The South Asia Channel

All the President’s Strongmen

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has promised to end corruption and patronage politics, but how successful will he be, considering the nation's strongmen helped put him in office?

Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai (4-R), flanked by his two vice-presidential candidates, former warlord Abdul Rahid Dostum (C), and former justice minister, Sarwar Danish (3-R), gestures to the crowd during a gathering in the outskirts of Kunduz province, north of Kabul on March 19, 2014. Afghanistan's April 5 election is the third presidential poll since the fall of the Taliban with 11 candidates contesting the polls. AFP PHOTO/SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)

“[Afghan] warlords are a creation of the policies of the [George W.] Bush administration and [Hamid] Karzai’s weakness,” Ashraf Ghani told ABC Radio Australia when he was a candidate during the 2009 presidential campaign. He added: “Afghanistan is not a country that wishes to have warlords.” Ghani lost in the election’s first round and became known as “Mr. Three Percent,” for the number of votes he gained (155,343 votes or 3 percent).

Running again in 2014, he repeated his vows to “move from politics of muscle” to “politics based on reason,” to end corruption and appointments based on patronage, and to impose the rule of law. This time, he won the presidency and has an opportunity to implement his long-held views. He prevailed, however, in part thanks to the support of warlords and strongmen — without whom no one can rise above 3 percent of the votes in Afghanistan. Now these strongmen expect their rewards.

To complicate matters further, so do the supporters of Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, with whom Ghani created a national unity government. This presents Ghani with a major dilemma. If he does not award the strongmen with government positions (or, in most cases, leave them in the positions they already occupy), they could turn against the government, potentially triggering more violence in an already unstable security situation. Yet leaving them in office would prolong the exclusive and predatory post-2001 political order that is a major factor driving the insurgency.

The early results of a research project on disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programs in Afghanistan since 2001 provide a window into how a well-meaning state-building program led to political marginalization and strengthened the insurgency. The study — which I wrote, and which will be published early next year by the U.S. Institute of Peace — involved over 200 interviews with strongmen, insurgent commanders, and tribal elders in two northern (Kunduz and Baghlan) and two southern (Helmand and Uruzgan) provinces, as well as Afghan and Western officials. It shows the extent to which political exclusion since 2001 has led to violence and instability.

The relationships between local powerbrokers and the post-2001 Kabul government have been determined much less by their previous political affiliations and much more by whether or not they were offered a seat at the table. Across the four provinces, many of those previously excluded, including Taliban commanders, expressed hope that the new government signals a change. Many see a more inclusive government as a pillar for sustainable peace in Afghanistan.

The exclusionary nature of the current political order traces back to the 2001 Bonn Agreement, which left out Taliban leaders and rewarded former Northern Alliance commanders, especially those belonging to the late Ahmad Shah Massoud’s Shura-ye-Nazar (Supervisory Council of the North) faction, with the three security ministries. Many former jihadi commanders returned to Afghanistan and assumed government positions, guaranteeing their followers’ jobs and protection. In addition, the American-led counterterrorism campaign inadvertently offered the new powerbrokers resources, including support for their militias, to go after their personal rivals, whom they denounced as Taliban, though many had not supported the previous regime; of those who had, most surrendered or switched sides in 2001. Many of the men who were marginalized in this way joined the insurgency, which began to grow in 2004.

The succession of DDR programs implemented in Afghanistan since 2001 both reflected and deepened these existing power dynamics. The first — which was called DDR and led by the United Nations — started in 2003, and was directed at disarming militia units that had been integrated into the Afghan army (known as the Afghan Military Force [AMF], the predecessor to the current Afghan National Army [ANA]), largely under the defence ministry, which was then headed by Marshal Fahim, a former Northern Alliance commander. The goal was both to loosen Fahim’s Shura-ye Nazar faction’s control over the military, and to create a more integrated and professional armed force that responded to a chain of command, rather than to militia commanders.

Because there were few attractive reintegration opportunities for senior and mid-level commanders, they mostly reintegrated into the security forces through their ties with political patrons in Kabul. The program ended up reinforcing and institutionalizing the command structure of militias, rather than breaking the ties between commanders and fighters as intended. Those commanders without the connections needed to secure positions in the army or police, however, started operating against the government. In the south, many joined the insurgency; according to government and Taliban sources I spoke to, up to 40 percent of the commanders and fighters of the 93rd Division in Helmand reportedly sided with the Taliban.

Initiatives by the British and Dutch governments to remove abusive officials in the southern provinces as NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) expanded in 2006 also backfired. Famously, former Helmand governor Sher Mohammad Akhunzada, who was recalled to Kabul upon British request, told a newspaper that 3,000 of his men joined the Taliban when he left. A 2006 U.S. embassy cable described how former Uruzgan governor Jan Mohammad, promoted by Karzai to an advisory post in Kabul after Dutch allegations of human rights abuses and drug smuggling, actively sought to destabilize the province from Kabul — apparently unopposed by the president.

Many of the ‘Taliban’ that the British and Dutch fought in 2006 were, in reality, disgruntled local powerbrokers and former security officials who had lost their jobs and protection thanks to DDR, rather than ideologically-committed jihadis. Other militias that had been on the Ministry of Defence’s payroll, having first been disarmed by DDR, were then rearmed by Western troops to fight the Taliban. This in turn undermined the next DDR effort, the Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups Program, which followed in 2005.

In the northeast, strongmen who had participated in the first DDR program and became unemployed afterwards were also a major factor in the destabilization of areas under their command. Many simply became bosses of criminal networks, involved in drug smuggling and extortion — though this was considered an unattractive option because it lacked the prestige and access to foreign resources that their former positions in the security forces had offered. Tellingly, when ISAF and Afghan army forces raided the compound of former Brigade 733 commander Amir Gul in Baghlan, who lost his job through DDR, they found not only bomb-making material, but also letters “indicating that Gul had been actively seeking a governmental position in Baghlan.” Like many other former AMF commanders making trouble, Gul, whom Karzai released from prison in November 2006, was soon rewarded with an official job.

Karzai’s inclusion of potential troublemakers in the government may, in the short-term, have calmed tensions, but over time has created a volatile and unsustainable political order. In Uruzgan, for example, the rule of current police chief Matiullah, atop a hierarchy of fellow Popalzai (a minority tribe in Uruzgan) friends and family from his village, may provide a measure of security in main population centers, but perpetuates the exclusionary and abusive governance that has driven many Uruzgani powerbrokers into the insurgency.

Yet Matiullah’s family members campaigned for Ghani during this year’s second round, and now the police chief expects to stay in his position. While he graduated from the Kabul police academy in 2007 — six years after he started operating as a militia commander helping U.S. Special Forces hunt those he portrayed as Taliban — he is probably not what Ghani has in mind when he talks about appointing people on the basis of merit. But if fired, Matiullah will likely adopt the same destabilization tactics his uncle Jan Mohammad used when the Dutch government asked for his removal. In other words, if Matiullah stays, the factors driving the insurgency continue. If he goes, the current relative security in Uruzgan probably goes with him. This pattern is replicated across much of the country. Remove too many such men, and an all-out civil war is a real possibility.

In short, Ghani has to find a balance between including these strongmen and imposing the rule of law by disarming and removing them. This will inevitably lead to unappealing compromises, and a different outcome than that promised to his followers during the campaign. There are, however, a number of ways in which he can promote more inclusive and just governance in the provinces.

First, cabinet appointments are crucial. High-level officials in Kabul seeking to expand their influence in the provinces enable predatory provincial- and district-level commanders to operate with impunity. Without the support local strongmen enjoy from political patrons in Kabul, individual perpetrators could be arrested and their militias disbanded. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are now strong enough to provide security in many populated areas. Holding criminal commanders to account would increase the legitimacy of the government and take away some local support for the insurgency.

Second, although it will take a long time for the warring parties to trust each other enough to support disarmament, a deal with the Taliban could at least diminish the high-level support for rearmament, provided key northern powerbrokers were brought along. An agreement between all sides or, alternatively, with individual insurgent factions, could create more space to move against the most predatory local commanders. However, peace with the Taliban, and indeed the reintegration of its mid-level commanders and fighters, would entail the accommodation of its main factions, which runs the risk of again reinforcing patronage patterns if not handled well.

Last, reintegration incentives should be offered, but with conditions. Past DDR programs in Afghanistan have tended to reinforce the factionalization of the government. Without attractive formal reintegration offers, powerbrokers tended to integrate loyalists into the ANSF through patronage and with their units intact. Authorities should offer attractive reintegration opportunities in the local government and security forces for all main local factions, including the Taliban, but condition them — to the extent possible — on the individual, rather than group, reintegration of commanders and fighters, so as to break patronage ties.

As president, Ghani has vowed to tackle warlordism in Afghanistan. But he faces an old dilemma. Appointments in the provinces that are based on merit rather than patronage would have a positive effect over time. In the short term, they could trigger conflicts. He has to manoeuver carefully, calibrating his inclusion of potential spoilers into the government while disarming strongmen and imposing the rule of law.

This starts in Kabul, as cabinet members and parliamentarians support strongmen in the periphery. Ghani’s and Abdullah’s choice of ministers will impact the futures of regional and provincial actors. It is not only a matter of appointing the right people, but, also of changing their calculations regarding security. Reconciliation with the Taliban will take time, but provided that northern factions can also be brought on board, could positively impact current perceptions that rearmament (and therefore the support of strongmen in the provinces) is necessary. Furthermore, it may open the way to future prosecution of individual commanders inside and outside the ANSF who commit crimes and violate human rights.

Deedee Derksen is an independent writer and researcher. After working for years in Afghanistan as correspondent for the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant, she is pursuing a Ph.D. at the War Studies Department of King’s College London, where she is examining the impact of DDR efforts on commander networks in Afghanistan.


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