Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Rights and Freedoms

Time to Work with Warlords? What?

Thomas Ruttig 9 min

I did not believe my eyes when I reviewed what the international media have printed about Afghanistan over Christmas: A fellow of a famous US university’s Human Rights Policy(!) institute proposes that it is ‘time to work with Afghan warlords’ (maybe not his own headline) and that ‘if President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers handle them right, they can be part of the solution’ (Boston Globe, 24 December).

What an utter ignorance, even if it is not for the first time that such opinion is expressed. This ignores not only latest Afghan history but also, most shockingly, the plentiful human rights records available. (The author, until recently, served in a leading position under the outgoing UN special envoy for Afghanistan, Kai Eide, and must be aware of this – see his article here.) These records show that the people mentioned in them – and almost no big name is missing – belong to The Hague rather than into the reception rooms of our embassies or in our capitals.

In contrast to what is suggested in the mentioned op-ed, the US-led international community – and at its tail UNAMA – HAS been working with the warlords over the past eight years in Afghanistan. This is the main reason why it is failing (in) this hapless country.

Is it really necessary to repeat everything that has been said and written by countless people? That CIA money brought the warlords and commanders – who had been kicked out by the Taleban from Afghanistan, one thing most Afghans appreciated – back into the arena, by making them military allies in the anti-Taleban ground fight. That this money and the weapons (new weapons!) bought from it thwarted UN-led militia disbandment programs like DDR and DIAG. That this money and these weapons allowed the warlords to intimidate their opponents and to elbow themselves into the new Afghan institutions where they today dictate the tone and the agenda. (The author should have been able to read UNAMA’s daily notes from parliament.) And that this money is used to run drug, kidnapping and other organized crime cartels, sometimes from within the parliament. UNAMA knows the names and the connections. It is the acquiescence vis-à-vis this reality by the West that undermined Afghan people’s trust in the post-2001 Afghan government and the morale of this very government itself.

Remember how Karzai asked for help when he wanted to replace Ismail Khan – who still styled himself as an autonomous ‘Amir of Western Afghanistan’ under the new government and showed up with a three hour delay at Karzai’s 2001 inauguration in a show of blatant defiance – as Herat governor and was told that ISAF would not mingle in ‘green-on-green’ (that is inner-Afghan) conflicts? Where was, in this situation, the often-cited mandate to ‘support the central government’? No wonder that Karzai learned his lesson and ended in an alliance with the warlords and that, at last, his entourage gave up and joined the corruption bandwagon. This is an often forgotten but central part of the story why the ‘Afghan technocrats’ failed, as the author correctly notes.

The reasoning in his op-ed seems to be based on pragmatism and realpolitics. ‘[T]echnocrats remain a minority in the government. Instead, Afghanistan is increasingly run by warlords’. Yes, but this a result of the policy described above and not a god-given fact. ‘[W]arlords are the former leaders of armed groups that formed the backbone of resistance to the Soviets and the Taliban.’ What does that mean? That they are legitimized because they stood on the right side? That’s long over, after their misrule of the country post-1992. Ask the Afghans, they remember. And what concerns the ‘heroic fight’ against the Taleban: It was almost lost if it hadn’t been for al-Qaida’s 9/11 attacks that saved the life of the Northern Alliance mujahedin. Finally, if you read Bob Woodward you would know that Fahim had to be carried to do some fighting at all.

‘These groups are also collectively accused of committing widespread and shocking human rights abuses’ – so, for a UN man, these are still accusations. Haven’t you read the reports of Human Rights Watch and the Afghanistan Justice Project? What about the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission’s report ‘A Call for Justice’? Or, at least, the UN’s own findings? The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ ‘mapping exercise’ documents? Yes, true, they were never published (under US pressure), but they are available, in the UN for sure. Oh, here it comes — ‘[…] though they [the warlords] were exempted from punishment in Afghanistan by an amnesty law in 2007’. Funnily enough, they exempted themselves because they sit in parliament and dominate it. I am repeating myself. ‘Their leaders routinely have Karzai’s ear’. So, who is handling whom? Not Karzai is handling the warlords, they handle him.

‘Their influence reflects an underlying reality’ and Karzai even had to turn to ‘his ally Fahim for the security of his own compound’. Yes, Fahim can provide security – because he avoided having his own militias demobilized when he served as Minister of Defense. In this capacity, he had post-2001 Russian arms deliveries for the Afghan army deposited for his faction’s use in the Panjshir valley. His people even shot at UN staff that came to inspect, without anything about this ever made public by the US or the UN. The fact that the US PRT in the Panjshir is the only one in the country which does not carry (too many) arms is possibly not a sign of how peaceful it is up there. It is another symptom of the usual ‘don’t rock the boat of our allies’ policy which is often enough utterly unprincipled.

Instead of showing ways how to remedy those mistakes (or even only mentioning them), the author proposes to change course: ‘[R]ather than attempting to make good leaders strong, we can succeed better in making strong leaders good.’ And he has examples that it works: ‘Gul Agha Sherzai, the governor of Nangarhar, gets more plaudits for his energy and effectiveness than he does accusations of murder and drug-smuggling.’ Note the ‘more’. This is the outcome when we ‘downsize’ our political aims in Afghanistan and ‘de-emphasize state-building’ (Defense Secretary Robert Gates).

That fits perfectly with a recently quote in the New York Times (‘Defense chief’s Afghan plan: Empower local centers’, 26 December 2009, see here): ‘If we can re-empower the traditional local centers of authority, the tribal shuras and elders and things like that and put an overlay of human rights on that, isn’t that a step in the right direction?’
‘Things like that’ refers to proposals to ‘work directly’ with ‘provincial strongmen’ – i.e. warlords and commanders – when the Kabul government or certain ministers prove to be corrupt etc. This is already happening, with PRTs channeling funds directly to provincial governors – resulting in Kabul government’s complaints that it is circumvented and has no clue what is happening in many areas. (If it would have the capacity to work better itself it really had a point here.) This, however, will not avoid corruption – in the current situation of ‘strong-men’ impunity, it will only transplant it to another place. By the way, we already had ‘local centers of authority’ in the 1990s when the Fahims, Dostums, Sayyafs, Ismail Khans, Khalilis and Mohaqqeqs – all of them represented in the incoming cabinet again, directly or indirectly – were ruling over their own fiefdoms. That almost broke up Afghanistan and contributed to the Taleban emerging.

No, Mr Russell: It is time to STOP working with the warlords.

This can be done by limiting (and not condoning) their ability to pocket aid money through the monopolization of contracts (often through pseudo-NGOs run by relatives), by implementing existing Afghan law and finally ending their exclusive status of being ‘above the law’. That’s what the UN and its member states should look into – instead of capitulating before circumstances they helped to create. Anyone thinking about that, with just a month to go to this new international conference on Afghanistan in London?

I did not believe my eyes when I reviewed what the international media have printed about Afghanistan over Christmas: A fellow of a famous US university’s Human Rights Policy(!) institute proposes that it is ‘time to work with Afghan warlords’ (maybe not his own headline) and that ‘if President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers handle them right, they can be part of the solution’ (Boston Globe, 24 December).

What an utter ignorance, even if it is not for the first time that such opinion is expressed. This ignores not only latest Afghan history but also, most shockingly, the plentiful human rights records available. (The author, until recently, served in a leading position under the outgoing UN special envoy for Afghanistan, Kai Eide, and must be aware of this – see his article here.) These records show that the people mentioned in them – and almost no big name is missing – belong to The Hague rather than into the reception rooms of our embassies or in our capitals.

In contrast to what is suggested in the mentioned op-ed, the US-led international community – and at its tail UNAMA – HAS been working with the warlords over the past eight years in Afghanistan. This is the main reason why it is failing (in) this hapless country.

Is it really necessary to repeat everything that has been said and written by countless people? That CIA money brought the warlords and commanders – who had been kicked out by the Taleban from Afghanistan, one thing most Afghans appreciated – back into the arena, by making them military allies in the anti-Taleban ground fight. That this money and the weapons (new weapons!) bought from it thwarted UN-led militia disbandment programs like DDR and DIAG. That this money and these weapons allowed the warlords to intimidate their opponents and to elbow themselves into the new Afghan institutions where they today dictate the tone and the agenda. (The author should have been able to read UNAMA’s daily notes from parliament.) And that this money is used to run drug, kidnapping and other organized crime cartels, sometimes from within the parliament. UNAMA knows the names and the connections. It is the acquiescence vis-à-vis this reality by the West that undermined Afghan people’s trust in the post-2001 Afghan government and the morale of this very government itself.

Remember how Karzai asked for help when he wanted to replace Ismail Khan – who still styled himself as an autonomous ‘Amir of Western Afghanistan’ under the new government and showed up with a three hour delay at Karzai’s 2001 inauguration in a show of blatant defiance – as Herat governor and was told that ISAF would not mingle in ‘green-on-green’ (that is inner-Afghan) conflicts? Where was, in this situation, the often-cited mandate to ‘support the central government’? No wonder that Karzai learned his lesson and ended in an alliance with the warlords and that, at last, his entourage gave up and joined the corruption bandwagon. This is an often forgotten but central part of the story why the ‘Afghan technocrats’ failed, as the author correctly notes.

The reasoning in his op-ed seems to be based on pragmatism and realpolitics. ‘[T]echnocrats remain a minority in the government. Instead, Afghanistan is increasingly run by warlords’. Yes, but this a result of the policy described above and not a god-given fact. ‘[W]arlords are the former leaders of armed groups that formed the backbone of resistance to the Soviets and the Taliban.’ What does that mean? That they are legitimized because they stood on the right side? That’s long over, after their misrule of the country post-1992. Ask the Afghans, they remember. And what concerns the ‘heroic fight’ against the Taleban: It was almost lost if it hadn’t been for al-Qaida’s 9/11 attacks that saved the life of the Northern Alliance mujahedin. Finally, if you read Bob Woodward you would know that Fahim had to be carried to do some fighting at all.

‘These groups are also collectively accused of committing widespread and shocking human rights abuses’ – so, for a UN man, these are still accusations. Haven’t you read the reports of Human Rights Watch and the Afghanistan Justice Project? What about the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission’s report ‘A Call for Justice’? Or, at least, the UN’s own findings? The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ ‘mapping exercise’ documents? Yes, true, they were never published (under US pressure), but they are available, in the UN for sure. Oh, here it comes — ‘[…] though they [the warlords] were exempted from punishment in Afghanistan by an amnesty law in 2007’. Funnily enough, they exempted themselves because they sit in parliament and dominate it. I am repeating myself. ‘Their leaders routinely have Karzai’s ear’. So, who is handling whom? Not Karzai is handling the warlords, they handle him.

‘Their influence reflects an underlying reality’ and Karzai even had to turn to ‘his ally Fahim for the security of his own compound’. Yes, Fahim can provide security – because he avoided having his own militias demobilized when he served as Minister of Defense. In this capacity, he had post-2001 Russian arms deliveries for the Afghan army deposited for his faction’s use in the Panjshir valley. His people even shot at UN staff that came to inspect, without anything about this ever made public by the US or the UN. The fact that the US PRT in the Panjshir is the only one in the country which does not carry (too many) arms is possibly not a sign of how peaceful it is up there. It is another symptom of the usual ‘don’t rock the boat of our allies’ policy which is often enough utterly unprincipled.

Instead of showing ways how to remedy those mistakes (or even only mentioning them), the author proposes to change course: ‘[R]ather than attempting to make good leaders strong, we can succeed better in making strong leaders good.’ And he has examples that it works: ‘Gul Agha Sherzai, the governor of Nangarhar, gets more plaudits for his energy and effectiveness than he does accusations of murder and drug-smuggling.’ Note the ‘more’. This is the outcome when we ‘downsize’ our political aims in Afghanistan and ‘de-emphasize state-building’ (Defense Secretary Robert Gates).

That fits perfectly with a recently quote in the New York Times (‘Defense chief’s Afghan plan: Empower local centers’, 26 December 2009, see here): ‘If we can re-empower the traditional local centers of authority, the tribal shuras and elders and things like that and put an overlay of human rights on that, isn’t that a step in the right direction?’
‘Things like that’ refers to proposals to ‘work directly’ with ‘provincial strongmen’ – i.e. warlords and commanders – when the Kabul government or certain ministers prove to be corrupt etc. This is already happening, with PRTs channeling funds directly to provincial governors – resulting in Kabul government’s complaints that it is circumvented and has no clue what is happening in many areas. (If it would have the capacity to work better itself it really had a point here.) This, however, will not avoid corruption – in the current situation of ‘strong-men’ impunity, it will only transplant it to another place. By the way, we already had ‘local centers of authority’ in the 1990s when the Fahims, Dostums, Sayyafs, Ismail Khans, Khalilis and Mohaqqeqs – all of them represented in the incoming cabinet again, directly or indirectly – were ruling over their own fiefdoms. That almost broke up Afghanistan and contributed to the Taleban emerging.

No, Mr Russell: It is time to STOP working with the warlords.

This can be done by limiting (and not condoning) their ability to pocket aid money through the monopolization of contracts (often through pseudo-NGOs run by relatives), by implementing existing Afghan law and finally ending their exclusive status of being ‘above the law’. That’s what the UN and its member states should look into – instead of capitulating before circumstances they helped to create. Anyone thinking about that, with just a month to go to this new international conference on Afghanistan in London?

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Human Rights International Media US Warlords

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