Our Faustian Bargains in Afghanistan

Ex-Warlords Continue to Hold Back Democratic Governance

Afghan elections illuminate how ex-warlords’ influence continues to hold back democratic governance and threaten political stability, write Caroline Wadhams, Colin Cookman, and Christina Misunas.

An election poster in Kabul, Afghanistan features first vice president Mohammad Qasim Fahim, Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai, and second vice president Mohammad Karim Khalili. (AP/Manish Swarup)
An election poster in Kabul, Afghanistan features first vice president Mohammad Qasim Fahim, Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai, and second vice president Mohammad Karim Khalili. (AP/Manish Swarup)

Profiles: Afghan Power Brokers

Eight years after American forces first entered Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban regime, the Obama administration is locked in an intense debate over U.S. strategy in the country. The administration is faced with rising domestic opposition to the war, the highest troop casualties in the conflict to date, and an Afghan presidential election process marred with large-scale fraud to benefit incumbent President Hamid Karzai. And it has consequently delayed immediate approval of theater commander General Stanley McChrystal’s request for additional troops and resources as it reassesses the way forward.

The administration appears to be debating between a population-focused, counterinsurgency strategy that views the defeat of the insurgency as a necessary condition for stabilizing Afghanistan, or a counterterrorism strategy that prioritizes targeted special operations raids and remote Predator strikes on members of the international Al Qaeda network over the more locally focused Taliban insurgency.

The administration will have to contend with Afghanistan’s entrenched powerbrokers and former warlords, regardless of which approach it pursues. But any strategy must recognize how counterterrorism cooperation with these figures works at cross purposes to the simultaneous efforts to build a state capable of resisting the Taliban insurgency.

More than 30 years of war have devastated Afghan political society, and power has accumulated to those able to take it through force of arms, smuggling and narcotics revenues, and the support of international actors seeking local proxies. The majority of the actors discussed in this analysis, commonly identified as “warlords,” are veteran commanders of the anti-Soviet jihad, the civil war period, and the fight against the Taliban. A few—most notably the president’s younger brother Ahmad Wali Karzai—have emerged in the contemporary post-Taliban political system. Recent reports indicate that Karzai continues to receive CIA payments in exchange for counterterrorism assistance, despite his alleged involvement in Kandahar-area drug trafficking and electoral fraud. Such ties likely continue with other powerbroker figures as well. Relatively few of these figures now command standing militias on the scale they once did, but most have maintained elements of their old patron-client networks even as they have taken the reins of the government apparatus.

The recent presidential election process clearly demonstrates that these figures continue to exert outsize influence over the political process, constraining the development of representative democratic governance. President Karzai has focused on co-opting these leaders over the past several years and particularly in the run-up to the election in order to deliver their blocs of supporters to the polls. The most high-profile examples of this phenomenon were the selection of Marshal Muhammad Qasim Fahim as a vice presidential running mate, despite the international community’s objections to his history of human rights abuses and ties to narcotics trafficking, and the return of former chief of army staff General Abdul Rashid Dostum to campaign for Uzbek support.

U.S. attitudes toward these power brokers and ex-warlords have been ambivalent at best, and some actors have been alternatively embraced and pushed aside. Figures such as Gul Agha Sherzai, Hazrat Ali, and Ahmed Wali Karzai offer U.S. special forces and intelligence operatives local security proxies and intelligence that can be used against suspected Al Qaeda terrorists and insurgent commanders. Reports indicate that Karzai, for example, secured the former home of Mullah Omar and provided it as a facility for American intelligence operatives in Kandahar, brokered talks with selected Taliban insurgents, and organized a paramilitary “Kandahar Strike Force” to assist in counterterrorism operations.

President Karzai, who has to date opted not to form his own political party, had a limited national power base when he took office and appointed these figures to governorships, advisory positions, and ministerial posts to try to co-opt their support under the auspices of the central government. The international community and the United States did raise objections to abuses by some newly rehabilitated warlords, and succeeded in pushing Karzai to remove or transfer a few—most notably Fahim and Sherzai—but this pressure took place on a selective rather than systematic basis.

The United States focused its strategic attention predominantly on the pursuit of Al Qaeda and operations in Iraq, and ultimately paid little attention to projects such as the Afghan-led 2006 Action Plan for Peace, Justice, and Reconciliation, which called for removing human rights violators from government positions and instituting measures of transitional justice, truth, and reconciliation. Indeed, former mujahedeen serving in the Afghan parliament passed a blanket amnesty law for past human rights abuses in 2007, and while President Karzai refrained from signing the law, he did not veto it either, leaving its status unclear. Karzai rhetorically embraced additional oversight measures on presidential appointments, merit-based promotions, and increased training and salaries for the judicial sector, but these have remained third-order priorities for much of the conflict to date.

U.S. strategies that focus on the Al Qaeda network and targeted counterterrorism strikes are unlikely to shift this pattern of selective engagement with Afghanistan’s powerbrokers. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations committee on counterterrorism efforts against Al Qaeda, analyst Peter Bergen suggested that, “we need not fewer warlords, but more warlords” to prosecute a successful counterterrorism campaign. As Ahmed Wali Karzai’s case indicates, these figures’ control over local areas offers potentially better prospects for successful intelligence work against foreign terror operatives than the more disengaged central government.

Yet the continued presence and empowerment of these figures has serious risks for long-term stability in Afghanistan. Local warlords can exploit American backing to selectively target rivals as well as terrorists, and their continued presence in government roles delegitimizes the Afghan government and opens space for the insurgency. The localized power structures that give these figures power also limit their ability to exert influence on a national scale, leaving the government vulnerable to an insurgency that transcends tribal and local structures. And while the Taliban insurgency is believed to derive a greater portion of its funding from international donors than the narcotics economy, the unchecked involvement of figures such as Ahmed Wali Karzai and other power brokers in the drug trade further weakens the rule of law and has serious health and security consequences for the broader region.

The Karzai government and international community’s inability or unwillingness to empower a justice sector capable of prosecuting the powerful, curbing abuses of authority, and instituting a process of transitional justice, truth, and reconciliation for past crimes serves as a principle source of support for the insurgency. The Taliban garners the support of the populace in its battle against the government through a mix of political ideology, intimidation, and coercion. The Taliban appealed to Afghans during their initial rise to power in Kandahar in 1994 on the promise of swift and transparent justice—a political program they continue to advance in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan today.

It is difficult to make accurate assessments of Afghan public opinion, but the attempts at polling that have been made consistently show that the Afghan people want the government to take action against these figures and that they view corruption within the government as a top concern. A 2006 survey by Integrity Watch Afghanistan found that nearly 60 percent of respondents considered the post-2001 period the most corrupt period in the country in the past 50 years, compared to only 9 percent who said corruption was highest during the period of Taliban rule. A 2004 Afghan Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium survey at the beginning of Karzai’s first term in office found that 88 percent supported reducing the power of former commanders in Afghanistan, and another Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission poll in the same year found that more than 75 percent said it was “very important” for those who had committed past crimes be brought to justice.

More recent polling by the Asia Foundation in 2009 found that those identifying warlords specifically as the main source of insecurity in their area had dropped to 7 percent, but that broader concerns about corruption and the government’s failure to deliver services remained strong. Afghan attitudes toward the international community have steadily soured as the Karzai administration has reincorporated warlords back into its government structures without establishing effective checks on their abuse of power. These warlords may offer tactical assistance against terrorist targets, but American association with these figures taints Afghan perceptions of U.S motivations in the country.

Removing former mujahadeen commanders and regional power brokers from their positions within the government will not have a direct effect against the Taliban’s continued military operations, which rely on targeted coercion and international funding streams for their effectiveness just as heavily as public disaffection with the government. But prioritizing accountability and the rule of law is a critical step toward acknowledging that Afghanistan’s government and the international community will only stifle the Taliban insurgency by out-governing, not out-fighting, the insurgency.

American policymakers, the international community, and Afghan leaders face a critical choice in how to engage with these local power brokers and ex-warlords. Making additional enemies by confronting these powerful figures is certainly an unappealing prospect for American policymakers given the rising violence in Afghanistan and waning political support at home. But continued acquiescence to abuses carries a cost for the country’s future stability. They may offer short-term tactical assistance against local rivals or international terrorists in return for American support, but the sustainability of perpetuating relationships with warlords in the face of an insurgency that feeds on them is far from guaranteed.

Profiles: Afghan Power Brokers

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Caroline Wadhams

Senior Fellow

Colin Cookman

Policy Analyst