Disarm the Afghan warlords

Posted in Broader Middle East | 20-Jul-04 | Source: International Herald Tribune

An Afghan policeman uses his belt to control the crowd of people trying to get their voter identity cards in Eidga mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Tuesday, July 20, 2004.
Afghanistan's coming elections are in jeopardy, and not just because of a revived Taliban. The warlord armies that Washington used to oust the Taliban in 2001 now pose an even greater danger.

President George W. Bush is largely responsible for this situation, having first decided to fight the war against the Taliban on the cheap and then leaving the job of nation-building undone while he diverted U.S. forces to Iraq. Now the administration must heed the warnings from Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, and do much more to help him curb these private armies and the exploding opium business that finances them.

Bush's blunders in Afghanistan followed decades of shortsighted U.S. policies that built up the power of these warlords. Many of them got their start in the U.S.-financed guerrilla movement that forced Soviet occupation troops out of Afghanistan a decade and a half ago. Soon after, they began fighting one another, terrorizing civilians and opening the way for the Taliban.

The warlords got an unexpected chance to rebuild their power when the Bush administration chose to rely mainly on their private armies to eject the Taliban from Kabul in late 2001. After the war, with the Pentagon already intent on sending troops to Iraq, the United States kept only a limited combat force to battle Taliban fighters and their local allies in southeastern Afghanistan, leaving Karzai largely at the mercy of the warlords.

Moving effectively against the warlords will be difficult now that the United States has allowed the situation to deteriorate so far.

Together they have far more troops than Karzai's nascent national army, and he has been forced to cut dangerous short-term deals with them. The first step should be to mobilize international pressure against one or two of the most notorious warlords, in the hope that others will get the message and fall in line.

A prime target should be Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a militant Islamist, long backed by Saudi Arabia, whose fighters have been responsible for multiple war crimes over the years, including a 1993 massacre of civilians in Kabul. Sayyaf's private army gives him the power to impose his nominees for key positions. Another dangerous warlord is Muhammad Qasim Fahim, who, in addition to being the government's defense minister, commands a private army of at least 50,000 fighters. Fahim hopes to be Karzai's vice-presidential running mate in the election now scheduled for October. He should not be allowed to do so unless he disarms his private militia, a step he has repeatedly resisted.

To curb the warlords further, NATO should expand its peacekeeping role. New jobs also need to be found for those now making their living as fighters for hire.

Ultimate victory in Afghanistan requires an effective national government, freed from both the Taliban and the warlords.