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From the February 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 2)

After the Taliban, Old Dangers Resurface

The Rise of Warlords

Seno Joko Suyono and Zuhaid-El Qudsy, Tempo (independent), Jakarta, Indonesia, Dec. 2, 2001

The blood of the four journalists killed [in a Nov. 19 ambush] on the road between Kabul and Jalalabad has dried up. But the street violence in post-Taliban Afghanistan is only just beginning. A new chapter of brutality has opened up.

The aforementioned journalists were killed at gunpoint when their convoy was stopped. Those unfortunate press members were Maria Grazia Cutuli from Italy, Julio Fuentes from Spain, Harry Burton from Australia, and Afghan-born photojournalist Azizullah Haidari. They were forced out of their seats, robbed, and shot to death; then their bodies were dragged by a truck.

The murder of the four journalists is merely an example of the Afghan warlords’ capacity for brutality, a phenomenon that arose after the fall of the Taliban. Last week, World Food Program truck drivers were fearful when they tried to enter Kabul from Jalalabad. Those 60 trucks were allowed to continue the journey only if they were escorted by the Northern Alliance forces.

An old adage has been reborn in Afghanistan: Move slowly with warlords, because they own every street corner.
“They were armed with Kalashnikovs. Their faces were covered when they robbed me,” truck driver Waqif Khan Sinwari, who had just arrived in Kabul, said to the Associated Press. In the 1990s, before the Taliban era, Kabul-Jalalabad was a notorious route. Many drivers were scared to use it. Armed “squirrels,” as people called them, could easily jump on a vehicle from any direction. Now, this route has regained its previous reputation: It is controlled by the bandits of Jalalabad and surrounding areas.

Jalalabad is now controlled by Haj Abdul Qadir, the brother of Abdullah Haq, an anti-Taliban Pashtun leader who was executed by the Taliban. Qadir is among the elders of Jalalabad’s warlords. He negotiated with three local lords to divide the territory for security reasons. But his bargaining tactic was not a guarantee of security. Tens of armed men kept invading and robbing the region. They stole gasoline, oil, and wheat that was intended for refugees. The crime rate escalated exponentially. Bags of donated wheat were traded in the black market.

Their acts were so ferocious that they became intolerable. “There were no robbers during the Taliban era,” starving Jalalabad inhabitant Abdullah Omari said.

Ninety tons of food relief have been looted. Trucks have been hijacked. Computers and telecommunication devices that belonged to the food relief distribution organization have disappeared. Offices of several nonprofit organizations have been destroyed. Even residential windows have been stolen. Such occurences also happened in Kabul, the capital city. As many as 14,000 camping tents, which were kept at a UNHCR warehouse, disappeared along with 185 tons of wheat. “So many obstacles,” U.N. spokesperson Eric Salt said. The relief, apparently, was not received by the intended parties.

Observers say that the costly price of the fall of the Taliban is the rebirth of warlordism. Afghanistan can, indeed, return to its previous pre-Taliban standing. An old adage has been reborn: Move slowly with warlords, because they own every street corner. A warlord’s strength varies from one troop to another. Warlords run in families. “He is my cousin. So is he,” Sinjeddarah warlord Khademuddin said when a reporter asked the origin of his troops.

Even on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, particularly in the tribal area (where Pakistani law does not apply), warlordism has increased considerably. Abdul Halim Mahaly, Tempo’s correspondent in Pakistan, said that when he walked along the tribal area border last week, he saw many troops armed with automatic weapons. This is surprising, considering that the area was considered relatively safe.

Admittedly, the Taliban was relatively successful in decreasing the number of warlords. The potential danger lies in the growing tradition of vendetta against the Taliban. “In 20 minutes, the Taliban burned down 65 of our homes. They will pay now,” the Sinjedarrah warlord said.

The growth of warlordism supports the thesis that there was never any central authority in Afghanistan to begin with. In Ghazni Province, a warlord named Ismail immediately gathered his troops together the instant he knew that the Taliban had fallen. His troops were armed in as little as two hours.

On the surface, ethnic representatives [at the Bonn conference] might look harmonious. But the appearance is far from the truth. As soon as Kabul fell, for instance, Shiite Muslim militia from Hazarajat [who include the Hazaras, the second largest Afghan ethnic group] immediately showed up in the capital. They guarded areas in Kabul where the Shiites reside. Apparently, they were wary of the intentions of Burhanuddin Rabbani’s Tajik troops. These Shiite disciples were angry over Uzbek Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, who had defeated the Taliban in Kunduz. They suspected Dostum of ulterior motives.

Herat in northwestern Afghanistan used to be a relatively safe province. But the fall of the Taliban restored the power of renowned Herat Commander Gen. Ismail Khan. His reputation is far better than that of the barbaric Dostum. Ismail Khan built universities, opened jobs, and built asphalt roads for the residents. “We can have picnics, go to school, play music,” said Fazul Ragim, a Herat resident who is euphoric about the return of Ismail Khan.

But Khan is a Sunni, while the Herat majority is Shiite. Therefore, future conflict between his followers and the members of Hezb-i-Wahdat—a Shiite troop led by Karim Khalili—is not unlikely.

It is apparent that the high-ranking commanders might not be as reliable as they might seem in contributing to the success of Loya Jirga [the traditional Afghan Grand Assembly]. Indeed, mysterious armed warlords cannot be trusted for its success. In Jalalabad, for instance, street bandits called themselves the troops of Hekmatyar. According to former Pakistani air force Colonel Mohammed Zaman Khan, most Uzbek and Hazara warlords probably do not support Loya Jirga. “Pashtuns will probably support it. This tribe will still receive the largest representation in the new post-Taliban government,” he said to Tempo.

This will also encourage regional lords from the Pashtun ethnic group to return to their previously abandoned region. The followers of Arif Khan have claimed their piece of Kandahar. Yunus Khanis has claimed his region of Torkam [a border-post town] as well. Therefore, in order to realize Loya Jirga, the United States may have to bribe these regional lords, which, history has shown, works like a charm.

In the 1979 war against the Soviets, for instance, Gen. Zia Ul Haq from Pakistan bribed the regional lords to fight against Russia. The previous Taliban administration was also known for being corrupt and under the influence of bribery of local troop leaders by Osama bin Laden.

History repeats itself. Take Mohammed Musa Hotak and Ghulam Mohammed, the two brothers known as big warlords from Wardak, a province south of Kabul, as examples. Both of them have 1,000 armed followers, who have surrendered to Commander Abdullah of the Northern Alliance. Of course, they did not do so without reservation. As their wages, they demanded authority and a region. These two brothers are nothing more than chameleons. When the mujahideen fought against the Soviets, they became mujahideen. When the Taliban was in power, they became Taliban. Now that the Northern Alliance is in power, they have joined the Northern Alliance. “This is purely business,” Abdullah said.

Not surprisingly, many observers believe that these business relationships will not endure. “It is hard for groups affiliated with the Northern Alliance to defend togetherness,” Kurasat Istratijiya journal editor Jamil Mathar in Cairo said to Tempo.

The other thing is the emerging controversy over whether or not international troops are required in Afghanistan. This problem will unquestionably trigger a conflict among regional lords. Shir Takana, a commander, demanded that his region be free of U.N. troops, even though the Northern Alliance has already agreed to them.

Another factor that should not be overlooked is opium. During the Taliban era, opium planting was forbidden. But Aghanistan has a long history as an opium producer. The rise of the Taliban was in some way a blessing in disguise for the Vienna-based U.N. body that has been fighting for a drug-free world. In the last five years, opium production and drug trafficking from Afghanistan have been greatly reduced.

But the fall of the Taliban has given opium farmers opportunities to replant the “heavenly drug.” A farmer from Nangahar, Katib, had intended to plant his field with wheat, but has changed his mind, since the profit from opium is 15 times that of wheat.

It is no secret that opium fields are money fountains for high commanders and warlords as well. Harvest time is known to warlords as a time to fight for expanded opium territory.

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