Backed by the United States and the United Nations, Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai is pushing plans to disarm and demobilize warlords' militias as part of a $1 billion reconstruction effort. He is enlisting American troops to extend the country's fledgling bureaucracy to outlying areas, finalizing plans to disrupt the smuggling economy that bypasses government coffers and charging an independent commission with the creation of a national constitution by October.
Since assuming the reins of a transitional government in June 2002, Western and Afghan observers have chided Karzai for declining to decisively challenge the warlords' authority. In December, he issued a decree calling on warlords to disarm by June, and he has promised to shore up his own administration to make this timeline more realistic
Karzai contends that Afghanistan's weak bureaucracy makes it difficult for the central government to act against the warlords, who wield effective governing authority in many Afghan provinces. "The warlords know that they cannot survive without the center and they are not strong enough to challenge the center," he said in a December interview in his office. "There may be acts of defiance but no challenge. We call the shots, but there is a huge disconnect between the central government authority and the lack of an administration."
To prepare an anti-warlord campaign, Karzai has sought to purge his own staff of suspect elements. In December, he dismissed 29 officials in the provinces, citing corruption, and passed a decree that forbids warlords from having both political and military roles in the provinces. He knows this swift action comes as Afghanistan still lacks a professional government class. "I need good, trained people who are in short supply right now," he said.
If he intends to weaken warlords, Karzai may have to make broader changes to his government. After his election at a grand council called a Loya Jirga, Karzai co-opted several warlords into the government. Some, notably Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, have faced accusations of atrocities and corruption. Karzai says he does not regret his decision, but admits he underestimated public dislike for the warlords. "Politically speaking the people are way ahead of us, the demands they make upon us are enormous and they understand the need for a central government," says Karzai.
So far, this campaign has met middling success. Roughly 10 officials have refused to resign. In Kunduz, a northeastern province, UN officials have helped General Mohammed Daoud to collect some 6,000 arms. In Herat province, though, the powerful warlord Ismail Khan has refused to disarm his 25,000-member army. While some warlords have accepted Karzai's order to choose a military or civilian office, others pretend not to have heard about the decree. Karzai treats this uneven record as a matter of pace rather than a challenge to his authority. "The bottom line is that nobody has the gall to reject government order but some work according to Afghan time," he said.
American policy in Afghanistan will also have to change before warlords are likely to retreat. American and allied forces supported Dostum and other warlords during the campaign against the Taliban in autumn 2001, and experts say that American money still pays salaries to warlords' troops in the name of fighting al Qaeda. "The US needs a new strategy putting its weight with the government rather than dividing it between the warlords and the government," says a senior aide to Karzai.
US officials support Karzai's December promise to build a national army, which would sharply weaken warlords' legitimacy. So far, though, the Ministry of Defense has procrastinated in this task, as 2,000 soldiers have received training for service in a 70,000-slot army. Meanwhile, the United States is funding a major reform of the Defense Ministry, pressing Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim to replace at least 33 senior officers with representatives from other ethnic groups. Fahim has promised to comply, but observers say that warlords will drag their feet until Fahim achieves ethnic balance and turns over a cache of weapons he has reportedly stockpiled in the Panjshir valley.
Like his boss, Fahim insists he is working to undermine warlordism. "There is no real opposition to these principles," says Fahim. "Demobilzation has to run parallel to building a new army, but a UN program has to provide livelihoods or income for those phased-out troops.
Ahmed Rashid is a journalist and author of the books "Taliban: Militant Islam and Fundamentalism in Central Asia" and "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia."