The Power Struggle of the Afghan Warlords: a Continued Threat to Peace and Justice in Afghanistan
After the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001, a sense of hope emerged among the Afghan people. They were under the notion that the International community and the Afghan leaders would join hands and heal the decades-old wounds of the Afghan people. Those who had lost their loved ones, during the conflicts of the 1990s expected justice to be delivered to them. Others just wanted to have an end to the widespread violence and to the culture of warlordism[i]. In a nutshell, every Afghan expected to have a just and peaceful society, one in which they are considered as citizens with equal rights.
Initially, the expectations of the Afghans were very high, but they soon started fading when in Bonn, Germany, the International community, under the influence of the United States, imposed upon the people of Afghanistan a group of well-known spoilers of the Northern Alliance, whom the people expected behind the bars. The mere presence of these warlords in the political scene of Afghanistan was considered by many Afghans as a form of psychological torture. The only merit of this group was that their interests were aligned with those of the US and that they served as mercenaries for the US in their war against the Taliban. Another major flaw of this conference was that it was not inclusive. In other words, a particular group from an ethnic minority were imposed as a legitimate government, upon the people of Afghanistan regardless of the aspirations of the Afghan people. Perhaps this makes Afghanistan the only country in the world where a minority rules over the majority. Some view this as the deliberate US policy through which they want to marginalise the Pashtuns of Afghanistan, a majority of whom oppose the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan as they did against the Russians and others.
Soon after the Bonn accord, the International community started funding the reconstruction and development process in the country. Acknowledging the fact that the people in the government were corrupt and incompetent, most of the development funds were funnelled to Afghanistan through Non-governmental organisations (NGO) that were thought to be relatively more accountable. Ironically it was the government of Afghanistan that would issue a registration license to National and International NGOs. Without such a license they could not operate. Availing this opportunity many of the warlords established their own NGOs using their power. Through these ‘so-called’ philanthropic organisations they managed to make fortunes out of the aid money. They considered foreign aid as a form of relief for their personal use rather than an instrument for reconstruction and development.
On the other hand, some honest Afghan intellectuals and technocrats also joined the government of Afghanistan believing that it is partly their responsibility to play their role in cleaning the mess and bringing about a transparent and trustworthy mechanism for the flow of funds. This gave confidence to the International community to funnel large parts of funds through government budget in the shape of trust funds such as the ARTF (Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund). Although some of these individuals immensely contributed to the establishing and exercising of effective financial management mechanisms, their achievements could not be maintained due to a lack of competent staffs and the misuse and abuse of power by the warlords in government.
“…I was disappointed in him [Hamid Karzai] because he had become more dependent on the warlords and powerbrokers that had destroyed Afghanistan in the past and should not be allowed to contaminate its future”[ii] (Kai Eide ‘UN Envoy to Afghanistan’: 2010).
Moving back to the main issue of power struggle, the main power holders in the Afghan government continue to be the warlords of the former Northern Alliance. They maintained this power through military and financial means. When the concept of electoral democracy was implemented, these warlords used their bullets and notes (money) to get the public votes. As a result they gained a large chunk of the seats in the Parliament. Meanwhile many of them also continued supporting Hamid Karzai until 2009 mainly because it was under his presidency that they gained immense wealth and political power using unfair means. Likewise Karzai is dependent on the support of these warlords. Ironically today these warlords are both in the government as well as in the opposition. Some of them stand by Hamid Karzai while others have created an anti-Karzai camp. This way they are still trying to ridicule both the Afghan people and the International community. On one hand they are enjoying the state powers and on the other hand they have dominated the national and international media by posing as the opposition of the government.
Having enjoyed the fruits of democracy these warlords soon learned that power is shifting to the market as a result of the privatisation of public services. Therefore, in order to maintain their monopoly over the power they heavily invested in mines, media, telecommunications and security firms. While each of these sectors has its own story of how they contribute to the reinforcement of these warlords I will briefly discuss media and private security firms. Today almost every Afghan, at least where there is electricity, watches television or listens to the radio. Most of these television channels and radios are private and many are owned directly or indirectly by the warlords. These warlords get their messages across throughout the country. These messages influence the perception of the audience in Afghanistan. Thus they control the minds of the people. It is through the media that they are projecting themselves as the lions or heroes. Not only that but they also earn ample amounts of revenue through commercials and generous funding from foreign donors.
Private security is another sector in which the warlords have invested with the intention of not only generating revenues but also of maintaining military strength. Many influential warlords have long had their own private security entourage or militia. Some of them simply transformed their militia into private (commercial) security force by providing them with licensed weapons. This was probably the best possible alternative for the warlords after the DDR process (Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration) because alongside the business the commanders also use these firms to demonstrate their power. Most of these firms obtained their license when the Minister of Interior Affairs was Zarar Ahmad Moqbel who himself is a well-known warlord. His only merit was the fact that he campaigned for President Hamid Karzai in the 2004 presidential elections. During Moqbel’s ministership the Ministry of Interior Affairs was marred with massive corruption. Therefore registering these private security firms was an easy job.
Moreover, these private security guards are deployed in some of the most sensitive areas such as airports, banks and foreign embassies. This gives control to these warlords over every strategic location in the country. Meanwhile, many of the armed guards of these security companies play a double role, that of a security guard during the day and that of a mercenary at night, carrying out kidnapping for ransom, robbery or intimidating and harassing those who raise their voice against the owners of these companies. Hence these private security companies are contributing to insecurity and instability[iii]. Moreover, some warlords have their private prisons in different parts of the country[iv]. One day these warlords may offer to the Afghan government that they can provide prison facilities to the state prisoners in return for some fee just like they did with their private militias, turning them into private security firms. Thanks to the generous privatisation policies of the government.
These security personnel are better equipped than the local police. So much so that in many cases the local police abstains from them, despite the fact that they often violate the traffic laws, while providing protocol to their bosses, and thereby contributing to lawlessness. Here I would like to present an example to support my argument. In 2007, the owner of a private security company and a former senior level official of the ministry of interior affairs, General Din Muhammad Jurrat, attacked the then Attorney General of Afghanistan with his company’s security personnel. Having survived the attack, the Attorney General issued a warrant for the arrest of Jurrat. However, Jurrat challenged the attorney general that he could not arrest him and in fact he was never arrested. Now it is up-to the reader to imagine how much power a warlord has in Afghanistan. Perhaps the government of Afghanistan has now realised that they have to disband[v] these security companies to maintain legitimate monopoly over the means of violence which Ashraf Ghani[vi] identifies as one of the core functions of a sovereign State. Although the decision of cracking down on private security firms is a good one, it also manifests the flaws of the Afghan government policies in that why they issued licenses to such companies in the first place.
A recent report by AIHRC (Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission) details the crimes of these warlords involving, atrocities, massacres and crimes against humanity[vii]. These warlords include the first and second vice presidents; however its publication has been stalled by the accused warlords’ fears. These warlords are following the doctrines of G.W. Bush “you are with us or you are against us”, except for the fact that they use a different expression “if you get in our way we will get you out of the way”. Meanwhile, as the 2014 is approaching these warlords are concerned that they would loose their power following the withdrawal of NATO. It is also worth mentioning that one of the main conditions of the Taliban or peace talks is the complete withdrawal of the foreign troops from Afghanistan.
“Stability in the twenty-first century will only be achieved when trust is established between citizens and their states across the globe [viii](Ashraf Ghani, Clare Lockhart and Michael Carnahan: 2005).
Consequently the discussion above illustrates how the Afghan warlords managed to diversify their power by transforming some of their military power into political and economic powers. It also illustrates the role of the International community, particularly that of the United States, in reinforcing these spoilers. As mentioned above, some of the Afghan warlords maintain their own fiefdoms. One such fiefdom is maintained in the North[ix] of the country where the governor Atta Muhammad Noor challenges the decrees of the president of the country. Not only that but he is also remobilising the warlords of formerNorthern Alliance to make a coalition against Hamid Karzai. Yet the president is reluctant to use his powers, if he has any, against such a governor. If these warlords are not tamed and ripped off the disproportionate military, political and economic powers that they have been enjoying since the Bonn Accord, they will continue to spoil the way to peace and justice inAfghanistan and the government will never be able to instil the trust of the citizens.
[i] Afghanistan: Situation of warlords in Afghanistan, including state response to regional warlord control (2007-2010) http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/country,,IRBC,,AFG,,4dd0faf82,0.html
[ii] Power Struggle Over Afghanistan http://www.afghanscene.com/november-2012-issue-november-2012-issue/10276-power-struggle-over-afghanistan
[iii]Afghanistan’s Warlords Are Destabilizing the Country
[iv] Afghan jails taken over by warlords http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/jul/09/afghanistan.rorymccarthy
[vi]Closing the Sovereignty Gap: an Approach to State-Building http://dspace.cigilibrary.org/jspui/bitstream/123456789/22519/1/Closing%20the%20Sovereignty%20Gap%20an%20Approach%20to%20State%20Building.pdf?1
[vii] Afghan rights report stalled by warlord fears
[viii] An Agenda for State-Building in the Twenty-First Century http://www.effectivestates.org/Papers/An%20Agenda%20for%20State%20Building%20in%20the%2021st%20Century%20.pdf