Warlords Toughen US Task in Afghanistan

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Paula Bronstein / Getty

General Abdul Rashid Dostum.

Like many mothers in Afghanistan, Maghferat Samimi has affixed the photo of a child to her mobile phone. But the two-and-a-half-year-old is not her daughter. She is a rape victim, one of scores that Samimi, a researcher with the Afghan Human Rights Organization, has documented in the country's northern provinces over the past six months. Witnesses to the child's abduction by a local militia commander — a person who would once have been called a "warlord" — have had their rape claim backed up by a nearby hospital, but the district police chief maintains that the child fell on a stick. The police chief's refusal to issue an arrest warrant, he says, has nothing to do with the fact that he is friends with the militia commander. Seeking justice from government officials, says Samimi, "is like going to the wolves for help, when the wolves have stolen your sheep." That is what it is like in Afghanistan, where lawless warlords are now the law. (See pictures here of the perils of motherhood in Afghanistan.)

The Afghan warlords largely responsible for assisting the U.S.'s ousting of the Taliban in 2001 are now deeply entrenched in Afghan society. They have positions in government, in the police, in the army and in business. Though they have largely relinquished their tanks and heavy artillery, most have been able to maintain their core militias in the form of private security companies, political parties or loose business networks. Allegations of land grabs, rape, murder and kidnapping are rife. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Afghan human rights organizations such as Samimi's have documented extortion rackets run by former warlords and militia-run prisons where captives are held for ransom. Afghan journalists covering their crimes have been harassed by police or thrown in jail. Last year Samimi received a phone call from General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a U.S. ally who was appointed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai as Army Chief of Staff, threatening to have her raped "by 100 men" if she continued investigating a rape case in which he was implicated. Dostum denies ever making such a threat and calls the rape allegation "propaganda." A witness to the phone call, military prosecutor General Habibullah Qasemi, was dismissed from his post soon after, despite carrying a sheaf of glowing recommendation letters penned by U.S. military supervisors.

Faced with a rapidly spreading insurgency that threatens to overturn seven years of incremental progress in Afghanistan — a survey released Monday by the International Council on Security and Development reports that the Taliban are present in 72% of the country — the U.S. and its allies are struggling to find a new strategy to stabilize Afghanistan. President George W. Bush has announced that about 4,500 more soldiers will be sent there early in the new year, but that is a fraction of what General David McKiernan, head of NATO forces in Afghanistan, has said that he needs to successfully conduct the war. Meanwhile, allied forces have been forced to rely on local militia leaders for intelligence gathering, delivery of supplies and to better understand the country's southern tribal networks. In the north, where the Uzbek and Tajik warlords' historic hatred of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban has maintained a stability that has so far been unattainable elsewhere, both national and coalition leaders are loathe to upset the balance by pushing for prosecution. One former NATO official in Afghanistan compares the warlords to shrapnel lodged in an artery — infection is a risk, he says, but pulling it out could be even worse. "There are so many other things we have to worry about, so why go and open this can of worms?"

In a new article in Foreign Affairs magazine, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates writes, "Over the long term, the United States cannot kill or capture its way to victory. Where possible, [military] operations should be subordinated to measures aimed at promoting better governance ... and efforts to address the grievances among the discontented, from whom the terrorists recruit." But so far, the U.S. is failing to do that. With the possibility that Indian threats of retaliation over last month's terror attacks on Mumbai could force Pakistan to move its military to the east from the Afghan border, where it is currently fighting elements of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, it is more important than ever that Afghanistan's central government be strengthened. The perception that warlords, protected by their influence and threats of violence, can commit crimes with impunity has rocked Afghan society, and threatens to undermine the very government that the United States and its allies are trying to build up.

This is not the first time warlords have had positions of power in Afghanistan. Following the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet troops, rival mujahedin groups that had united to drive the foreigners out turned on each other, further destroying the country in a brutal civil war marked by warlord rule. The government collapsed, and militia commanders were able to seize territory, terrorize the population and, in some cases, even issue currency. The Taliban capitalized on widespread disgust with their savagery, eventually coming to power in 1996. The U.S., unwilling to commit large numbers of ground troops when it went to overthrow the Taliban government, relied instead on the northern warlords and their militias. In a grave mistake that was to haunt Afghanistan for years to come, many of those leaders were given prominent positions when the new Afghan government was formed, enabling them to claw back credibility that had been lost due to their abhorrent behavior in the civil war. Samimi laments the lost opportunity for Afghanistan to start over. "Right after the collapse of the Taliban, the government had the opportunity to go after these commanders because they were scared and weak," she says. "Instead the international community and the government supported them and made them stronger. They didn't bring them to justice; they waited until they committed more crimes. For this we ousted the Taliban?"

It is the unfulfilled promise of a new, clean democracy that has alienated the very Afghans that the West depends on to build a strong, stable country. Educated moderates, such as Samimi, have no love for the Taliban, but they have also become disillusioned with the current government's failings, as exemplified by the unaddressed predations of militia commanders. Francesc Vendrell, the former European Union envoy to Afghanistan, holds that "warlordism," as he calls it, is just as much at the root of the insurgency as religious ideology. "In Muslim society justice is the most essential element and, here in Afghanistan, people simply don't see it exist. They see impunity; they see a few people become extremely wealthy and they see cruelty," he says. "Therefore I think many of them are fence sitters. And you can't hope to win an insurgency when the civilians are sitting on the fence."

For some Afghans, however, it may be too late. Among Samimi's other rape cases is 11-year-old Sweeta, whose attacker was protected by his employer, a local commander. The family's repeated attempts to bring the rapist to justice have been borne little fruit. In an interview with TIME this summer, President Karzai was told about Sweeta's case and promised to look into it, but Sweeta's sister Saleha had already given up on the government, and wondered if the past seven years of foreign intervention have brought any progress at all to Afghanistan. "If the Taliban were still here, that rapist would have already been executed by now. It would have been a lesson for all," she says. "If there is no law, and the government does not listen to people's complaints, then it is better to go back to the Taliban era. At least then we had justice." —With reporting by Ali Safi / Shebergan