Afghanistan’s recent history is bloodied by various irascible and incorrigible warlords with personal militias (ethnicity or region-based) who run their geographical domains like personal fiefdoms. The non-Taliban and non-ISIS (or non-‘Daesh’) based Afghan warlords, who are part of the loose confederation of the ruling dispensation in Kabul are struggling to adjust to the mandated civility, cohesiveness, and transparency of the democratic processes. While most of them view the role of Pakistan (read, ISI) suspiciously and are extremely concerned about the rise of the phenomenon of ‘Daesh’ reaching their doorsteps and threatening their powers, yet, an unabated power struggle amongst each other ensures a meek defense against the common enemy, the Taliban and the ‘Daesh’-inspired forces.
With a history of fickle loyalties, these warlords have often changed sides with the simple incentive of suitcases filled with wads of dollars. Former US President George Bush admitted to the invaluable role of ‘a bargain’ via the distribution of $70 million to these mercenary warlords in the last few months of 2001, which proved extremely useful in ‘softening’ the enemy and ensuring a swift collapse of the Taliban. The ethnic diversities within Afghanistan have an uncomfortable history of bloodshed and extreme distrust amongst each other, therefore, retaining the logic of maintaining these militias and warlords to protect their own clansmen or region, even though a supposed National Government exists in Kabul. So, this brings an uneasy equation for a Tajik warlord like Atta Mohammad Noor (Governor of Balkh province) and the Uzbek warlord, General Rashid Dostum (current Vice President) to coexist and fight insurgency jointly, as their own enmity goes back to the civil war that preceded the Soviet withdrawal.
Today, with a depleted US/NATO forces presence in Afghanistan, the incumbent President Ashraf Ghani has no option but to punt on these strongmen to take on the resurgent Taliban and the additional angularity of the ‘Daesh’ threat. Irrespective of their feudal ways, it is only through the counter-brutality of these warlords that Kabul controls the restive hinterland. The survival of provinces like Kandahar and Nangarhar necessitates the pandering to the likes of ‘Lt Gen’ Abdul Raziq, Abdul Zahir Qadir and Gul Agha Sherzai who routinely use ham-handed and blunt tactics to suppress any dissenting voices, and thereby ‘control’ the entry of Taliban. Routine complaints of human right violations notwithstanding, these garrulous men control the local economy, public discourse and the developmental funding into their domains to fatten their own purses in a virtual system of ‘rentier’ economy. This challenges the effective governance and the moral position of President Ashraf Ghani who has to walk the tightrope of indulging the ‘pro-government’ warlords to do Kabul’s bidding, ignoring their frequent oppressive instincts in the face of international opprobrium, and keep retaining their services by doling out monetary largesse and positions in the governmental set-up. Even the providential opportunity of a distracted ISI (dealing with its own Frankenstein monster, the Pakistan Taliban or TTP i.e. Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan) is getting wasted in Kabul with a rag-tag official force composed of the Afghan Defence Forces and the unreliable private militias, with vested interests.
General Rashid Dostum is symptomatic of the Afghan malaise - a perennial turncoat who started out as a pro-communist general, turned into a US ally who took on the Taliban and is now a mercurial governmental authority (‘First Vice President’), who besides securing invaluable votes from his ethnic Uzbek stocks (estimated at 7-9 per cent) also muscles out any opponent, be it anti-government or even from the government. Beyond his running and bloody feud with the Tajik warlord in the adjoining Balkh province, Atta Noor Mahmood, he has been in the news recently for having abducted his rival Ahmad Ischi and subjecting him to extreme brutality and torture. Herein, lies the test of the rule-of-law for President Ashraf Ghani. He either risks prosecuting the dreaded ‘First Vice President’, General Rashid Dostum and earning the ire and angst of the strongman (especially when Ashraf Ghani is struggling to keep his allies in flock to meet the rising challenge of Taliban and ‘Daesh’), or he succumbs to the reality of Afghanistan and silently overlooks the brazen violence perpetuated by these irascible warlords. Such practical challenges that impact regime survival, delay the reforms and moderniation efforts of the instinctively democratic and committed reformist, Ashraf Ghani. With the Western powers selectively playing hardball against these warlords, these reckless caudillos tend to play one international power against the other and look for new benefactors – last year, Rashid Dostum solicited arms from Russia, ostensibly for fight against ISIS and with the Russians seeking to retain a strategic foothold in the official affairs in Kabul, Rashid Dostum re-established relationship with the Kremlin, even as Washington ignored.
Last September, a similar agreement with the former Prime Minister and the Pashtun warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (also known infamously as the “Butcher of Kabul”) raised a similar moral crisis. Expectedly, a lot of local Afghans were horrified at the sovereign compromise and the Human Rights Watch called the deal, “an affront to victims of grave abuses”. Such pardons afforded on the notorious history-sheeters is a debatable tactic that divides the public opinion and the Afghan strategists. Past experience with these warlords also points at their incorrigibility given their unreliability and intransigence, e.g. the deal with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was on the horizon for the longest time, due to his reluctance to sign the deal in the presence of foreign troops on Afghan soil – this was later captured and documented as a “point of disagreement” between the two signing parties. This culture of extending impunity from prosecution warlords is fraught with risks as proven war criminals get away scot-free, only to show their instinctive brutality whenever their individual fiefdoms are sought to be reined-in the national narrative of law and order. The Hekmatyar accord was hoped to templatise the way forward for other disgruntled Taliban or ‘Daesh’ supporting groups, but so far, no major group has made a similar dash for reconciliation.
Ashraf Ghani is saddled with individual warlords who think individually and never collectively as Afghanistan, so this constant impasse ensures that the governmental alignments remain weak and Kabul gets further enfeebled, battling its own palace intrigues. International powers partake their choices amongst these incorrigible warlords to retain, what Pakistan calls ‘strategic depth’, while this forced huddle of disparate warlords offers a sub-optimal opposition to the main threat to Afghanistan i.e. growing presence of groups like Taliban and ‘Daesh’, offering regressive, puritanical, and ultra-fundamentalist strains of governance as alternatives.
[Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is former Lt Governor of Andamanand Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. The views expressed are personal.]