Date: Sun, 9 Jun 2002 18:00:25 EDT
Subject: [lpaz-discuss] Afghan warlords vie for power

Afghan warlords vie for power


ABOVE a destroyed adobe village, the warlord Badshah Khan, a sinister-looking character with a constant frown and one long black eyebrow, stops to pray along with a dozen of his gunmen. The Pathan royalist warlord has fallen on hard times since he was beaten back in a brutal battle earlier this year from his appointed governorship in nearby Paktia province.

He is a bitter man bent on revenge against the Tajiks who killed some of his best fighters. There may be a way to allay his rancorous spirit though. He has high hopes for a political comeback through the ancient process of the loya jirga, a huge meeting of Afghan elders, which begins tomorrow and will choose a government for the next two years.

The line-up for this weeks conference in Kabul will consist of persons, mostly warlords just like Badshah Khan, who played key roles in the countrys last 23 years of brutal warfare.

Badshah Khan, who relishes his current role as a bad-boy warlord opposing the powers-that-be, is one of several independent voices in the countrys east and south now warning of a civil war if the countrys Northern Alliance does not share more power than it does at present.

"Hamid Karzai is deaf and blind to the real situation in Afghanistan," he said, leaning back to display a glistening brass bandoleer across his hefty chest. "He is foolishly allowing the Northern Alliance to make links with fundamentalists in the south, people who are friends of al-Qaeda. If the northerners continue to use him as a puppet and manipulate the Pathan areas for their own interests, Karzai will only be helping to drag us into another war."

Hamid Karzai, the countrys current interim leader, is favourite to be returned by the loya jirgas delegates as Afghanistans new leader. He is also the golden boy of US aspirations in Afghanistan with no military muscle he can call his own apart from the temporary fix of US and British firepower on the ground since late last year.

But in the eyes of many of his fellow Pathans, Karzai is considered a "prisoner" of the Northern Alliance, which maintains a grip on the countrys ministries of interior, defence, intelligence and foreign affairs. Western diplomats are looking to their northern "friends," whom they assisted with air power to seize Kabul last year, to politely divide up two or three of these key ministries with the countrys largest ethnic group, the Pathans.

That is unlikely to happen without an intense political struggle. Few outside observers expect Afghanistan, still divided by the aftermath of war and lingering hatreds, to suddenly embrace democracy. That is why they are closely watching out for attempts by the Northern Alliance and fundamentalist Islamic groups across the country to manipulate the loya jirga.

The Northern Alliance, which fought its way to power under the wings of Allied air power, has forged a marriage of convenience with fundamentalist groups in the south, including former Taliban leaders. These alliances are being strengthened to undercut the growing power of royalist-minded Pathans who support a greater role for the countrys moderate-minded former King, Zahir Shah.

In Khost and Paktia provinces an al-Qaeda operative, Jalaluddin Haqqani, has surrendered his own military hardware to his brother Ibrahim in Gardez and to his former lieutenant, Malim Jan, both of whom are now struggling to keep Badshah Khan, a relative moderate in the spectrum of Afghan warlordism, out of Afghanistans new political line-up.

The largest fort in Khost, however, is still controlled by his surrogate warlord, Malim Jan, a former Taliban security chief in neighbouring Ghazni with an appalling human rights record, who has managed to make his way on to the US militarys payroll. He is currently the chief of a border military camp charged with keeping the thousands of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters hiding in Pakistan - including his mentor - out of his country.

In Kabul, the Northern Alliances power is bolstered by the presence of an international peacekeeping force, ISAF, that has been reluctant to disarm the thousands of fighters, almost all of them ethnic Tajiks, who enforce the law in the capital.

In the southern Pathan stronghold of Kandahar, power rests partly with the backers of King Zahir Shah. The governor, Gul Agha Shirzai, is doing a splendid business for himself by housing both US and British Special Forces within his own family compound.

Nipping at his heels with control of the regions military hardware, however, is General Khan Mohammad, a deputy and brother-in-law of Mullah Naquib Ullah, a warlord who once supplied the Taliban with thousands of machine-guns, hundreds of tanks and six Mig-21s.

When the Taliban was finally ousted from Kandahar in December last year, their leaders handed the power they had taken from Mullah Naquib Ullah back to him - some say for safekeeping until they can regroup.

"He is a dangerous character who has supported the Taliban with guns and manpower in the past," said Ahmed Rashid, author of The Taliban, the definitive text on the movements rise to power.

With the political winds still not blowing in favour of a moderate-minded Afghanistan, the country is in danger ofreturning to its former status as a "rogue state", said Western observers in Kabul.

No wonder the governor of Kandahar, Shirzai, argued: "We need the foreign forces [British and American troops] here for at least five years to create real stability. If it was up to me, I would keep them around for 30 years."

The Loya jirga

THIS weeks loya jirga, or grand council, is the first to be held since 1987. All 1,500 delegates will meet at Kabuls Polytechnic University to elect a new government for Afghanistan to rule until December 2003, when a further constitutional loya jirga will be held to decide on future political structures for the country.

Delegates will elect a new head of state and government, although the chairman of the current interim government, Hamid Karzai, is expected to be confirmed as the head of the new government. One other question to be resolved is the status of the King, Zahir Shah, who only recently returned from 29 years in exile.

The 87-year-old says he has no interest in restoring the monarchy but is keen to play some part in the countrys future government.

One thousand of the delegates have been elected in their local districts or regions, while the other 450 take up places that have been allocated to women, exiles, civil society, professional associations, Islamic scholars, nomads and regional governors.

Despite numerous reports of intimidation and a number of murders, Afghans are determined that the loya jirga takes place as part of the ongoing normalisation of the country.


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