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Does a return to warlord rule await post-NATO Afghanistan?

Though NATO-led efforts have focused on democracy, U.S. forces still rely on Afghan strongmen to wield influence. But power built on personalities are vulnerable to collapse.
Image: Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai greets General Petraeus during the funeral ceremony for his younger brother Karzai at the presidential palace in Kabul
Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai (L) greets General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan during the funeral ceremony for his younger brother Ahmad Wali Karzai at the presidential palace in Kabul July 15, 2011.Pool / Reuters

In his sprawling office in Kandahar’s gubernatorial palace, Tooryali Wesa spends much of his day behind an imposing hand-carved wooden desk. Stately chairs and couches line the wood-paneled walls, topped with the type of high-vaulted ceiling found in a cathedral or classically designed mosque. The room is a virtual shrine to governance and an apparent testament to the power of the political office.

But in Afghanistan, things are rarely what they seem.

For years, Kandaharis have made it no secret that, while they respect Mr. Wesa, his position is largely symbolic. To get things done, they turn to the region’s power brokers and warlords.

"The biggest challenge has been power brokers," says Wesa, reflecting on his time as governor. "They had only guns before, but recently in addition to guns they have money. They run most of the businesses, they are awarded contracts from [various international sources], and they are feeding the insurgency."

The possibility that power brokers and warlords in Afghanistan might be what keeps the country from unraveling has had analysts concerned, but the recent assassination of Ahmad Wali Karzai, one of the most powerful strongmen in Afghanistan, and the ensuing struggle in Kandahar for power, has brought the issue into sharp focus as the US begins to draw down forces.


The struggle to replace Ahmad Wali, President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, highlights a key question at the heart of Afghanistan’s future: After 10 years of the US-led war, who can realistically control the country, warlords and strongmen or the government?

Though much of the international effort here has focused on strengthening democratic institutions, foreign forces have often had to lean on strongmen. As a result, a new generation of warlords has risen to power, fueled by US money.

Many warlords in Afghanistan occupy government posts, but their reach extends well beyond their appointed role. Ahmad Wali, for example, was officially head of the Kandahar Provincial Council. Power brokers, like him, run parallel governments that often undercut the role of government. And most of the men powerful enough to claim these roles come with a litany of criminal allegations against them.

"The whole mission of the international community has always been to invest in individuals and not in a structure or in a system," says Rangina Hamidi, a political activist in Kandahar. "When you depend on individuals, things will go on well as long as they’re alive. And once they’re gone ... then the whole structure falls."

In Kandahar, there has been increasing talk that Kabul will appoint a new personality to replace Wesa who will likely set the tone for which direction the government is headed.

Until recently, two of the most likely contenders represented warlord-government divide. On one side, Gul Agha Sherzai is the classic old school mujahideen fighter-turned-power broker. On the other, there was Ghulam Haider Hamidi, an accountant who had lived in Virginia for nearly two decades and was widely seen as one of the nation’s most honest brokers until he was killed by a suicide bomber on July 27.

A close ally to the president, Mr. Sherzai currently serves as the governor of Nangarhar Province in the east. He is a rotund man who fits the stereotypical warlord mold. Sherzai was the governor of Kandahar after the fall of the Taliban in 2003 but was accused of making hundreds of millions of dollars from the drug trade and operating a band of thugs notorious for extortion, murder, and rape. A number of international and Afghan officials have ascribed the resurgence of the Taliban in the south partly to his heavy-handed tactics.

As governor of Nangarhar, Sherzai’s reputation has improved. Internationals have credited him with playing a major role in eradicating poppy production throughout much of the province.

However, in his current position Sherzai is also accused of skimming money from international development projects and paying off officials and journalists to say positive things about him.

"In the media they say he’s a hero for Nangarhar, but it’s not true," says Abdul Gafar, a member of parliament from Nangarhar. "These were the efforts of the people of Nangarhar who wanted peace. The credit does not go to Sherzai; it goes to the people."

Sherzai waves off the accusations.

And many residents of Kandahar say that the circumstances have changed since Sherzai’s last term as governor and he would be unlikely to engage in controversial activities as he reportedly did before.

However, his appointment may risk further undercutting many Afghans’ faith in the international community and the government. Aside from political concerns, many Afghans are also worried that the Taliban may be gaining momentum, especially in the east where they shot down a US helicopter on Saturday, killing dozens. Even after a decade of international military involvement, it appears to many Afghans that stability is still far off.


"The people of Afghanistan have lost their trust in the international community because in the beginning, after the Taliban, when the warlords and criminals were hired as government officials, the people were expecting that they [would] be taken to court or removed from government positions after some time. But now that [practice] has continued, and they have become more powerful," says Ahmad Shah Spar, a human rights activist.

Meanwhile, until his assassination, Mr. Hamidi represented the opposite of politicians like Sherzai. The mayor of Kandahar city for the past four years, he was a man of slight build, who spoke fondly of his time in Virginia and his love of his native Kandahar. Hamidi was perhaps as close to a Western politician as any government official in Afghanistan.

Although he was not completely removed from corruption scandals, he was regarded as a politician committed to making decisions based on the law rather than personal interests.

In a conversation with the Monitor the day before his death, he expressed optimism that the country had evolved politically and would not call on warlords to replace Ahmad Wali.

"Those power brokers, warlords, and drug dealers are losing their power, and we are going the way the development of Kandahar needs," said Hamidi. "They will never get anything and we are proud of that, and the government is doing things in the correct way."

But with the death of Hamidi at the hands of a suicide bomber, residents may now be more willing to turn to a strongman like Sherzai whom they see as capable of dealing with the region’s turbulence.

"For the current situation in Kandahar we need a former jihadi," says Haji Faisal Mohammed, a prominent tribal elder in Kandahar. He says he backs Sherzai despite his questionable past, which includes allegedly murdering a respected elder close to Mr. Mohammed.

He also hopes that the death of Ahmad Wali will present an opportunity to form a tribal council that acts as a check on
leaders like Sherzai and creates more equality among the tribes.

"We don’t have any person like Ahmad Wali, so I have no doubt that there will be many people who share the power. There is not a single person to depend on. There will be three or four people from different tribes," says Waheed Mujada, an independent analyst in Kabul.

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