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Report Says Afghan Warlords Threaten to Undermine U.S. Efforts to Bring Stability to Country - 2003-08-05

People did not want to talk, but they were so desperate they did, says Zama Coursen-Neff, one of the authors of a Human Rights Watch report on Afghanistan. On her travels through the country earlier this year, she found Afghans fearful of the leaders who had replaced the defeated Taleban.

“We are not just talking about criminal gangs running wild," she says. "We are talking about troops and police. The very people who are in charge of security in fact seem the biggest threat to it. They are able to operate with impunity. When a family is robbed, when their home is invaded, when their women and boys are abducted and raped, they have no one to turn to for recourse.”

John Sifton, co-author of the Human Rights Watch report, told a U.S Congressional committee that Taleban totalitarianism has been replaced by the violence of unfettered warlords with whom U.S forces are cooperating in the hunt for al-Qaeda.

“What is going on is that the United States is not really aware of the extent of the problem,” says Mr. Sifton. “Local commanders in urban and rural areas essentially do what they want to do whenever they want to do it. The worst abuses - outright fighting, outright violence in the streets - are being kept under wraps. But behind the scenes, at night, in back alleys, there is a lot of crime going on.”

Zama Coursen-Neff says Afghans were immensely relieved when the harsh rule of the Taleban was ended. But now they are experiencing the same conditions that brought the Taleban to power. “One of the reasons why initially people welcomed the Taleban," she says, "was because they were experiencing so much violence under the Mujahedin. People are very disappointed that they are back under the rule of these former Mujahedin who are committing so many acts of violence against them. The troops who are committing these violent acts are in some cases doing operations with coalition forces against the Taleban or al-Qaeda.”

Perhaps the greatest victims are Afghan women. They now have freedom, but can they exercise it? A woman in a rural area told Ms. Coursen-Neff: "We could not go out during the Taleban. Now we are free and we can go out, but we don't."

Even going to school can be risky. “It is true that about one-point-four million Afghan girls are back in school, and that is very important,” says Ms. Coursen-Neff. “But there are millions more Afghan girls who are not in school, and for them it has not been a success. One reason is fear of the troops. We had parents say to us: 'I want to send my girls to school. I educated them in Iran or in Pakistan, and I got here and it is simply too dangerous for me to send them.'"

Going out is one thing; organizing is quite another. Neither warlords not the central government in Kabul brooks any serious opposition. A human rights activist in southeastern Afghanistan received death threats and her dog was poisoned. A gang came in search of her sister who hid with her three-month-old baby in the family toilet hole. They finally emerged covered with excrement but safe.

Don't call this a cultural problem of men against women, says Ms. Coursen-Neff. It is a matter of men with guns, freely available, freely used.

Mr. Sifton says the United States is involved in a contradiction. On the one hand, it is trying to strengthen the central government in Kabul. On the other, it is funding and supporting local warlords who defy that government. “Our position," he says, "is that if you are going to support and work with local commanders, local military rulers, then you have to take another step to support the legitimate civilian governors in those same areas. Otherwise, the ordinary municipal life of local governance gets put into the hands of human rights abusing warlords.”

Easier said than done, responds Atiq Sarwari, an Afghan-American associate of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. The warlords are not exactly new arrivals on the Afghan scene, he notes. Many wars they have fought against foreign intruders. “They are legitimate leaders.” he says. “They have support. They have their army. They are suspicious of the central government. This has been a fact all along throughout the history of Afghanistan. In the past, they were overwhelmed by the central government with support from outside usually. There has to be a reasonable solution to that. There has to be a reasonable mechanism of power-sharing between the regions and the central government. There has to be a logical balance.”

Federalism similar to that of the United States is the answer, says Mr. Sarwari. Thanks to the booming post-Taleban drug traffic and lavish customs duties, the warlords are not about to capitulate or disarm. With 200,000 men under arms, they dwarf even the projected national army. This power, says Mr. Sarwari, must be recognized and somehow integrated into the Afghan political system.

For example, regional governors should be elected instead of appointed by Kabul, and local officials should be permitted to make local decisions. It is a matter of building trust between the regions and the center, says Mr. Sarwari. That is the Afghan political reality as opposed to dreaming.

He adds that political stability also depends on economic progress, like rebuilding Afghanistan's shattered roads, which would provide badly needed jobs and help knit the country together. “Reconstruction is part of the security of Afghanistan,” he says “and they should take it as seriously as building a national army. People are unemployed. Millions of people return from Pakistan and Iran, hoping to find employment, and instead they do not find anything. That is a recipe for crime all over the country.”

Along with the authors of the Human Rights Watch report, Mr. Sarwari says the United States should extend its forces beyond Kabul to protect the rest of Afghanistan. Small numbers of troops can serve that purpose. But pressure should also be put on Pakistan to root out the bands of Taleban, al-Qaeda and others operating along the Afghan border.

“Afghanistan will not become a secure country until Pakistan cooperates fully,” says Mr. Sarwari. “And the United States has to find a way to convince the Pakistani government and military to stop interfering in Afghanistan. Pakistan has a very strong military. They have the latest weapons you can imagine, the latest training. Pakistan is fully capable of controlling the border. It is fully capable of controlling the extremists inside its territory.”

Much goes into the package of stabilizing and reviving Afghanistan and making it safe and livable for its citizens, says Mr. Sarwari. The United States has only begun to put some of these ingredients together. There is a long, long way to go.