11 September 2001>News Stories>The Corrupt and Brutal Reclaim Afghan Thrones, Evoking Chaos of Somalia

The Corrupt and Brutal Reclaim Afghan Thrones, Evoking Chaos of Somalia
Jane Perlez . NYTimes . 19 November

QUETTA, Pakistan, Nov. 18 The galaxy of warlords who tore Afghanistan apart in the early 1990's and who were vanquished by the Taliban because of their corruption and perfidy are back on their thrones, poised to exercise power in the ways they always have.

From the western part of the country to the east, control of the strategic cities passed in less than a week to the same warlords who fled from the Taliban up to six years ago. The relatively popular Ismail Khan reinstalled himself as the governor of Herat, a cultural and trading center; the ruthless Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum is back in power in northern Mazar-i-Sharif; and Haji Abdul Qadir, who let Osama bin Laden stay in his province in 1996, emerged as the victor this weekend after the Taliban fled the southern center of Jalalabad.

Even in Kandahar, the last city still held by the Taliban, the ruler who handed the city over to the Taliban Mullah Naquib has been designated as a possible successor to the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar.

And as if to finish the roll call, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who turned much of Kabul, the capital, into rubble in the early 1990's, has asked his old patron, Pakistan, for permission to return to the border town of Peshawar so he can cross into Afghanistan and proclaim himself a provincial governor.

The rapid return of the warlords will make the task of forming the broad-based Afghan government the Bush administration says it wants to help forge much more difficult.

In some ways, the challenge of creating a national government in Afghanistan is not unlike the quandary faced by the United States, albeit in a smaller way and on a smaller scale, in Somalia, where the United States tried so-called nation-building in a country that had never experienced a unified government. Somalia reeled back into rule by the gun after the failed effort to create a coalition government.

Afghanistan has had forms of national rule in its history, but for more than 20 years, the norm has been the rule of war, a state of affairs that the country could slip seamlessly back into unless the United States and United Nations act quickly to slow down the rapid entrenchment of the warlords, diplomats and experts said.

"The Taliban years are already beginning to look like an aberration," said Ahmed Rashid, the author of the book "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia," as he considered the return of the warlords. "It's like the Taliban were a blip on the political horizon."

Since possession of territory is the most important facet of political power in Afghanistan, the warlords are in no hurry to form coalitions, he said. Most of the big warlords are affiliated with the Northern Alliance, whose commanders in Kabul are refusing to remove their troops, an important first step if negotiations for a new government embracing all of the country's factions are to get under way.

Mr. Rashid said that in order to help bring order to the chaos, some kind of international force needed to be deployed throughout Afghanistan, and the major Western powers needed to send diplomats to help push the political process along.

So far, those things are not happening, he said. The acting foreign minister for the Northern Alliance, Abdullah Abdullah, expressed deep reservations over the weekend about allowing foreign troops to land in Afghanistan. Britain appears to have lost its early enthusiasm for deploying the 4,000 troops it has on 48-hour standby for Afghanistan.

An aide to the former Afghan king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, warned that Afghanistan was threatened with a return to the past. The presence in Kabul of the Northern Alliance, which is made up of the three main minority groups, was a poor beginning for a new Afghanistan, said the aide, Abdul Sirat.

"People should elect their leadership and decide the current situation instead of reimposing themselves on them," Mr. Sirat said, "particularly in view of the fact we have gone through this experience more than once and every time it has proved a failure."

The records of the warlords vary, but all have one thing in common: they fled the better-organized, better-financed Taliban, who picked them off one by one from 1994 to 1996. In one case, in Kandahar, the warlord Mullah Naquib received a reward from the Taliban for handing over his fighters and his weapons without a struggle when the Taliban swept into the city in November 1994.

Mullah Naquib was named by Mullah Omar late last week as one of two commanders he planned to pass power to before fleeing to the hills to carry out guerrilla warfare. Many Afghans expect that when Kandahar finally falls and the Taliban leave, Mullah Naquib will emerge as the new leader.

In Jalalabad, a strategically important city south of Kabul, Hajji Abdul Qadir was a governor from 1992 to 1996 when he allowed Osama bin Laden to stay in the area after his return from Sudan. Mr. Qadir has emerged as the new governor of Jalalabad in the last two days; it is perhaps too soon to judge whether he will survive or not.

But Mr. Qadir could turn out to be an important player if ethnic groups come together in a coalition government.

Mr. Qadir is from the Pashtun ethnic group, which dominates in the south, but he is also a member of the Northern Alliance. He could conceivably act as a bridge between the south and the alliance if the diplomats can help organize a broad- based government.

In Mazar-i-Sharif, once a busy trading stop on the old Silk Road, General Dostum has taken up the post he vacated when the Taliban chased him out of the city in 1997. He has allied himself with almost every Afghan leader of the last 20 years, including the Taliban, and is known for his particularly brutal behavior towards soldiers and civilians.

General Dostum comes from the Uzbek ethnic group, and in the early 1990's he was used by Uzbekistan, Russia and Iran as a secular alternative to the religious fundamentalism of the Taliban.

In Herat, Ismail Khan was greeted on his return last week as a favorite son, and as the man residents had been waiting for the last seven years. He is considered a more liberal warlord, perhaps because he has ensured that the antiquities of his ancient city are not exported and because he has always encouraged the education of girls and women.

One of the more surprising returns would be that of Mr. Hekmatyar to Afghanistan. Perhaps the most brutal of a generally brutal group, Mr. Hekmatyar retreated to the hills of Kabul in 1994 after a feud with its rulers and then went about trying to systematically destroy the city. By the end of 1994, his indiscriminate bombing of Kabul destroyed about half the city and killed an estimated 25,000 people.

One of the goals of Mr. Hekmatyar then was to discourage a unified capital and to ensure that the city was divided up into small fiefs. He would be expected to continue that policy no matter where he returned to in Afghanistan.