Power Plays in Afghanistan Laying the Groundwork for Civil War


By in Khanabad, Afghanistan

Part 2: The District Threatened by Its Protectors

Khanabad is far behind Kunduz on the German mental map of Afghanistan. In fact, it is the district adjacent to Kunduz district that, for years, simply remained too peaceful to make headlines.

Despite the occasional complaints by local notables that the peace dividend is bringing them less help than the insurgent areas, the small city of Khanabad is flourishing. The markets are full, the European Union is spending €12 million to repair an irrigation canal, there are road construction projects underway and, most of all, the city is being run by people with integrity. This is the work of district chief Nizamuddin Nashir, the last scion of a legendary Afghan industrialist dynasty. His grandfather established the now defunct Spinzar cotton mill more than a century ago. In its heyday, the Spinzar company employed 30,000 people and maintained construction companies, a porcelain factory and hotels in Kunduz and throughout northern Afghanistan.

The shoeshine boys in front of the kebab stand share the Bundeswehr and US Army's assessment of Nashir, saying that he is indeed not corrupt and is an excellent manager to boot. Nashir himself says that he doesn't know how much longer he can last. Khanabad, this small, well-functioning island, is being threatened by those who are supposed to be protecting it.

Growing Like Chickens

"It started with exactly 28 Taliban," says Nashir, a trained lawyer who has a Clark Gable moustache and dry sense of humor. They had taken up a position at the most remote end of the district, he relates. Two years ago, the intelligence service deployed the Arbakai, or anti-Taliban militias, against them. "There were 300 men at first. After they had taken care of all the Taliban, it turned into 500, then 900, and the numbers just kept growing, like at a chicken hatchery." According to Nashir, the NDS paid the militias until their numbers had grown to 1,500, and then it officially cancelled all payments.

Nevertheless, there are now close to 4,000 militia fighters in his district, "who are now just fighting each other for power and protection money, or are carrying on old feuds," says Nashir, adding that the fighting has already claimed more than 100 lives. It takes him almost a quarter of an hour to draw an organizational chart illustrating the two dozen key commanders, their feuds and their shifting alliances.

When a battle among the militias erupted in late August, complete with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, Nashir brought in the Afghan National Army to help, "to at least bring them to a cease-fire. But how long will that last?

Nashir maintains unorthodox alliances. "I have good connections to the Americans and to the Taliban. If they wanted to kill me, there would be nothing easier. But I'm not corrupt and people like me, so they leave me alone." According to Nashir, the enemies of the development of a true state in Afghanistan are mainly "the mafiosi in the government itself. They don't want a state! They just want to preserve the status quo and continue to cash in! If we had peace here, there would be no place for them anymore."

In the meantime, says Nashir, everyone is preparing for year zero after the international forces withdraw in 2014. "When the foreigners leave, the civil war begins," he says. The harbingers of that civil war could be felt in the south years ago, when commanders like Matiullah Khan in Uruzgan and Abdul Raziq in Kandahar established their own fiefdoms, with the help of the Americans and the millions they were paid to escort their convoys.

Making Their Own Mistakes

But now the once-quiet north is beginning to crumble. In Mazar-e-Sharif, Governor Mohammed Atta is using millions in revenues from oil smuggling, the drug trade and protection money to arm his own militias. Vice President Mohammed Fahim has made the notorious warlord Nazri Mohammed the mayor of Faizabad in the northeast. In Baghlan, Tajik units of the national police force and Pashtun fighters with the local police opened fire on each other in late August, after a police colonel had raped a boy from the Pashtun commander's neighborhood.

The local police, supported by the Americans and under the supervision of the Interior Ministry, was in fact supposed to fight the Taliban. But its commander, Nur ul-Haq, protected by American special forces in the province, is collecting protection money from local farmers, and his men have been accused of committing several murders. "What do you want from me?" he snaps on the phone, as the sound of beatings and screams can be heard in the background. "I have nothing to do with the government. I do as I please!"

The Americans are not repeating the mistakes of the Russians, as they are often accused of doing, but are in fact making their own. Just as they armed warlords and war criminals in the 1980s to fight the Soviet occupation and again in 2002, merely because they were the enemies of their enemies, they are now turning gangsters into allies.

But there is also growing dissatisfaction within the ISAF community of nations. An assessment by the Swedish military in Mazar-e-Sharif classified as "secret" harshly criticizes the formation of the militias. According to the report, the fighters in the so-called Critical Infrastructure Protection Project (CIPP) "will likely (…) commit more violations against basic human rights than the regular police due to lack of education and oversight." And, the report continues, it only aggravates the situation "that there is no mechanism for disciplinary actions against CIPP within the Afghan sphere. As a result this may possibly make parts of the population more prone to join or support the insurgency." Besides, the Swedish report notes, there is no plan for how the militia can be dissolved and disarmed again in the future -- as if the Americans don't care about what happens after they leave.

German Major General Markus Kneip, as the "COM RC North," or commander of all ISAF troops in northern Afghanistan, is caught in the middle. When the Swedes don't want something, the Americans pursue it with all the more determination. "I take the Swedes' concerns very seriously," he concedes. It isn't even the Americans, he adds, who are applying the pressure, "but the Afghan government. They want more men and more bases, while we are applying the brakes. Of course we don't want to support known criminals!"

In an interview with SPIEGEL, President Karzai insisted that he had never heard of the CIPP and that he is fundamentally opposed to militias that are "outside the purview of the Interior Ministry."

'A Recipe for Civil War'

The international forces intend to hand over the security of the Afghan state to the Afghans in two years' time. But the state itself has long been disintegrating from within. "Loyalty," says Thomas Ruttig, the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, is what is missing at the core. Ruttig helped the United Nations organize the loya jirga in 2002 at which then US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ensured that the warlords from the civil war were able to gain power once again -- with Karzai in tow, a man who was considered a puppet by all sides. "What we are now seeing," explains Ruttig, "is an uncontrolled proliferation of competing militias, as well as oversized armed forces whose loyalties tend to lie with their former commanders rather than the Kabul government -- and with nothing that could hold them together, especially not after a withdrawal of the Western troops. This is a recipe for civil war."

The Taliban may never have understood very much about the rest of the world. But they understand Afghanistan. They also know that it isn't about who wins first -- but about who is left in the end.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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