Karzai Attempts Diplomacy With Afghan Warlords
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 19, 2004; Page A12
KABUL, Afghanistan, May 18 -- With efforts to disarm private militias faltering four months before scheduled national elections, the government of President Hamid Karzai is trying to appease powerful regional leaders who have repeatedly defied his authority and resisted attempts to dismantle their forces.
With the strong encouragement of U.S. officials, Karzai has retreated from potential armed confrontations with two of Afghanistan's most prominent militia bosses. He recently paid a long-distance courtesy call on one of them, Gov. Ismail Khan of Herat province, and reportedly has been negotiating with the other, Gen. Abdurrashid Dostum, who is seeking a government post in exchange for decommissioning his tanks and troops.
Some Afghan officials and international observers are critical of Karzai's outreach efforts, saying that rewarding recalcitrant strongmen for the sake of short-term stability could imperil Afghanistan's long-term prospects for democracy.
But U.S. diplomats support the initiative and have become involved in efforts to persuade militia leaders to surrender their weapons and return thousands of their fighters to private life, in exchange for promises of regional economic aid and government positions.
"We can't expect people to give up their weapons and men, and at the same time tell them, 'There is no role for you,' because that will inevitably result in resistance" to the elections, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said in a recent interview. To "civilianize" warlords requires the "proper balance of carrots and sticks," he said. "There must be a place of honor for those who cooperate."
The Bush administration backs Karzai's transitional government and is widely seen here as eager to ensure his victory at the polls, which have already been delayed three months.
The persistence of autonomous militias is regarded by many Afghans and foreign analysts as the most serious obstacle to successful elections. Until recently, U.S. and Afghan officials had voiced hopes that the disarmament and demobilization campaign alone would undermine the militia bosses' power before voting takes place.
The program began last fall with a pilot project to disarm 1,000 fighters in northern Kunduz province. It is now being undertaken in six other regions, including the capital, where thousands of fighters loyal to Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, another former militia commander, have remained for two years despite U.S. demands that that they withdraw.
At an international donors conference in March, Karzai pledged that the government would reduce nationwide militias by 40 percent and collect all heavy weapons in their possession by the end of June. This week, officials are launching the main phase of the disarmament scheme with a series of ceremonies at military posts around the capital, and they said 800 militia fighters in the Kabul area would be demobilized by Friday.
Altogether, however, only about 6,500 men have been demobilized nationwide. Many commanders have refused to provide lists of their troops and have turned in antiquated weapons. Moreover, Khan and Dostum have resisted cooperating with the program and launched military attacks on rival forces this spring.
"The failure to disarm and demobilize individual warlords and factional militias has sharply undercut progress" in Afghanistan, Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the nonprofit International Crisis Group, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. "Until the bulk of the militias are decommissioned, there is grave risk that the coming elections will be determined by those who control the guns."
American military efforts in Afghanistan, where about 15,000 U.S. troops are deployed, have focused on the threat posed by revived forces from the Taliban, the radical Islamic militia that was toppled in late 2001, and from other armed extremist groups operating along the Pakistani border.
But many Afghans say a greater threat comes from other ethnic militias that opposed the Taliban and are technically part of the government's defense forces. These groups are feared because they plunged the country into chaotic civil war in the 1990s, destroying Kabul and killing tens of thousands of people.
Jean Arnault, the U.N. special representative to Afghanistan, said this week that the "main danger to the peace process is the return of civil war caused by factional armies." The United Nations' top priority, he said, is "fair and steady demilitarization ahead of the elections. . . . On this point we will be inflexible."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company