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Karzai Powerless As Warlords Battle
By 0aApril Witt
The Washington Post
Sunday 18 May 2003
Afghanistan's Leader Unable to Prevent Violence
MEYMANEH, Afghanistan -- Assassins with their turbans wrapped to 0ahide their faces ambushed a convoy on a main street in the middle of an April 0aafternoon, executing Rasul Beg, a mid-level local militia commander, and 0aigniting one of the fiercest battles between rival warlords ever waged in this 0anorthern town.
The gunfight lasted 20 hours, killed 13 people, including an 0a8-year-old boy, trapped international aid workers and left President Hamid 0aKarzai's administration struggling to extend the rule of law to this provincial 0acapital about 300 miles northwest of Kabul, the capital.
"I'm in a bad situation," said Enayatullah Enayat, a former 0aSupreme Court justice whom Karzai recently sent here to serve as governor of 0asurrounding Faryab province. "The warlords have men with guns and I don't. They 0amight kill me."
The battle of Meymaneh and its aftermath, as recounted in 0ainterviews with witnesses and participants, is in many ways the woeful tale of 0aall of Afghanistan 18 months after the fall of the Taliban and the installation 0aof Karzai's interim administration. Despite military and financial support from 0athe United States and its allies, the Afghan government has been unable to 0aassert its authority over a country riven by ethnic, religious and cultural 0adifferences and shattered by decades of war.
The central government appears powerless in Meymaneh, beset by 0aits own factional disputes and broke because warlords refuse to send it revenue 0afrom taxes they collect. Despite repeated disarmament talks, there are more 0agunmen today than there were a year ago in Faryab province, an agricultural and 0arug-weaving center on the border with Turkmenistan. None of them belongs to the 0acountry's newly founded national army.
Ordinary citizens are fed up, knowing 0athat violence is likely to erupt again at any moment. And critics charge that, 0ain Meymaneh and elsewhere, the Karzai government is failing to wield 0aaggressively its most important weapon: legitimacy.
From Kabul, Karzai demanded that the two local commanders who had 0aled the deadly battle of Meymaneh travel to the nation's capital to answer for 0atheir actions. They didn't go.
Enayat, the governor, signed a U.N.-brokered agreement promising 0athat a commission would investigate Beg's slaying and report its findings within 0athree weeks. The deadline passed without any arrests, while one of the alleged 0aprime suspects crossed the border to Turkmenistan.
It might be that only the presence of U.N. monitors and about two 0adozen U.S. Special Forces soldiers camped out conspicuously at the Meymaneh 0aHotel has kept the militiamen from killing again.
Angry that the central government has not arrested anyone for 0aBeg's murder, Attah Mohammed, the powerful regional leader of Beg's Islamic 0amilitia faction, said the Karzai administration must disarm warlords in the 0anorth and nationwide now, while the U.S.-led foreign coalition still rests its 0aprotective gaze on Afghanistan.
"I will insist and ask the government: Where are you?" Attah 0aMohammed said in an interview in his headquarters in Mazar-e Sharif, northern 0aAfghanistan's major city. "Just do your job. Collect the weapons. Who will be 0athe man to resist against you? Nobody.
Hardly a disinterested party, Attah 0aMohammed played a pivotal role in the violence that engulfed Meymaneh, 0aeffectively fighting a proxy war for control of the town. Yet he insisted that 0ait was time for the authorities in Kabul to rise above the factional disputes 0aand take charge. "The government's orders must be obeyed," he said. "It must not 0abe dishonored. . . . This golden chance must be used."
Since the fall of the Taliban, Meymaneh, the capital of Faryab 0aprovince, has been dominated by Gen. Hashim Habibi, 38, the powerful commander 0aof Division 200, a militia ostensibly loyal to ethnic Uzbek leader Abdurrashid 0aDostum and his Jumbush-i-Milli party. Key jobs in the local government have gone 0ato Jumbush, in a kind of machine politics conducted with bullets, not 0aballots.
Suddenly last year, Habibi got competition. A second force 0aarrived in Meymaneh -- Division 24, tied to Attah Mohammed and the 0aJamiat-i-Islami party, whose military chief is Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim.
Dostum was livid. His forces had battled Attah Mohammed's around 0aMazar-e Sharif for more than a year. Now it looked as though Attah and Fahim 0awanted to challenge his control of the north by loosening his proxy's grip on 0aMeymaneh.
"General Dostum's role in the north is the will of the people," 0asaid his second-in-command, Gen. Humayun Fawzi. "Nobody can change it."
Jumbush and Jamiat vied aggressively for control of Meymaneh. At 0aleast four police chiefs came and went rapidly as neither party would accept a 0achief who was a member of the rival faction.
As each militia recruited soldiers from throughout the region, 0athe number of gunmen in Meymaneh increased dramatically. So did the crime rate. 0aIn three weeks this winter, there were 20 armed robberies, according to Sakhi 0aMohammad, a U.N. field assistant from Meymaneh.
"People were obligated to patrol their neighborhoods," he said. "They couldn't sleep. If they slept, people were robbed."
Over the past two months, the militias established dozens of new 0abases. Commanders for both groups turned their homes into encampments with 0asoldiers and weapons. "The people hated their presence," Mohammad said. "But 0athey couldn't do anything."
Tensions escalated on April 5, when Jumbush commandeered some 0aJamiat supply trucks and Jamiat arrested four Jumbush soldiers in 0aretaliation.
Gen. Farouq Qati, 38, commander of Jamiat's Division 24, heard 0athat a local Jumbush official had hired gunmen to assassinate him, he said. He 0astopped sleeping at his home because Jumbush's intelligence chief lives directly 0abehind him. He switched cars frequently when moving about.
Just before 3 p.m. on April 8, a Division 24 convoy passed the 0aAfghan Red Crescent Society office in Meymaneh. Farouq, in the lead, spied 0agunmen and ordered his driver to accelerate. Assassins opened fire on the third 0avehicle, in which the general had been riding a few hours earlier. They killed 0aBeg, 47, a commander of no great power or fame, along with at least two 0abodyguards.
As military radios crackled with the news, the two militias 0aclashed in strategic locations. Habibi and Farouq both later contended in 0ainterviews that their soldiers never attacked, only defended.
Workers at the World Food Program facility headed for their 0acement bunker, as neighboring aid workers scrambled to safe rooms stocked with 0afood and water. A worker with Save the Children U.S.A. scaled a wall, hoping to 0adash to the food program's bunker, but spied tanks in the street and turned 0aback.
In Torpakhtu, a village of dried-mud houses on the city 0aoutskirts, 8-year-old Zainullah was outside playing when a bullet struck him in 0athe head. His father laid his dying child on the back of a donkey and walked an 0ahour and a half to the nearest doctor.
When the evening call to prayer sounded from the mosque 0aloudspeakers, soldiers stopped fighting just long enough for the caller to 0achant: "God is great. . . . Everybody is asked to come to prayer."
But in villages throughout the region, another call was sounding: 0aSend the cavalry. Hundreds of soldiers loyal to Jumbush or Jamiat mounted horses 0aand headed for Meymaneh.
In Mazar-e Sharif, U.N. monitors assembled high-ranking 0arepresentatives of Dostum and Attah Mohammed to travel to Meymaneh and negotiate 0aa cease-fire. In front of the monitors, Dostum and Attah Mohammed ordered their 0acommanders by phone not to attack, but each apparently suspected the other of 0aprivately telling his troops to vanquish the opponent before the peace 0adelegation arrived. Attah Mohammed conceded in an interview that he sent a 0ahelicopter to re-supply his Meymaneh militiamen.
"I told Dostum, 'I'm not a child. I won't allow any of my 0acommanders to even start the engine of one tank without my order,' " Attah said. "Of course, Dostum first told his soldiers to shoot with tanks. Then he said, 'Oh, those impolite soldiers shot with tanks.' "
The U.N. convoy waited until 0aafter daylight April 9 to enter the city. Dostum's and Attah Mohammed's 0arepresentatives, both generals, ordered their respective local commanders to 0ahold their fire. A U.S. warplane circled overhead to underscore the message.
After the shooting stopped, a mob of irate townspeople marched in 0aan unprecedented demonstration to demand that the dueling militias give up their 0aguns and get out of town.
At the Meymaneh Hotel, the U.N. delegation had 0ajust sat down to work on a cease-fire agreement requiring both militias to move 0aout of the town center when the protesters stormed their meeting, smashed 0afurniture and beat peacemakers and combatants alike. Demonstrators pummeled at 0aleast one Jamiat representative, and the U.N. representatives who tried to 0ashield them, while some Jumbush negotiators slipped away.
Enayat, the governor, who had started his new job just days 0abefore, addressed the crowd and promised to help free the town from the terror 0aof gunmen. People lifted him on their shoulders. "I told them you have rights," 0ahe recalled. "The government of Karzai has to keep security."
In the following days, U.N. monitors prodded recalcitrant 0amilitiamen to put their weapons onto trucks and move to new bases on the 0aoutskirts of town. A convoy of U.S. Special Forces soldiers rode into the city 0aas people cheered and threw flowers.
Yet another police chief arrived, one not aligned with Jumbush or 0aJamiat. The central government sent him, with 53 national policemen, to 0aestablish a neutral security force. But the 53 officers were in town only a few 0adays before someone in Kabul ordered them home. Jamiat blamed Jumbush loyalists 0ain the central government for the recall. Some Jumbush loyalists said the new 0aofficers weren't needed.
Too cautious to talk party politics, the new police chief offered 0aan Afghan proverb: "For the water to be clean downstream, it has to be clean 0aupstream."
The city administration, meanwhile, is broke. "The gunmen took 0aall the money that was supposed to be for the city and put it in their pockets," 0asaid Abdul Aziz Ghafordshad, 67, whom Enayat recently appointed mayor. "The 0agovernor and I are prepared to cut into their profits. We're taking a huge risk. 0aBut nobody is backing us up."
Once international monitors leave, Enayat said, Meymaneh's 0adueling militias will be able to return to shoot up the town. "They could be 0aback here in 10 minutes," he said.
The governor said he would like to keep his promises to banish 0athe warlords and bring Beg's killers to justice, if only he knew how. "Right 0anow," he said. "I can't do anything against these armed people."