The Negotiator

Will Hamid Karzai's pragmatic politics save -- or lose -- Afghanistan?

| Fri Jun. 11, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

Afghanistan's interim president Hamid Karzai recently came under fire after reportedly offering mujahedeen leaders cabinet positions in exchange for their support in his election bid this September. The news kindled fears that Karzai would undermine the newly elected government by forming a coalition with the thuggish warlords. Massad Jaloul, a rival candidate, expressed her concerns:

"With this coalition, the reconstruction of Afghanistan will not take place, collection of weapons will not take place, we will keep on having instability and anarchy, the unfairness of the current situation will not improve, and the free will of the people will not be implemented."

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She has a point. No one yet knows exactly what Karzai promised the warlords, and he may have offered them too much power. But the president has found himself in a difficult, precarious position that allows very little room for maneuver. As unpleasant as it may sound, Karzai's deal may be Afghanistan's best chance for peace and stability.

At the center of this mess are Afghanistan's regional warlords, who, as Kathy Gannon recently reported in Foreign Affairs, have been causing trouble since late 2001. During the campaign to oust the Taliban, the United States joined forces with the ethnic militias of the Northern Alliance--essentially the same men who had wreaked havoc in Afghanistan before the Taliban came to power in 1996. While the warlords in the Northern Alliance earned accolades as effective wartime allies, they showed no indication of going away quietly once the fighting was over.

In the wheeling and dealing leading up to the U.N.-backed Bonn accords, signed in December 2001, the U.S. agreed to give three top cabinet positions to warlords from the Northern Alliance. They, in turn, agreed to America's choice of Karzai as interim president, especially because without a militia of his own, he was effectively powerless to rule the country. Since then, the warlords have enjoyed a high degree of autonomy, and have been given free rein throughout the countryside. In all likelihood, they are endorsing Karzai this September in the hopes of preserving this arrangement.

A bleak report issued in April by NYU's Center on International Cooperation (CIC) declared that Afghanistan has degenerated into a lawless narco-state: "Opium production, processing, and trafficking have surged, with revenues equaling roughly half of the legal economy." The CIC notes that local warlords have benefited most from this illegal economy, raising taxes on drug production to fund their militias, which can have as many as 25,000 fighters. The net result, according to Gannon, is often ugly:

Not only are the warlords complicit in drug-running and corruption, but according to Afghanistan's Human Rights Committee, they are also guilty of abusing and harassing the population. The warlords have stolen people's homes, arbitrarily arrested their enemies, and tortured them in private jails.

Those who speak out against the mujahedeen do so at their peril. Sina Samar, the head of the committee and a former minister of women's affairs, was threatened with death for daring to criticize the warlords.

The harassment has extended towards aid workers throughout the country. On Thursday 10 Chinese aid workers were gunned down in the province of Kunduz. Much of the violence appears to be aimed at disrupting the September elections. The Washington Post reports:

At a village mosque, a leaflet printed in neat Pashto script was found last week, instructing "all good Muslim citizens" to stay away from government buildings, foreign troops and official funerals. If anyone disobeyed, the pamphlet warned, "your bodies will join theirs."…

As Afghanistan prepares to hold its first elections in September, a flurry of attacks by armed Islamic groups on aid workers, election preparation teams and foreign troops have raised concerns that anti-democratic forces will sabotage the vote, stymie Afghanistan's economic progress and undermine its relations with the West.

Chances are slim that security will improve in time for the elections. The Post cites U.N. plans to have 10,000 local troops and 20,000 police officers deployed by September, but this figure appears wildly unrealistic. The 5,700-person Afghan army has had difficulty retaining its new recruits, and the country has barely begun to develop a police force.

Ultimately, then, peace will depend on quelling the warlords. Hence, Karzai is trying to bargain with the most powerful warlords now--by offering them either cabinet positions or regional autonomy -- in the hope that they will allow the elections to proceed without incident. After that, who knows? Karzai may be betting that, as a popularly elected president, he will be able to assert control over the country by disarming the militias and rebuilding the country, perhaps with belated international assistance. But his prospects seem bleak.

As is in Iraq, enticing the militias to lay down their weapons has proved nearly impossible. The Los Angeles Times notes that only 6,000 men loyal to rival militias have turned in their guns; the Bonn accords had hoped for 40,000 disarmed fighters by this point. The most powerful warlord show no sign of relinquishing their armies. Part of the problem, as the Times pointed out, is that the UN has offered little assistance to ex-fighters trying to find jobs:

"The mujahedin who were disarmed last year have not been given professions," [Taj Mohammed, a militia leader] said. "They have been walking around without anything to do. When my soldiers leave, there should be the possibility of jobs in the private sector, or the Afghan police or army. They haven't offered us an alternative."

The other, more glaring problem is that the U.S. still heavily relies on the warlords to pursue the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and has been reluctant to confront or disarm their militias. (U.S. Special forces in Afghanistan are focused on rooting out terrorists and Taliban remnants, while a NATO force confined largely to Kabul is charged with "stabilization.") This strategy has kept the warlords well-armed, well-funded, and powerful, even if it hasn't done much to eradicate the Taliban. The CIC report noted that in recent months Taliban attacks have reached their highest levels since 2001. This comes on top of the news that Pakistan has proved less than eager to hunt down al-Qaeda fighters within its own borders. The result? Both foreign fighters and armed local warlords are swarming the countryside, as powerful as ever. Little wonder that many observers predict chaos in the months ahead.

Faced with a dire situation, Karzai can expect little in the way of international support, especially from the United States. A report from the General Accounting Office (GAO), released on Monday, lambasted the Bush administration's Afghanistan policy. According to the report, the United States "lacked a comprehensive reconstruction strategy" for the country. Officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) did not receive sufficient funds until early this year. Furthermore, USAID officials have claimed that "they did not know when they would receive additional funding" and hence, "were unable to develop and plan for long-term resource-intensive reconstruction projects."

While the GAO has made strong recommendations for improving the long-term outlook of the country, it's unlikely that Afghanistan will receive a drastic increase in support anytime soon. For now, Afghanistan will have to wait to see if Karzai's gamble pays off. Come September, the president may find himself struggling to rule with a cabinet full of hostile warlords. But on the upside, his negotiations may buy his country some time until NATO can step in with a real plan to disarm the militias and restore order. In that case, Karzai will be remembered as the shrewd pragmatist who saved Afghanistan.

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