In 1994, bitter fighting between competing warlords raged throughout Kabul, Afghanistan's capital city. It was a time marked by endless attacks, many of them on civilians. I saw one young boy raise his hand to catch a ball, only to have it sliced off at the wrist by a rocket. A 13-year-old girl, running home to retrieve blankets and clothes left behind by her fleeing family, stepped on a land mine, which exploded and blew off the bottom of her leg. All told, 50,000 Afghans—most of them civilians—died in the four-year fight for Kabul, and even more were maimed.

In one particularly grisly attack, five women from the Hazara ethnic group were scalped. Their attackers were not Taliban; this was still two years before that radical Islamist militia took Kabul. The assailants were loyal instead to one of many warlords battling for control of the city: Abdul Rasul Sayyaf.

Sayyaf's men had been fighting for years, first against the Soviet Union, after it invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and then, once the Soviets fled, against other mujahideen groups. Even among Afghan fighters, Sayyaf's private army stood out. It included more militant Arabs than the other factions and boasted closer financial links to Saudi Arabia; it even had offices in the desert kingdom. There were also strong ideological ties: unlike most Afghans, Sayyaf was a member of the strict Saudi Wahhabi sect of Islam. He opposed the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and was a fierce opponent of women's rights, refusing to meet or even talk to women outside his family.

Two years after the attack on the Hazara women, Sayyaf, along with then Defense Minister Ahmed Shah Masoud and President Burhanuddin Rabbani, was swept out of town by the Taliban. Today, however, many of the warlords are back in Kabul—and more powerful than ever. In fact, just a few months ago, during the Loya Jirga (grand council) held to draft a new national constitution, Sayyaf met with Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and President George W. Bush's special envoy. Neither side would reveal what was discussed, but it is widely believed that Khalilzad was courting Sayyaf's support for several constitutional provisions: a strong presidency, guarantees for women's and human rights, and protections for religious minorities. Sayyaf subsequently agreed to these provisions; just what he asked for in return is unknown. The mere fact that the negotiations took place, however, is unsettling, for it exposes the weakness of Washington's current Afghan strategy. The United States is betting that the same men who caused Afghanistan so much misery in the past will somehow lead it to democracy and stability in the future. The evidence, however, suggests that the opposite is happening. Opportunities have been lost, goodwill squandered, and lessons of history ignored.


Besides Sayyaf, several other key warlords have returned to power in Afghanistan. They include Muhammad Fahim, the current defense minister; Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Afghan president's special envoy for northern Afghanistan; and Rabbani, the former president and a current power broker. All these men share responsibility for the ferocious killing of the mid-1990s. They still maintain private armies and private jails and are reaping vast amounts of money from Afghanistan's illegal opium trade—valued at close to $2.3 billion last year—as well as from extortion and other rackets.

Yet these men also now sit at the negotiating table with the United States, the UN, and other members of the Afghan government, bartering for power. And Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's interim president, seems unable to do much about it. The sense of déjà vu is so strong that Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN's special envoy to Afghanistan, recently warned that the situation "is reminiscent of what was witnessed after the establishment of the mujahideen government in 1992"—which led to the rise of the Taliban a few years later.

How exactly did things get so bad so quickly? How did the fall of the Taliban—a great victory for Washington, and one that seemed to herald a new dawn for this battered country—lead to the return of the old status quo? The answer dates back to September 2001. Soon after al Qaeda staged its attacks against New York City and Washington, D.C., from its Afghan bases, the Northern Alliance teamed up with the United States to rout the terrorists and their Taliban sponsors. America's new allies, however, included some of the same men who had wreaked havoc in Afghanistan before the Taliban came to power, and many of them were almost as radical in their ideology as the Taliban themselves (Rabbani, while president from 1992 to 1996, even granted more than 600 Arab militants Afghan passports). In addition, their alliance with Washington seems to have been a tactical one at best. According to Milton Bearden, who was the CIA's main liaison to the mujahideen during the 1980s, "they never thought they couldn't manage us."

Problems began even before the negotiation of the Bonn accord, signed in December 2001 under UN auspices. That agreement was supposed to serve as a road map for post-Taliban Afghanistan, leading to the development of a new, stable, democratic nation. The parties agreed that two Loya Jirgas would be held, one to elect an interim president and cabinet, and one to pass a constitution and set a timeline for national elections. But in the horse-trading for cabinet positions that accompanied the agreement, three top posts—the foreign, defense, and interior ministerships—were given to members of Jamiat-e-Islami, an Islamist, ethnic-Tajik faction of the Northern Alliance led by Rabbani.

The leaders of the Northern Alliance agreed to the appointment of Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, as interim president, but only because he did not have a militia of his own. In practice, this has meant that Karzai can do little to impose his will on those who retain private armies. Karzai took office as a nationalist, a believer in an Afghanistan for all Afghans, regardless of ethnicity. But few of his colleagues share this view. The new government is composed of militarily strong Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara factions, and a weak Pashtun majority, governed by exiles who have recently returned to Afghanistan after decades elsewhere—mostly in the United States.

The United States and the UN presumably thought that Karzai would get the strength he needed to rule Afghanistan from the ongoing presence of Western soldiers in the country, who sometimes serve to enforce his writ. Yet even as Washington claims to support Karzai, it has continued to rely on the independent warlords for help hunting down remnant units of the Taliban and al Qaeda. This dual strategy has served only to strengthen the former Northern Alliance, by giving it U.S.-supplied guns, money, and prestige, while eroding Karzai's already weak central authority.

Even in Kabul, the limits of Karzai's power and the perfidy of the warlords have become clear. The Bonn agreement set clear timetables for the decommissioning of private militias. Even before they disbanded, these armies were to withdraw from Kabul. The Bonn agreement was unequivocal on this point: the warlord's troops were supposed to be out of the city by the time the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) deployed there in late December 2001.

The warlords never planned to honor these agreements, however. On November 11, two days before the Taliban fled town, when Sayyaf was asked by satellite telephone about U.S. requests that his militia remain outside Kabul, he laughed and said, "Our brothers will be [there]." Fahim, who would later become defense minister, took a similar position. Shortly after the Taliban were routed, I asked him whether he was going to remove his troops from Kabul before the peacekeepers entered the city. His answer was an unequivocal no. I replied that the Bonn agreement was very specific on this point, that all militia had to be housed outside the capital by the time the peacekeepers came to Kabul. Again, his answer was no. Fahim's troops remain in the city to this day; U.S. and UN envoys are still trying to get rid of them.

It is little wonder, then, that Karzai's attempts to assert himself and reassure his subjects have had little impact. Although Karzai has said that ordinary Taliban and the country's Pashtun majority have nothing to fear from the new regime, the disproportionate influence still wielded by the Tajik- and Uzbek-dominated Northern Alliance has spread fear throughout the country. This has been exacerbated by the small size of the international force stationed in Afghanistan: the total number of U.S. troops is currently only about 11,000, and they are employed only to hunt al Qaeda and the Taliban. ISAF, which numbers 6,000, does not venture outside Kabul.


Just who are the men Washington has turned to for help in its hunt for Osama bin Laden? President Karzai has praised the mujahideen as heroes for their part in the war against the Soviets in the 1980s. But that is not how ordinary Afghans view them. As many Afghans told me when I visited the country last December, the mujahideen forfeited the title of heroes and assumed the mantle of criminals when they took Kabul in 1992 and turned their guns on each other and the surrounding civilians. Today the killing is blamed almost entirely on Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who fled to Iran in 1996 and is now battling the central government, and who, between 1992 and 1996, rained rockets on Kabul in a bid for more power. However, the ordinary Afghans who lived through that period know that all the factions share blame. It was Sayyaf, not Hekmatyar, who once said that Kabul should be razed (since everyone who had stayed behind during the rule of the communists must be communist themselves). Sayyaf's men—as well as those of Ahmed Shah Masoud and his deputy, Fahim—carried out merciless attacks on civilians during the early 1990s, earning a reputation for brutality.

The Americans, for their part, seem to know who they are dealing with but do not seem bothered by their histories. "Some of them have had awful records. I don't deny that," Khalilzad told me in December when I interviewed him inside the heavily fortified U.S. embassy in Kabul. "The question [is] whether one should go toe-to-toe here and now or start an evolutionary strategy. ... One thing could lead to another if people don't behave."

It's not clear, however, what Khalilzad thinks qualifies as bad behavior. The warlords have now ruled the country for two years, and Afghanistan seems to be degenerating into a sort of narco-state, which could spin out of control. Not only are the warlords complicit in drug-running and corruption, but according to Afghanistan's Human Rights Committee, they are also guilty of abusing and harassing the population. The warlords have stolen peoples' homes, arbitrarily arrested their enemies, and tortured them in private jails.

Those who speak out against the mujahideen do so at their peril. Sima Samar, the head of the committee and a former minister of women's affairs, was threatened with death for daring to criticize the warlords. So was a man who publicly chastised them during the first Loya Jirga; in fact, he was so frightened that he and his family subsequently sought political asylum. At the second Loya Jirga last December, one woman—Malalai Joya, a 25-year-old social worker from the deeply conservative southwest—went so far as to denounce the "mujahideen heroes" from the stage, lambasting them as criminals who had destroyed the country. "They should be brought to national and international justice," she told the assembly. In response, the chairman of the Loya Jirga, Sibghatullah Mojaddidi—himself a former mujahideen fighter—threatened to have her thrown out of the tent, demanded that she apologize (she refused, although others did on her behalf), and granted Sayyaf 15 minutes to respond, during which he called people like Joya criminals and communists. Amnesty International has claimed that she subsequently received death threats.

The mujahideen may have proved good at abusing their fellow citizens, but they have not done as well at accomplishing the goal Washington has set for them: capturing or killing al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts. Even as the factional militias have wreaked havoc among the general population, the Taliban have started to recover and regroup, especially in the south and east. For example, government officials and Afghan aid workers in southeastern Zabul Province report that 8 of Zabul's 11 districts are now run largely by the Taliban. Meanwhile, much of the intelligence that the warlords have supplied to Washington on the Taliban has proved faulty. Last December, for example, U.S. raids on supposed Taliban and al Qaeda facilities killed 16 civilians, 15 of them children. The problem, according to Bearden, is that the United States is "not clever enough to not be manipulated. The reality is that the West as a whole doesn't mean much to [the warlords]."

Bearden warns that the warlords and factional leaders may not be willing to cooperate with the United States for much longer, since they will soon have enough resources to strike out on their own. He explains, "With $2.6 billion plus in poppies and another couple of billion that come through in the regular smuggling world ... at what point do [the warlords] not need us anymore? At what point, with all of this money coming in, do they look at us ... and say, 'Thank you very much, we are quite happy with the way it is. I have my big house, my militia, so don't [mess] with me'?"


The main victims of all this have been ordinary Afghans. The public has grown disappointed and disillusioned with the international community, which it increasingly blames for failing to deliver on the lofty promises that preceded the U.S. attack on the Taliban. The West has even empowered their former persecutors. According to a Human Rights Watch report, the "fears of many Afghans ... stem not only from ongoing abuses, but also from the memory of abuses committed by current rulers when they were previously in power in the early 1990s, before the Taliban seized power. As one woman in a rural area explained, 'We are afraid because we remember the past.'"

The international community also failed to make good on its aid commitments. CARE International, a global humanitarian organization, reports that Afghanistan received pledges of only $75 per person in foreign aid in 2002 and will get only $42 per person over the next five years. In contrast, an average of $250 per person was pledged to the citizens of Bosnia, East Timor, Kosovo, and Rwanda.

Moreover, there are increasing signs that the damage being done to Afghanistan will not be easily remedied. The chance to co-opt and pacify the country's majority Pashtun population has been squandered thanks to U.S. policies that treat them as the enemy and empower minority Tajiks and Uzbeks instead. Moreover, the general lawlessness of the country means that aid organizations no longer dare send their international workers outside the capital. They are particularly wary of the south and east, which have become the most dangerous regions. After the initial collapse of the Taliban, for example, 16 international aid organizations started operating in the southeastern province of Zabul. Today only 2 remain.

One new dilemma is that Washington has started using military forces to provide aid, which, many development officials complain, dangerously blurs the lines between soldiers and aid workers. The United States says this is the only way to get aid to the insecure southern and eastern regions. But Pierre Kraehenbuehl, director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross, explains the problem with the following example: "One day a [military] civil affairs officer goes into a village and talks to villagers about reconstruction, and the same week a humanitarian worker goes to the same village, talks to the villagers, [and] offers humanitarian aid. To the villagers they are the same. They are both Western, driving white vehicles. Then a few days later there is a military operation and there are possibly victims among the civilians. How do the people of the village make the distinction between those who may have been used to collect intelligence for that intervention?"

Khalilzad says that the United States now recognizes that it made a mistake by not moving into the south and the east of Afghanistan sooner to mollify the Pashtun population. As a result, Washington has adopted an "accelerated" program aimed at providing big, highly visible reconstruction projects through provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs), run by the Defense Department with cooperation from some civilian agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department. Nine of these PRTs are currently at work, and several more are planned or are already starting up. The British now run a PRT in northern Mazar-i-Sharif, the Germans (under NATO auspices) in northern Kunduz, and the New Zealanders in central Bamiyan; the Americans are working through the troubled Pashtun-dominated south and east.

The PRTs are composed of a "large number of military folk," according to Joseph Collins, deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations. Collins says that using the military to do aid work is "inevitable" in a dangerous environment like Afghanistan's. But although aid workers agree that Afghanistan is dangerous, they disagree with Washington about how soldiers should be used to address this. According to Kevin Henry, advocacy director for CARE International, Western forces should not provide aid directly but instead should create a more secure environment by arresting the Taliban and the warlords and helping to train the national police and the army. This would allow aid organizations to return to the afflicted regions and do the kind of work they are best at.

Despite the overarching insecurity and instability throughout Afghanistan, there have been a few limited successes. For example, a new Kabul-to-Kandahar highway opened in December 2003. (Originally slated for completion in 2005, the project was sped up, reportedly by order of the White House.) Such projects are hugely expensive, however. The highway cost $250 million, or roughly $625,000 per kilometer, since entire asphalt plants had to be airlifted into the region. Yet plans have been announced to build another 1,400 kilometers of highway and secondary roads, many of them in the neglected south and the east. International donors, led by the United States, have also announced plans to build a large hydroelectric dam, as well as new schools, courthouses, and administrative buildings.


Given the sorry reality of Afghanistan today—with its flourishing drug trade, widespread insecurity, sluggish disarmament, and insufficient international aid—such projects will not be enough to stabilize the country. Afghanistan is scheduled to hold elections in June, but it does not have enough money to register voters. In fact, barely ten percent of Afghan voters have been registered to date.

If Washington really wants to help, it must abandon its policy of working with the warlords and factional leaders of the Northern Alliance. Sayyaf, Fahim, and their men have nothing to offer Afghanistan that would help the country move forward. Concessions made to the warlords will be met only with demands for more concessions. Instead, the United States should concentrate on training a police force, which, along with the national army that the United States and France are helping to build, could provide security at a local level.

Unfortunately, the United States shows no signs of abandoning its warlord allies. In fact, Khalilzad has suggested that the local militias—the same groups that the UN is currently trying to disarm and reintegrate into Afghan society—be used to provide security for the upcoming election. Khalilzad has said that these men could be vetted and paired with U.S. special forces. But this would be like using foxes to guard a henhouse. Moreover, the militias have worked with special forces for two years now and have shown no sign of improving their behavior. On the contrary, they have focused much of their efforts on drugs, extortion, and intimidation, using their relationships with U.S. soldiers to frighten local civilians and advance their own greed.

Washington's willingness to even contemplate using these men to safeguard the elections suggests that U.S. policymakers have learned little from the last two years. Either that, or Washington wants to make sure elections proceed at any cost. Vikram Parekh, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, calls U.S. policy in Afghanistan "a very improvised political strategy essentially [designed] to give an appearance of stability in Afghanistan ahead of the November elections." He says that the United States and the UN are following a "checklist strategy," achieving minor benchmarks without doing much to make Afghanistan stable in the long run. The current plan is to oversee the election of Afghanistan's first president, presumably Karzai, as soon as possible, followed by a reinvigorated reconstruction program. Karzai would use his five-year term and the significant powers he has been granted under the new constitution to build strong institutions, including a national army and a police force.

Although this approach might sound good on paper, it has several major inherent flaws and seems to ignore the current chaos. Karzai is likely to be elected president. Although the new constitution invests this office with strong powers, it remains unclear whether Karzai will have the strength to use them. Given current U.S. policies and flagging international assistance, moreover, it is unrealistic to expect any Afghan government to deal on its own with the rampant corruption, thriving drug trade (bigger today than at any time in Afghanistan's past), general lawlessness and insecurity, and dangerous private militias. The new army, which totals a mere 5,700 soldiers, is losing recruits almost as quickly as it can acquire them, and the police force has only begun to be developed.

Yet much more international help seems unlikely. With resources stretched thin in Iraq, it seems improbable that the United States will offer to play a larger role in Afghanistan. Even without a huge new investment, however, Washington could help matters by making a few key changes. To begin with, it should improve coordination with its European allies to beef up the NATO contingent in Afghanistan. Here an American lead is key, since hardly any other NATO countries have been willing to send more than a few hundred troops to the country, and those they have remain in the big cities, avoiding the troubled areas in Afghanistan's east.

Within Afghanistan, the United States should recognize that it needs partners other than the Northern Alliance and former exiles. The warlords must be abandoned. Removing men such as Fahim, Sayyaf, and others—perhaps by granting them ambassadorial or other posts outside the country—will weaken their followers and make disarmament much easier. Washington should also reach out to the majority of the population, especially the Pashtuns. On the security front, the United States should focus its hunt for the Taliban on those leaders who collaborated with al Qaeda, such as the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, former Defense Minister Maulvi Obeidullah, former Interior Minister Abdul Razaq, ex-Governor Maulvi Abdul Hassan, and former Deputy Prime Minister Haji Abdul Kabir. Rank-and-file Taliban, however, should not be ostracized.

As for narcotics, which could well become Afghanistan's biggest problem, the United States and the Karzai government should consider how the Taliban managed to reduce this trade. The Taliban, which banned all drugs in their final years, used a simple but effective strategy that could be replicated today: holding village elders and mullahs responsible for poppies grown in their area. Offenders were jailed for a month and their crops were burned. As a result, village leaders made sure to inspect their territories every morning before dawn (the best time for planting poppies) to make sure no illicit crops were being grown.

If Washington decides to adopt these strategies, it has a chance of helping turn Afghanistan around—or at least of improving the current situation. If it turns its back on the country, however, it will break faith with the Afghan people, who took the West at its word when it said it would not abandon them again.

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  • KATHY GANNON is Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is currently on leave from the Associated Press, where she is Bureau Chief for Afghanistan and Pakistan, countries she has reported on since 1986 and that she visited last December and January to report this article.
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