Two weeks after publicly declaring war on corrupt and abusive provincial authorities, President Hamid Karzai has ordered the dismissal of civilian and military officials in a dozen provinces, signaling his intent to clean up a government that is perceived in many rural areas as unresponsive and oppressive.
The modest but unprecedented purge of about 20 officials included provincial intelligence chiefs, military commanders and local bureaucrats -- some accused of serious wrongdoing such as drug trafficking and highway extortion, and others reported simply not to be doing their jobs.
"After 23 years of war and hard living, a lot of people view government positions as a chance to get wealthy and take advantage," said Ishrak Hussaini, spokesman for the Interior Ministry. "We want to build a new system that is just and focused on what people need. To do that, we need to remove the obstacles created by individuals, groups and old ideas."
Karzai, who heads a weak coalition government with limited central authority, did not directly challenge the provincial militia bosses who command the loyalty of thousands of armed men and wield virtually unchecked power in several regions.
Critics said the president's purge had not gone far or high enough, but his aides said that by firing disreputable underlings of several regional chiefs, including two abusive commanders who work for rival militia leaders, Karzai sought to show he intends an evenhanded crackdown rather than the persecution of individuals.
"Some people wanted the big fish caught immediately, but this is an important first step in a 100-mile walk," said Yusuf Pashtoon, a cabinet minister and former aide to the governor of Kandahar province, whose intelligence police chief was dismissed in the purge. "By going after some really bad apples, and promoting some good ones, we hope the higher-ups will take notice and correct themselves."
The purge, which was announced Sunday, followed a seven-week inspection tour of far-flung provinces by four teams of Karzai's top aides. The teams traveled from village to village listening to complaints, confronting accused officials and conducting impromptu sting operations to see if the reports of abuse and corruption were true.
In eastern Nangahar province, for example, one team was told that armed police at highway checkpoints regularly demanded money from truckers. To test the charges, the team disguised local police officials as drivers' assistants in trucks and drove with them through a series of checkpoints.
"When someone demanded a bribe, the officials jumped out and arrested them on the spot," said Asadullah Wafa, an adviser to Karzai who headed the Nangahar inspection, laughing heartily.
Another team, sent to inspect several provinces in the southwest, confronted more highway extortionists, a prison commander who was accused of torturing prisoners, and farmers growing illegal opium poppies because they had not received promised seeds and other incentives to raise legal crops.
At a customs post in Herat province, which borders Iran and is controlled by militia leader Ismail Khan, the team challenged the director for staffing his office mostly with relatives. According to officials here, the officer said he did not recognize Karzai's authority and answered to Khan. The man was fired.
"Everywhere we went, people asked us for help. Our aim was to free the public from tyrannical and illegal behavior, to annihilate anarchy and strengthen the central government," said Abdullah Anwari, an Interior Ministry official who headed the Herat team. "If we have accomplished that, even in a few places, it will be a historic step."
Karzai signaled his intentions in a speech two weeks ago, shortly after the inspection teams reported back to him. Visibly angry, he lashed out at officials "appointed under my signature" who had "fattened themselves on the blood of the people" and abused their authority.
In the speech, which was widely welcomed by the Afghan public, Karzai said he had pledged to provide security and fairness to the population. If officials are abusing the public trust, he warned, "I will take back my signature so they cannot oppress people using the name of the Islamic Transitional Government."
Karzai's order this week included carrots as well as sticks. He singled out several regional military and civilian officials for praise and promotion, and team members said they were especially impressed with the heroic efforts by regional education and health officials to provide service under difficult conditions.
In Nimruz and Farah provinces, Anwari said, "we found terrible education problems. Children were studying outside on the ground, in hot and cold weather, with no pens or books. One school had been burned by the Taliban, and the walls looked as if they would tumble any moment. But the teachers and education officials were compassionate, and we asked Karzai to praise them."
Pashtoon said that because Karzai's government was put together hastily under U.N. auspices last December, there was no time to weed out incompetent or abusive officials. But he also said Karzai's administration did not want to ride roughshod over local authorities in the harsh manner of the Taliban, the radical Islamic movement that was driven from power last November.
"This is a democracy, but our democracy dropped from the sky," he said. "This creates a lot of tension and it demands a lot of work. We want the authority of the central government . . . not to be imposed in an intimidating way like the Taliban."
Many Afghan observers said they feared a violent response to the purges from powerful militia leaders such as Abdurrashid Dostum in northern Afghanistan, whose lucrative regional reign has gone virtually unchallenged since the Taliban was ousted. Karzai ordered the dismissal of one of Dostum's top commanders.
So far, however, there has been no reported resistance from Dostum or any other provincial leaders. Presidential aides said the recent military suppression of Bacha Khan, a militia leader in the eastern provinces of Khost and Paktia who defied central authority for months, had served as a warning.
"It's time for the will of the people to prevail over the will of individuals," Hussaini said. "They must accept this and they will, or they will suffer the same fate as Bacha Khan."