Features | Security | Central Asia

Lords of Kabul

His dashing figure and aristocratic demeanour once prompted compliments from world leaders and couture tsars alike.

By Janaki Bahadur for

His dashing figure and aristocratic demeanour once prompted compliments from world leaders and couture tsars alike. He was Afghanistan’s beacon of hope, albeit set there by the Americans. He had a chance to tame the turbulent, tribal Afghan politics after the Taliban leadership was overthrown.

But today President Hamid Karzai, the darling of the West in 2004 is derisively referred to as “not even the mayor of Kabul,” a reference to his increasingly limited jurisdiction.

Western expatriates and locals alike complain of his inability to reign in corruption and the provincial warlords. He is not averse to bestowing favours on his Pashtun relatives, and there are fears that if he opposes others like the unreconstructed Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a Genghis Khan-type figure who controls huge swathes of the north, and who, it is claimed has the blood of 30,000 innocent people on his hands, Karzai may be the target of other Uzbeks, his northern alliance allies.

While locals in Kabul may look for a strong leader who will give them jobs, improve the rutted roads and provide a safe environment for children to go to school, Afghan warlords expect him to be loyal to his own tribe first, and relate to others under the ages old patronage system, if he is to hang on as president.

Karzai appears to be caught between two worlds – the old and the new.

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Westerners are getting impatient and locals say that even within Kabul, Karzai appears weak and ineffectual. They are grumbling in the bazaars and in offices that a new leader is needed at the next elections, scheduled for September 2009.

One name that is coming up repeatedly on the lips of MPs, is that of the former Afghan minister for the interior, Ali Ahmad Jalali. Jalali was generally regarded as a strong figure in law enforcement and the counter-narcotics program. Having lived in the US for many years as the former director of the Washington-based Afghan-language news service at the Voice of America, it was claimed that he did not have a relaxed relationship with the former mujahideen personalities with their power struggles in the provinces.

It is said that he resigned in 2005 over differences with Karzai over policing and provincial governor appointments. And it’s not clear whether he has any intention of standing in the next elections either, although he has expressed interest.

If he returns and is elected president, he will face the same problems with one exception: he belongs to the same branch of Pashtuns (the Ghalji tribe) as the Taliban and so may have more influence than Karzai, who belongs to the Durrani branch of the Pashtuns – the two branches have been fighting for the last 400 years.

The Kabul bureau chief of Radio Azadi, M Amin Mudaqiq analysed the qualities needed to be head of a country divided strongly along ethnic and provincial lines.

“Historically speaking, a leader of Afghanistan must have military knowledge, an interest in and understanding of geopolitics and must know tribal customs,” says Mudaqiq sitting in his office, which is funded by the US Congress and where he has repeatedly been a target for assassination – like many others in the city.

“Karzai lacks the Afghan strategy of fighting. He has lived overseas; he does not understand that if you want to fight in an area you have to fight in that tradition. The tribal code comes first,” Moqadidi explains.

“You give a specific area agreed on by a tribe and you give him a contract – you say, I will provide you with weapons and anything else you need, in turn you give me your loyalty. But Karzai has not adopted that policy. And nothing else works in Afghanistan.”

People in Kabul live with threats every day. Most don’t walk the streets if they don’t have to and more and more foreigners use some sort of private security firm outside their homes and offices.

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If you happen to live outside the city, like my driver does, then you need to get home by around 10:30 pm as the roads are unsafe and unlit. The road between Bagram air base and the city is said to be one of the most dangerous in Afghanistan.

Driving around the parched, brown winter Kabul landscape, my interpreter, whose real profession is that of a carpet seller, but who doesn’t get much business anymore, says conversationally, “Kabul is of course a very poor place today, but we people don’t really want riches, you can keep your money, all we want is peace of mind. Without that, we have nothing.”

Ilyas, whose brothers have all fled the country, mainly to Canada, as well as my taxi driver, whose main job these days is to cart foreign correspondents from one appointment to the next and make sure that the area is “safe” to walk around, appear to be sleepwalking through life in the desperate city. It’s hard to read their minds, but it looks like a sort of determined stoicism.

On the streets, hawkers waive wads of Afghan notes in one hand and piles of SIM cards in the other. The rate of the rupee is decided early morning in the money market. The taxi driver warns of buying SIM cards on the street saying they won’t even last a day. In the end the SIM Card bought through my hotel fares little better and my taxi driver is quick to point out that I have been had by my smooth hotel staff.

“We have no business, we have no electricity in the shops and we have no life!” says a shopkeeper on Chicken Street, formerly teeming with shoppers looking for a bargain on lapis lazuli or carpets. Now, it’s a target for suicide bombers and most foreigners keep away from its alleyways and narrow shopfronts.

“You might as well take all this for free,” he says pointing to some lapis lazuli necklaces, forcing me to accept one. “I’m never going to sell them now.”

For the more well off Afghans who choose to stay on in the country, kidnapping has become a daily fear, so much so, that families separate for long periods so that the children can be sent overseas to study. According to unofficial figures, there are around 10,000 private security personnel in Afghanistan today. Yet the sight of the blackened number plates and windows of their four wheel drives reassures no one. Often they will block whole streets creating traffic chaos and they are known for their brusque and often brutish ways.

The blame for the situation is falling at Karzai’s door. He has tried to replace warlords and mujahideen with professionals and educated people who can promote the rule of law, like Hakim Taniwal of Paktia province, south east of the capital. Paktia, a former sociology professor who went into exile in Australia under the Taliban, was recalled by Karzai to join the government in 2002 but was killed in a wave of suicide bombings by the Taliban in 2006.

Karzai could never hope to establish the rule of law with the strongmen of the North who only obey long held customs of tribal loyalty and are not averse to bribery and blackmail.

In February this year, General Dostum, had his former election manager beaten up along with his son and bodyguard who was shot right in the middle of downtown Kabul in the diplomatic district. The police who surrounded the area failed to arrest Dostum.

As Dostum’s own party member, Mohammed Alim Sayee said at the time, “This is a conspiracy by the government against General Dostum . If any harm comes to Dostum, seven to eight provinces will turn against the government.”

Dostum’s party is a key part of the Jabhe-ye-Motahed-e-Milli (the United National Front) the largest opposition party currently facing the national government.

Although Dostum’s militia is formally disarmed, most of his followers still carry guns. Experts in Kabul say he can rustle up an army of 20,000 at short notice. And while no Afghan wants to vote for a man who has such a grisly reputation, not even his party people can move him aside.

Corruption is very visible in Kabul where the new marble and glass palaces of the suburb of Sherpur are testimony to the fruits of the drug trade. All ministers, including Marshall Mohammad Qasim Fahim, a prominent military commander and politician, have been allotted at least two plots in this residential area which was developed after a mysterious fire one night burned what was a former army base here, to the ground.

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Landgrabbing is rampant in Kabul and Karzai himself has given some of this land to his relatives in a sort of official corruption. Again old tribal systems require that Karzai keeps some key figures happy.

“What most people in the West don’t understand is that the whole country works on the system of patronage,” explains Paul Fishstein, head of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit or AREU, an independent research organisation based in Kabul whose mission is to conduct high quality research and learning with an aim to improve Afghan lives. “You need to give people something to keep them loyal and it’s hard for Karzai to get away from this even though he tries,” says Fishstein who has lived in Afghanistan for 15 years.

It is not possible to build a road, a school or organise transport for children in this area without first giving these warlords a “cut” for their cooperation. Fauzia Kofi, a bright articulate female member of parliament in Kabul says that unlike the south of the country, the desolate, mountainous region of Badakhshan in the north east of the country is given little attention or money from the government.

She says that although the region which has borders with central Asia and was once a stopover on the ancient Silk Road, is presently peaceful, there are no guarantees that it will be so in the future.

“This is a place that has had the coldest winter in 33 years and people need to walk for two hours to get food and four hours to get to the few schools that exist,” says Kofi adding that the patronage and favouritism that marks Afghan politics has its limits.

“Favouratism does not make a change in people’s lives. They may get commanders who may get support from the central government, but the people are giving a message that they are willing to fight for just a few rights,” she says in her home in Kabul.

Badakhshan is not a rebel stronghold and was the last refuge of Ahmad Shah Massoud of the Northern Alliance. Now it comes under the general control of the Karzai government, but there is no evidence of any investment from Kabul. Due to the general inaccessibility of the place the only real source of income is growing poppy.

Other than General Dostum in the north, whose Uzbek tribe accounts for about 10 per cent of the population, Atta Mohammad’s Tajik tribe accounts for 27 per cent of the population and controls large parts of Mazar-e-Sharif. Atta is not about to give up his arms either as the peace in the north is tenuous at best.

Atta, who once controlled the drug trade in the north, went through a Damascene conversion on a trip to Thailand two years ago after seeing how it’s possible to stop people growing poppies and giving them an alternative lifestyle.

He returned and decided to wipe out poppy cultivation in Balkh Province for which he was rewarded with the title of Minister of Governance. However the poppy has been replaced by marijuana and Paul Fishstein says that the government is now considering wiping out the marijuana fields as well. But the people need a replacement.

“You can take away opium, marijuana, but you must replace it with something else. Even the warlords need to give their people something. They can’t act with total impunity even if they would prefer it that way,” says Paul Fishstein.

Only 4 per cent of agricultural land is said to be under drug cultivation and 85 per cent has nothing to do with drugs, but opium is seven times the value of wheat. One hectare on average produces 42 kg of heroin at $100 dollars per kilo at the farm gate price. Ten per cent of the farm gate money goes as tax on opium to the local warlords. Drug smugglers then gift money to the Taliban and the money provides funds for more guns and ammunition.

According to analysts, the farmers’ net income from opium is only 40 per cent higher than net income from cash crops. And in times of peace it may be possible, with functioning roads, no highway robberies and unlawful taxes, that a farmer in Afghanistan may be able to make more money growing onions.

But as opiates are the largest single industry in Afghanistan today, eliminating this income would have huge macroeconomic consequences on employment incomes, government revenue, and the balance of payments, according to analysts. It will not merely affect those directly involved in poppy cultivation.

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Studies have shown that the effect of the elimination of poppy cultivation in Nangarhar Province in 2004-2005 show a decline in rural incomes by 50 per cent. In other words, it causes a significant economic depression. Much of current construction in Kabul is said to be financed by narcotics funds.

So analysts believe that the alternatives to poppy include much more than compensation or alternative crops for poppy farmers. It must include also the creation of employment, sources of growth, and market connectivity for the entire Afghan economy.

US government experts estimate that opium production currently amounts to almost a third of Afghanistan’s total GDP, or slightly over US$3 billion.

Even foreign workers in Afghanistan occasionally get caught up in the drugs trade. According to a senior western diplomatic source in Kabul and an expert in counter narcotics, a Thai diplomat and a South African private security firm employee were recently caught trying to leave the country with drugs.

The Thai diplomat, who was carrying 9 kilos of heroin and was leaving for the UK tried to plead diplomatic immunity and failed, the South African claimed that the 8 kilos he was carrying was nothing more than a protein muscle builder. He was then asked to taste it and, according to the diplomat on the scene, began to bleed from every orifice. He is now spending 16 years in Pul-e-charkhi prison.

The diplomatic source says that even in the west it takes two to five years to get a criminal prosecution on drugs. “You need to build up surveillance and expertise,” he said.

According to this diplomat, there are 36 smuggling groups and porous borders. Thirty per cent of the drugs go into Iran, 60 per cent into Pakistan and the rest goes into the states in Central Asia. “We track the financial flows to see who is benefiting. There are three banks in Jalalabad we know that were pushing drugs proceeds into Dubai. We seized three ledgers on a phone call from the governor,” says the diplomat.

Some US researchers say that it will take at least six years to get the drug industry under control in Afghanistan, but others are doubtful that it will move that fast.

While the Uzbeks and the Tajiks generally have control over most of the north and the drug industry there, the south is the Pashtun-held area, the domain of the Taliban. But the new Taliban are, according to those who know them intimately, a different breed from the old.

A former spokesman for the Taliban, a man who worked for the regime for five years and previously for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a legendary mujahideen commander, is now in the construction business in Kabul says that the Taliban have got a new ideology affected by the events of September 11, 2001.

“When the Taliban came on the scene in 1995 they had three objectives: To implement Sharia, to bring security, and to keep Afghanistan free from invaders. Now they have three new objectives: to see the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, to see their removal from Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and to stop foreigners from helping the Israeli government,” says Waheed Majda speaking in his sparcely furnished office in Kabul.

According to Majda, the Taliban have moved from being focused on internal affairs to interfering, or wanting to interfere, in international politics. This, he claims, is the result of the spreading influence of al-Qaeda and terrorism.

However, Joanna Nathan of the International Crisis Group says that the Taliban today are aimed mostly at causing disruption within Afghanistan. But she adds, “It’s interesting to note how much of the Taliban propaganda is now also in Arabic. What does this mean? Who are their new recruits?”

The UN estimates that there are just 3,000 Taliban active fighters and around 7,000 part timers in contrast with more than 50,000 US and NATO troops. Nathan has just been on a fact finding mission to the south, including Kandahar, and believes that the Taliban are disoriented at the moment. “They have a lot of foot soldiers but the sources of recruitment from the south have been cut off. They seem to have reached their limit with the Baghlan bombing in 2007.”

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Baghlan in the north was a suicide bombing in which 40 people, including some children, were killed. According to Nathan, the Taliban is now fighting a sort of “protest movement with a Pashtun nationalist tone.”

Her view seems to be in contrast to Majda’s views, and this disagreement echoes a general wide variety of opinion about the new emergent Taliban and its influence.

While it would be easier to say that the south is where the Taliban have influence, the situation is much more fluid – where there are warring villages and anarchy it sometimes creates a climate where the Taliban can enter and flourish for a time. But once they stop providing the village with its needs they are thrown out again.

One female outspoken MP who is now getting death threats for her comments about the nexus between the former jihadis, members of parliament and the warlords is Shukria Barakzai, a native of Kabul.

This thirtysomething mother of three has decided to stay on in the country to fight for the people’s rights but has decided that the situation was too dangerous for her children, three daughters who live in the UK along with their father who comes and goes.

“I believe that there is a culture of impunity when it comes to these corrupt warlords and MPs.”

Barakzai is also critical of the PRTs or private reconstruction teams in the country which she says are constantly paying bribes to the warlords without whom nothing can be done.

“They are afraid that if they start any project without the ‘OK’ of the warlord they will be killed and they are probably right,” she says.

“But the problem is that the money just goes to the war economy of this country.”      ?Barakzai also makes the point that not only does the nexus between warlords and the MPs create problems for any real progress, but that it also creates problems for women to get their voices heard in parliament.

“We are all given a certain time limit for making our pitch, but for these warlords and other MPs there is no such thing as a limit – they go on and are allowed to go on for as long as they want, so when it comes to us women we hardly get the time and sometimes they have talked so much that we are told that times up and sorry you cant speak now,” says Barakzai.

Some analysts say that the Taliban in Afghanistan don’t really appreciate Pakistan’s Taliban coming across the border, and a UN report looking into suicide bombings says that “much (but not all) of the recruiting and training happens in Pakistan.”

“While suicide attackers elsewhere in the world tend not to be poor and uneducated, Afghanistan’s attackers appear to be young, uneducated and often drawn from religious schools in Pakistan.”

Nathan says that if there is a leader of the Taliban, were they ever to come back to power, it would be the one-eyed cleric Mullah Omar who could be in Pakistan or in Afghanistan and is respected on both sides of the border.

One report in The Observer newspaper stated that while substantial funding is generated within Afghanistan from taxes on the sale of opium and contributions from wealthy sympathisers, much of the funding of the Afghan Taliban comes from across the border.

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The Observer said that many weapons came from stores in Pakistan or from gun factories in places like Darra Adam Khel to the south of Peshawar.

According to another western diplomatic source based in Kabul, both the US as well as every other NATO force knows that the Russians, who fought the mujahideen in the 1980s and failed, are now arming the Taliban and using intelligence to reinforce them against the Americans. “But the Americans are choosing to ignore this and look away,” says the diplomat.

“The Russians have amazing intelligence here – remember they drank the local water and fought for free and went fishing in Uzbekistan. They have a real understanding of the place,” the diplomat adds. According to this diplomat, new Taliban DVDs available in Pakistan show them using new Russian arms and explosive devices used in suicide bombings which are 13 times stronger than normal C4 explosives.

“One would think that the Russians might try to curry favour with Europe by trying to help the US but it seems they don’t need to do that,” says another western diplomat in Kabul discussing the presence of the Russians in Afghanistan today.

In general Afghans today are not as worried about the presence of foreigners in their midst influencing their lives, but instead are worried what will happen if the foreigners leave too early. Time and again people on the streets of Kabul said that Karzai would be worse than useless without the backing of the West.

But they were also worried that if Karzai left and Jalali came to power, he would be burdened with having spent too little time in Afghanistan in recent years and could face similar problems as his predecessor. However they seem more than willing to give him a chance even though they seemed to know very little about him.

But if not Jalali, was there anyone else they could think of who might work, I asked my driver?
“Not really,” was the answer. “There are some people mentioned locally but they don’t really have the stature.”