Now we pay the warlords to tyrannise the Afghan people

Diehard defenders of military intervention in Iraq argue that it’s too soon to carp, that time is required to restore order and prosperity to a country ravaged by every type of misfortune.

Time, certainly, is needed, but is time enough? If the example of Afghanistan is anything to go by, time makes things worse rather than better. More than 18 months after the collapse of the Taliban regime, there is a remarkable consensus among aid workers, NGOs and UN officials that the situation is deteriorating.

There is a further point of consensus: that the deterioration is a direct consequence of ”coalition” policy. Some 60 aid agencies have issued a joint statement pleading with the international community to deploy forces across Afghanistan to bring some order.

While waiting for the elusive international cavalry, they have been forced to reduce operations in the north, where the warlords fight each other, and in the south, where the ”coalition” forces try to fight the Taliban.

Privately, many aid workers fear that it is too late. Even if the political will existed, foreign troops may no longer be in a position to restore order. To do so would require going to war with the warlords themselves.

The warlords, of course, as friends of the ”coalition”, are also part of the government. They have private armies, raise private funds, pursue private interests and control private treasuries. None of these do they wish to give up. All of them threaten the long-term future of Afghanistan, the short-term prospects of holding elections, the immediate possibilities of reconstruction and the threadbare credibility of Hamid Karzai’s government.

It is not Karzai’s fault. He is a prisoner within his own government: a respected, liberal Pashtun who nominally heads a government in which former Northern Alliance commanders — and figures like the Tajik defence minister Mohammed Fahim — hold the real power.

In the country that is fantasy Afghanistan — or the Afghanistan of western promise — a national army is being created which represents all ethnic groups, and elections next year will produce a representative, democratic government. In real Afghanistan, Fahim does not want to admit other ethnic groups to his army, which could create the conditions for a future civil war.

The new national army is supposed to be 70 000-strong. Last year, only 4 000 men were trained. The new recruits were vetted for Taliban connections and drug trafficking, but not for past human rights abuses. The defence ministry is a Tajik fiefdom; arms and cash, including British taxpayers’ money, continue to be funnelled to the warlords; and senior UN officials have publicly doubted whether the elections will happen at all.

The funds offered to Afghanistan for reconstruction have been slow to arrive and less than promised, but aid agencies argue that the most urgent problems are not primarily a question of money. The bad news is that they are, therefore, not problems money will solve. What is needed is a fundamental change in the power structure. But this continues to be supported, on grounds of security, by both the British and the US governments.

There is money in Afghanistan, but it is in the wrong hands. Local warlords control local roads and exact crippling tolls that impede trade. Karzai is not able to exact the remittance of this money to Kabul.The government therefore, depends on funds from outside, part of which it uses, in turn, to buy off the warlords. At no stage of this dismal process do funds trickle down to the people of Afghanistan. The only dependable source of revenue for many returned farmers is the opium poppy.

Two million refugees have returned to Afghanistan, encouraged by the UNHCR and their weary host countries. For many this has been a tale of woe. There are few jobs; poverty and hunger continue.

Development and reconstruction experts agree that postwar reconstruction should begin with security and include the early encouragement of labour-intensive infrastructure projects which help the country and put wages into the pockets of those who need them. But this has not been applied in Afghanistan. Security never came because, when the Taliban fell, the US would not agree to the deployment of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) outside Kabul. Why? Because the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was already planning the invasion of Iraq and did not want men tied down in peacekeeping.

The Pentagon prefers to pay the warlords to run the country outside Kabul, dressing up the exercise with a loya jirga in which 80% of those ”elected” were warlords. Washington sources report that when Karzai appealed to Rumsfeld for support to confront one of the most notorious warlords, Rumsfeld declined to give it. The result has been that reconstruction is crippled, political progress is non-existent and human rights abuses are piling up.

Even straightforward reconstruction projects fail to bring maximum benefit to the Afghan people. To give only one example: road repair could be an opportunity to spend money usefully and to provide employment. But on the key road from Kandahar to Iran, which had not been repaired for 30 years, the central government failed to gain the cooperation of local powers. The stalemate was resolved when the repair contract was awarded to a US firm that brought in heavy machinery instead of using local labour.

What progress there has been is now threatened. The proportion of girls in school — never more than half — has begun to decline again: girls’ schools have been attacked, and girls threatened and harassed on their way to classes.

A Human Rights Watch report published on Tuesday documents crimes of kidnapping, rape, intimidation, robbery, extortion and murder, committed not in spite of the government but by its forces — by the warlords and their police and soldiers, who are paid, directly and indirectly, by US and British taxpayers.

The British have been shipping cash to Hazrat Ali, the head of Afghanistan’s eastern military command and the warlord of Nangahar, who worked with the US at Tora Bora. His men specialise in arresting people on the pretext that they are Taliban supporters and torturing them until their families pay up.

If paying warlords had been an emergency measure, there would be room to hope that it would no longer be necessary once elections were held and a legitimate government in place. But this is a policy the consequence of which is that there is unlikely to be long-term peace or a democratic government.

The promised election date is less than a year away. The choice is to allow these local tyrannies to be painted over by a voting exercise conducted for propaganda purposes, or to challenge the warlords. Is Nato, which takes over ISAF in August, really prepared to do so? Somehow I doubt it. – Guardian Unlimited Â

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