Afghanistan: Warlordism ‘Is Winning’ Versus Democracy

April 13, 2008


A former government minister accused by some of war crimes, Abdul Rashid Dostum remains a leading power broker (AFP)

Ordinary Afghans are becoming increasingly concerned about their future as the power of warlords appears to be growing in Afghanistan. RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan broadcaster Jan Alekozai spent the past month in Kabul and eastern Afghanistan, where he was often approached by students, local officials, and Afghan tribesmen who expressed their concerns about corruption, security, and distrust in the government. He spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz about those concerns.

RFE/RL: During the past month when you were in Afghanistan, outside of your own efforts to speak with people from different segments of Afghan society, how were ordinary Afghans able to approach you and what were some of their concerns?

Jan Alekozai: I participated, for example, in a meeting [in Jalalabad]. It was the celebration of orange blossoms — a huge traditional gathering with 10,000 to 12,000 people. Someone announced my name — Jan Alekozai from Radio Free Afghanistan. When the meeting was over, hundreds of people approached me — students from high schools and from universities. They were asking, “Do the Westerners and the Americans know our problems — that aid money is coming from the Westerners but it goes into the pockets of [corrupt] people in the government offices.”

That was their concern when they talked to me because they know I am running a call-in program on the airwaves of Radio Free Afghanistan. There were lots of concerns. They were desperately approaching me and asking those things — if we could bring their concerns to government officials. And they were expressing their concerns about their future and their lives, security, and education.

RFE/RL: What did Afghans tell you bothered them most about the security situation in Afghanistan?

Alekozai: People think now that [troops from] 37 countries or more are there in Afghanistan the security should be much, much better. They should terminate the warlordism and the private militias. [Instead], those people have connections with the governmental officials and they still have protection from the government. And that brings insecurity. In Kabul, especially, but also elsewhere in other parts of the country.

People want the international community to stop the private militias — the groups that are so powerful. That’s the main concern of the people, for security. And also, they should promote democracy. Real democracy. And work for that.

People are scared. They cannot say anything because of [the warlords]. We are an international radio [station]. We do something. But our correspondents, even, cannot say something against those warlords because they are very powerful. They could be killed easily or harmed easily. That’s the situation. Everybody is asking why the international community doesn’t hear.

Warlord Parliament

RFE/RL: Who do Afghans think is responsible for the strengthening of warlords in Afghanistan today?

Alekozai: No. 1, the international community — or especially the Americans. They say: “Why have the Americans brought those people into power — the warlords? They knew they were warlords.” And [Afghans] can name them for you — from the vice president to the deputy ministers and ministers. Quite a few were brought from outside.

In parliament, well-known warlords are there. In that situation, how do you expect [the] implementation of democracy and the rule of law — unless those people are removed from their positions and weakened, at least, and educated people are given a chance — [those] who think positively about the betterment of their country. Not for themselves. Those [warlords] are collecting money and putting the money in their pockets. They do little or nothing for the society and for the people.

RFE/RL: How do Afghans think the warlords have been able to consolidate this power?

Alekozai: In parliament, 65 percent [of the lawmakers] are warlords. There is no question. A few of them are ordinary Afghans or politicians. But most of them are warlords. They are much stronger than they were six years ago or five years ago, because now they get more money, more security from the international community, more bodyguards. They get stronger and stronger.

RFE/RL: Are there any specific examples of complaints from people about the increased power of warlords?

Alekozai: If you started from parliament or from the high governmental officials, you can see that warlordism is stronger than in years past. Television and other media cannot operate independently, if they do something and the next day they are in trouble in the parliament or with the high governmental officials.

Foreigners Must Deal With Warlords

So if there is a conflict in Afghanistan now between warlordism versus democracy, which is winning?

Alekozai: At present, the warlordism is winning. If the international community does not pay attention — strongly — not by words. By action. They should eliminate the warlords. [The international community] thinks some of them are very strong. But they don’t have public support.

I’m stressing this point. They are not that strong. They don’t have public support because always they were thinking about themselves, their own pockets. They invest money outside of the country. People say that the Westerners, or in some ways they say the Americans, support these warlords. Otherwise they are nothing. They [say the warlords] were not powerful but [the Americans] made them powerful. And that was a main concern [of the Afghans].

It’s very easy to remove them and bring in some people who have no connection with the warlords. And that would be real democracy that the people would enjoy.

Does this disdain for warlords contribute to feelings of anti-Americanism or to negative views about the international community?

Alekozai: I never heard people saying that they don’t want Americans or international forces in their land. That was interesting for me. Even mullahs — the clerics I talked with and tribesmen. There were just a few who — like Taliban or pro-Taliban people — who said, “Oh, they are infidels.”

But the majority of people, they never talked about that issue — why [foreign troops] are here. [Ordinary Afghans] think there is some propaganda from other neighboring countries saying, “They are occupying your country.” But to be honest, I haven’t heard that from [ordinary Afghans]. They say, “Those people are here to help us.” The only problem is that they don’t trust the [Afghan] government. They also think that money is coming [to Afghanistan] from the international community and from the Americans. But it goes into the wrong hands and into the wrong pockets.

New Schools, Old Thinking

What about the reconstruction work being done by international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or by foreign troops on the provincial reconstruction teams, the so-called PRTs?

People say their general feeling is that they think the PRTs are doing well. They trust them because they say they are foreigners and they are not corrupt — so far. But they don’t like NGOs and there is no question that they don’t trust the Afghan government at all. Still, people hope the PRTs will be doing well and probably will do something about road construction, about schools and other things. People count on PRTs.

RFE/RL: U.S. officials often talk about the schools that have been built by PRTs as a positive step in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Is this enough?

Alekozai: I’ve seen many schools that have been built and that are being built right now in different parts of eastern Afghanistan. There’s no doubt about it. Nice schools. But there is no teacher. No chairs — students are sitting on the floor. No electricity. No running water. No books. No [teaching materials]. No lab. What will be the quality of education in that situation?

RFE/RL: International media also report about greater rights and freedom for Afghan women since the collapse of the Taliban regime. How did that situation appear to you in the provincial regions as opposed to Kabul?

About the civil society or civic society, the participation of women is zero in the provinces. Girls are going to school. There is no doubt about it. But they cannot walk, for example, in a park — or even with their families.

Still the work is not done for the promotion of democracy and freedom. I think the culture is the same, with little changes in the mentality of the society. It is very bad. And it will continue like that now six years after the Taliban. The mentality is still very strong. The Talibanization or fundamentalist ideas are still very, very strong.

Presidential Challenger

All of these insights from ordinary Afghans suggests that Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s popularity has declined dramatically since he was elected in 2004. Does Karzai have a chance to win reelection in the ballot that is scheduled for 2009?

Alekozai: As a journalist, one should talk with various people or people [with different political perspectives.] I learned [from doing this that something like] 25 percent or 20 percent will vote for Karzai. And I have doubts about [whether Karzai will even win that much of the vote.] It will be very difficult for him to get 20 percent. They need an alternative or another government.

RFE/RL: Are ordinary Afghans talking about any potential candidate who they think would help reign in the power of warlords?

In the eastern part of Afghanistan — even in Kabul — people were talking [about this] when I was sitting with them. They said [former Interior Minister] Ali Ahmad Jalali. His name was being mentioned by people now. [They were saying] he is coming and he is a stronger man and he can do something. He can eliminate warlordism. They were talking about him, saying that if he is [a candidate] that people will vote for him and he will be the winner. That was the expectation of some when I talked to them.