At a critical moment when the Afghan government and U.S. troops are fighting against emerging ISIS-K and after a successful temporary ceasefire when a new momentum is taking place for peace talks with Taliban insurgents, warlords and strongmen pose a brazen challenge to the central government.
The national intelligence agency’s offices in the city of Maimana were stormed, provincial governor’s compound was looted and destroyed and vehicles were burned. This happened after a powerful warlord and commander Nezamuddin Qaisari loyal to Abdul Rashid Dostum was arrested. His arrest came after he allegedly threatened to kill people at a provincial security meeting.
Qaisari is also the provincial representative of fellow ethnic Uzbek Warlord, Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, who fled to Turkey last year after he was accused of being involved in the rape and torture of a political rival. Dostum, warned the removal of Qaisari could worsen insecurity in Faryab where government forces are fighting the Taliban and Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K).
In addition to plethora of problems, ethnic warlords and factions, product of the last four decade of war and one of the worst legacy of the U.S. longest war in Afghanistan, remain a strong challenge in front of central government. After the Soviet occupation ended, a group of strongmen and warlords with personal militias stepped into the vacuum, gaining immense influence and power. These warlords created private militias and have been involved in heinous crimes and human rights violations. Using government resources and positions from decades, they have been ruling with impunity.
They remain a bulwark against Afghanistan fledgling democracy, accountability and paving the way for new generation to lead the country towards progress and development. Killings, beatings, abduction, extortion, land seizures, illegal mining, drug trafficking, and in some cases joining hand with enemy where there is mutual interest, these warlords have become a headache for the country. They take a cut of the money made from the country’s drug trade. They tax the opium grown locally, charge tolls on the roads in some areas. Some warlords help get the drugs to international market using their existing networks for moving men, money and arms. The drug money is then used to arm their private militias and to fund their political campaigns. They use their patronage network to assassinate and harass political opponents. Anyone who raise voice against them is threatened or targeted. In some areas they have joined hands with Taliban insurgents for their parochial personal interests in the form of putting pressure on the government and looting of mineral resources.
Warlords rise and endurance is a legacy of America’s longest war in Afghanistan. Majority of the warlords gained prominence in late 2001 as the Mujahideen fighting the Taliban regime. With American lavishly spend funds and weapons, collapse of the Taliban regime, these warlords were able to control and influence nations security forces and government ministries.
The government provided them with influential positions and they got U.S. companies sub-contracts. Many received funds from the U.S. and Western countries to work alongside U.S. and NATO forces to fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, further increasing their influence in Afghanistan politics. Thus, with American tax payer’s money and weak Afghan central government blessings, the warlords thrived. Warlords largely used their official positions to cement their own authority in their respective territories and have enriched themselves through illegal money. From Ministerial positions, civilian positions, security sector to lucrative customs, they have influence everywhere.
It’s a big hurdle in front of western educated technocrats keen to transform Afghanistan from traditional conservative society into a modern and progressive era. One of Afghan president Ashraf Ghani commitment to revive King Amanullah Khan’s dream by taking the country from a traditional society towards progress and modernization.
President Ghani a U.S. educated former World Bank official, visionary technocrat, widely seen as a key figure and committed to alter old notion of power has been able to either fire or marginalize some of the powerful warlords.
However, when there has been a crackdown or an effort to marginalize warlords, they have come up with warnings of havoc, civil war and provoking people through the exploitation of their emotions and anger. The most bizzare fact is that they occupy top positions in the government and at the same time work against the government. Some have held or continue to hold high level positions to the level of vice president, ministerial positions, governors of important provinces. They serve in both the position and opposition role at the same time giving statements against the government thus bringing the legitimacy of the government under question. Stirring ethnic and linguistic hatred among the society and blame game has become day to day business for them in order to remain in power and to find a space within the society.
Haji Mohamad Mohaqeq, second vice president and warlord threatened the central government when one of his appointed Minister Razaq Wahidi was tried by court this week for alleged corruption. He accused the government of favoring the Ex-Finance Minister Eklil Hakimi who resigned from his position and was appointed as an advisor to the President in International Affairs.
Eklil Hakimi, a former ambassador to the Washington D.C., China and Japan was considered a key interlocutor with Western partners and brining more donor aid to the country. During his three years tenure at the Ministry of Finance revenue has been on the rise and according to experts the revenue will reach to over $2 billion by the end of the year. Hakimi one of the most trusted ministers of Ghani’s cabinet was awarded a medal in recognition of his services and attracting donor aid. Three weeks back, the Minister of Urban Development and Housing Syed Mansoor Naderi, another western oriented liberal technocrat had resigned. While Ali Ahmad Osmani, the Minister of energy and water was fired by President Ghani.
In addition to the complexity of war, Afghanistan politics remains very complicated. The government is not only in fight against ISIS-K, Taliban and around 20 terrorist groups, it has to deal with regional strongmen and warlord who still remain a major threat. Warlords and strongmen with armed militia, are a serious threat to the country stability which have to be marginalized in order to move the nation and new generation into a new era and democracy. Improvement in governance is critical for stabilizing Afghanistan. Without robust progress in governance, and strengthening democratic institutions, the security gains made so far and momentum against ISIS-K and Taliban insurgents will be lost.
Afghanistan is in need of vast amount of western diplomatic capital and their pressure to rein in the warlords and to marginalize them. They remain not only a problem in front of Afghanistan relatively new democratic system but also a national security threat.
*Ahmad Shah Katawazai is an Afghan diplomat with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a national security expert. Katawazai is a Johns Hopkins University & American University Alumni. The views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @askatawazai