Feuding in Northern Afghanistan
US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and US Ambassador to Afghanistan Robert Finn met with warlords in Mazar-i Sharif Monday. The factional fighting between soldiers loyal to Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum and Tajik commander Muhammad Atta has roiled the hinterlands of Mazar in the past few months. The fighting is local, and often appears to break out with no order from the commander. But it is interfering in the development of the north and the return of security.
Northern Afghanistan has the mineral wealth and the infrastructure to help lead the rest of the country back to economic health if its leaders can get their act together. It is not clear, however, that just having high-level meetings with the warlords will resolve the problems. They are warlords. This is what they do–fight for territory and perks. Until the US can train a national army and can demobilize or incorporate these militias, they will likely go on fighting with one another. I suppose they can be kept partially in check by the threat of the US use of air forces against them if they get out of hand. But actually attacking Afghans now is politically difficult and could create a backlash, especially in the Pushtun south where a lot of people do not like the Americans to begin with.
The other possibility is to withhold international aid disbursements as a way of influencing the warlords. This seems to be being tried. I am not sure it can succeed.
Down the road there may be a showdown. President Karzai is already talking of sacking regional governors who can’t keep the peace. This is mainly bravado, since Dostum and his forces, and Atta and his, could at the moment wipe the mat with Karzai and his tiny armed force in Kabul.
The brilliant strategy the US employed to overthrow the Taliban, of enlisting the old Mujahidin warlords in the effort, has now come back to haunt us. With Afghanistanis again in danger of starving in large numbers this winter and in desperate need of development aid, the feuds of the warlords are too costly to be borne. But there are few good options for stopping them.
Khalilzad expressed himself sanguine about the recent elections in Pakistan, which put the fundamentalist parties in charge of the Northwest Frontier, where al-Qaeda and Taliban elements are still hiding out. The parties say they want to expel US armed forces and FBI agents tracking down the terrorists. Khalilzad says that security is a Federal responsibility and that fundamentalist control of the provinces is irrelevant. This point is probably true, since the army will decide these things. But the problem is that there are many sympathizers in the army with the fundamentalists. And, moreover, the fundamentalists may well be a swing vote or a coalition partner in the Federal parliament, so they aren’t just a problem in the provinces.