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Ahead of Afghan vote, warlords are threat
Krishnadev Calamur

Washington, DC, Sep. 28 (UPI) -- Warlords in Afghanistan continue to enjoy great power and may pose a greater threat to Afghanistan than the Taliban despite President Hamid Karzai's attempts to sideline key regional power-brokers, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.

"The warlords are still calling the shots," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. "Many voters in rural areas say the militias have already told them how to vote, and that they're afraid of disobeying them. Activists and political organizers who oppose the warlords fear for their lives."

The Human Rights Watch report, "The Rule of the Gun: Human Rights Abuses and Political Repression in the Run-Up to Afghanistan's Presidential Election," chides both the international community and the Afghan government for claiming that top warlords have been sidelined, saying the multinational force in Iraq needs more personnel to provide security across the country ahead of the Oct. 9 election. It maintains that unless top warlords are disarmed, problems could arise during next year's parliamentary elections, which are likely to be closely contested.

"The reality is that most Afghans involved in politics on the ground are primarily afraid of warlords and their factions, much more than they're afraid of the Taliban," Adams said.

Tuesday's report is at odds with what the Afghan government and the Bush administration have been saying ahead of the elections. Indeed, Karzai has replaced at least one top warlord, Ismail Khan who controlled Herat province, and has struck deals with others. Many warlords, including Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum and Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim, are seeking the presidency, however, and it is unclear how the elections, which Karzai is expected to win easily, will affect their fortunes.

The government is working on a process called demobilization, decommissioning and reintegration, or DDR, of militia forces that it hopes will lead to the downsizing and, ultimately, the elimination of militia forces. Afghan and U.S. officials acknowledge, however, the process has been slow, noting that some 15,000 of the country's 50,000 militia troops were under the program.

"By June of next year, there should be no more militia forces organized in Afghanistan," Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy to Kabul, told reporters in Washington two weeks ago. "That's the government plan."

Afghan officials in Washington say the government is working hard to curtail the strength of the warlords and noted some instances where sidelined warlords, including Khan, have voiced support for the government. M. Ashraf Haidari, the government and media relations officer at the Afghan Embassy, told United Press International the government has negotiated with warlords, some of who have U.S. support, in the hope of integrating them into the political process. He acknowledged problems, however, but noted it was unlikely to affect the elections.

"There is, of course, a threat because there is a DDR process that is slow and has not gone as well as one expected," he said. "We hope there won't be any security problems as the coalition forces accelerate their activities."

As part of its bid to stabilize the country, the international community has beefed up its presence in Afghanistan ahead of the elections. The U.S.-led multinational coalition now stands at more than 18,000. Tuesday's Human Rights Watch Report, however, says that may not be enough because of the complaints of voter intimidation in some parts of the country and bribes offered in others.

"Afghan leaders and external powers such as the United States continue to underplay the dangers posed by warlord dominance," said Adams in the statement. "For a long time there has been widespread agreement that elections cannot be successful unless additional international security forces are deployed and warlord militias are disarmed. If Afghanistan is a priority of the international community, where are the troops?"

Afghan experts say that the country faces a bigger threat -- drugs.

According to U.S. estimates, poppy cultivation in the country was expected to jump 40 percent this year. Twenty-eight of 34 Afghan provinces grow poppy and the number of acres under poppy cultivation increased from 197,684 acres in 2003 to 247,105 acres in 2004. The poppy trade is estimated to contribute up to 60 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product.

Much of the money from the trade -- which has jumped in areas previously not used for sale and transport -- goes to finance warlords, corrupt government officials and extremist groups, and the low cost of production will, many fear, lead to a drug-use problem in the country.

"Narcotics ... (is) one the challenges and will remain a major challenge for the Afghan government to resolve," Haidari said. "It runs hand in hand with terrorism and warlordism."

One reason for the growth of poppy cultivation, he said, was this year's drought in the country which forced farmers to turn to the drugs trade. Afghan government policies, it is hoped, will persuade them to move to growing cash crops.

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