Massoud, Fahim stepped into Massoud’s leadership role "by default" after his death, Zarifi says.
  • Abdul Rashid Dostum, the ethnic Uzbek general, is a former Northern Alliance commander with a stronghold in the city of Shebergan, in the northern Jozjan province. A former adviser to Karzai, he resigned his post in July to run for president. He is expected to draw support from the country’s Uzbek and Turkmen minority groups, as well as from the northern Shar-e-pul province just south of Mazar-i-Sharif. Dostum opposes a centralized state in Afghanistan and has refused to disarm his militia. He reportedly has thousands of men under arms.
  • Attah Mohammed, the Tajik governor of the northern Balkh province, is another of the powerful Northern Alliance commanders. Karzai appointed him governor of the province--whose capital Mazar-i-Sharif is the country’s second-largest city--in July. Mohammed, a longtime enemy of Dostum, is loyal to Fahim. Gannon says Mohammed is in clear command of his province; he recently put Mazar-i-Sharif’s police chief under house arrest for stopping a military vehicle that was carrying drugs. "All the police are loyal to me," he told Gannon.
  • Ismail Khan, a former mujahadeen leader known as "The Lion of Herat" for his role in fighting the Soviets. He is a member of the Farsiwan tribe, which has close ties to Iran, and has the support of a large private militia. As governor of Herat, which borders Iran, Khan controlled the area’s lucrative trade routes, along which travel some 80 percent of Afghanistan’s imports. U.N. officials estimate that Khan earned between $250,000 and $1.5 million per day on customs duties on cross-border trade. While some Afghans and experts criticized Khan for his dictatorial style, others said he was an effective leader, praising Herat’s well-maintained roads, parks, libraries, and infrastructure. "It’s the only part of the country where security and services are good," Zarifi says.
  • Amanullah Khan, a Tajik warlord and fierce rival of Ismail Khan. His forces are blamed for the August attacks on Herat that preceded Ismail Khan’s dismissal. Amanullah Khan was invited to Kabul in late August as a "guest" of the government; on September 6, a Karzai spokesman announced that Khan would face criminal charges for the Herat violence.
  • Hazrat Ali, a mujahadeen leader from Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province. His troops have helped U.S. forces hunt Qaeda members. He serves as the military adviser to Karzai for the country’s eastern region.
  • Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf, a powerful former mujahadeen leader who was born near Kabul. A member of the Kharruti tribe, he studied in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and practices Wahhabism, the form of Sunni Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia. He has strong support from Wahhabi factions in Saudi Arabia, but has no significant support base in Afghanistan. "He’s by far the most fundamental and radical" of the warlords, Zarifi says.

How far has disarmament of the warlords’ militias progressed?

"The disarmament has been negligible," Gannon says. "None of the commanders has demobilized to any extent." The New York Times reported July 12 that only 10,000 of the country’s estimated 60,000 to 100,000 militiamen have been demobilized thus far. Anyone who wields power in the country is armed, experts say. Gannon says tribal leaders in the provinces have told her, "Afghanistan today is ruled by the gun. If you don’t have one, you’re nobody."

How much control do the warlords have over Afghanistan’s drug trade?

Experts say the warlords take a cut of the money made from the country’s drug trade, estimated at $2.3 billion last year, half the country’s legitimate gross domestic product. "The military commanders who control the country are personally profiting from the drug trade," Gannon says. Rubin says the warlords profit at every level: they tax the opium grown locally, they charge tolls on the roads used to transport the opium to wholesale markets, and they take a share of the profits from the centers where the opium is processed. In addition, many warlords help get the drugs to international markets using their existing networks for moving men, money, and arms, he says.

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Experts say the warlords are using drug money to arm their private militias and to fund their political campaigns. But Zarifi adds that the biggest warlords have plenty of other ways to make money: they charge import duties on trade through their provinces, smuggle antiquities and lumber, and skim reconstruction funds. "The major warlords tax the poppy trade, but they don’t depend on it," he says.

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