- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2004

GHAZNI, Afghanistan — Outside the commander’s guest room, soldiers crouched around a paperback-sized shortwave radio in the twilight, listening to a Western news service’s Persian-language broadcast.

The report described a campaign trip by President Hamid Karzai to his hometown, Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan.

During the late April visit, the security-conscious Mr. Karzai, who narrowly escaped assassination there in 2002, inspected highway construction projects — from a helicopter.

The president, who visits Washington this week, also made a speech in which he invited former Taliban militants to join his government, suggesting that only “about 150” top-ranking leaders closest to al Qaeda would be considered unacceptable.

He elaborated in an interview with CNN yesterday:

“With regard to the former Taliban, we want to bring back those Taliban that are not criminals. They’re from Afghanistan. They should come back to this country and live a normal life. They should come back away from Pakistan. They should come and stay in Afghanistan. We want normalcy to return to Afghanistan.”

In response to Mr. Karzai’s latest initiative, the commander — a senior provincial security official — shook his head in disgust.

“Isn’t that a half-baked policy?” he said. “We fought to drive out those ignorant [people] and their Pakistani and Arab masters. Now the government is groveling and inviting them back.”

Mr. Karzai’s effort to bring militants into the fold has not been limited to the Taliban. He also has courted officials of the Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) faction, whose 1992-95 artillery bombardments damaged much of Kabul and killed about 40,000 noncombatants.

In 2002, HIA chief Gulbuddin Hekmatyar allied himself with Taliban remnants and is now thought to be hiding in remote mountains along the Pakistani border.

A delegation of midranking HIA officials, purportedly at odds with Hekmatyar, visited Kabul in mid-May at Mr. Karzai’s invitation to discuss participation in the government after elections scheduled for September. But some security officials are questioning the wisdom of cooperating with the group.

“There’s no way of knowing whether they have really had a change of heart,” said a senior intelligence official in Kandahar.

“It’s more likely Hekmatyar is simply pursuing a dual approach, fighting alongside the Taliban in case they get the military upper hand, and meanwhile infiltrating his officials into the government to keep that [political] option open.”

“Like the [Irish Republican Army’s] ‘hard men,’” says David Isby, author of an overview of the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan titled “War in a Distant Country,” Hekmatyar’s followers “will keep their guns, while trying to get representatives elected to parliament.”

Police in the Afghan city of Kunduz said yesterday there were signs that Hekmatyar followers were involved in the killing of 11 Chinese construction workers as they slept last week.

Mr. Karzai, who enjoys the broad backing of Washington and the United Nations, faces no serious opposition in his bid for another term as president in September elections, assuming a credible vote can be held in all parts of the country.

But with little debate, he has assumed autocratic prerogatives such as appointing provincial governors from Kabul instead of allowing local elections.

His latest appointments have included a former HIA commander, Bashir Baghlani, in southwestern Farah province, and a former Taliban collaborator, Kheyal Mohammad, in southeastern Zabul.

The Ghazni official’s remarks reflect alarm among Afghans who played the key role in defeating the Taliban and bringing Mr. Karzai to power — the leaders and grass-roots supporters of the Northern Alliance.

Most of its members spent more than two decades battling Soviet, Pakistani and Arab intruders and the Afghans who worked with them. Most still call themselves mujahideen, or holy warriors — just as they did in the 1980s when the enemy was the Red Army.

Many now hold official posts, especially in the security forces, throughout the countryside under Mr. Karzai’s provincial governors.

Concern that former Taliban members and their supporters will find their way back into positions of influence is sharpest among officials from the non-Pashtun ethnic groups, who make up 60 percent of the Afghan population.

But even among Pashtuns — the southern- and eastern-based ethnic group from which the Taliban drew its members — there are similar qualms. Most Afghan officials spoke on the condition that they not be named, citing their wariness about offending Mr. Karzai’s backers in Washington.

Ghazni’s arid high plains are broken occasionally by lava ridges and green croplands. The outlying districts are predominantly Pashtun, but Ghazni city is dominated by Persian-speaking Hazaras and Tajiks and there are many Hazara villages in the countryside as well.

Ghazni is also a front-line province in Afghanistan’s antiterror campaign, adjacent to Pakistani border areas where U.S. and Afghan troops clash regularly with militants.

“[The Taliban] have really stepped up their activities during the last few weeks,” said one provincial security official, speculating that the militants are trying to disrupt voter registration for the September elections.

Backers of the Northern Alliance say they are not surprised to see Mr. Karzai reaching out to the Taliban militants, noting that the movement was born in his hometown.

Although it was principally Northern Alliance forces, backed by U.S. air support, that overthrew the militants in 2001, Cabinet members such as Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani repeatedly have branded them “war criminals” and said they are “as bad as the Taliban.”

Mr. Ghani and many other members of Mr. Karzai’s inner circle are sons of the feudal Pashtun aristocracy that ran Afghanistan before the communist takeover in 1978.

“Hostility to the Northern Alliance is widespread among … returning exiles, who are finding they have limited power on the ground,” said Mr. Isby, the Afghanistan specialist.

Northern Alliance members are stung by charges from the new technocrats in Kabul accusing them of “warlordism” and war crimes.

They challenge the now-accepted wisdom among Kabul-based diplomats and aid workers that they ruled irresponsibly after driving out the Soviets in 1989.

Anthony Davis, who has reported from Afghanistan for Time magazine, Jane’s Defense Weekly and others since the early 1980s, has described as a “pervasive myth” that the Taliban came to power because of “lawlessness and anarchy” in the areas it conquered.

“Administration, services and schooling in these regions were far in advance of anything delivered by the Taliban, [whose] energies were focused almost exclusively on war,” he wrote.

The Taliban militants, he adds, “fought their way into regions that were at peace and in many instances recognized as being relatively well-administered.”

By the end of last month, news reports say, Mr. Karzai was scrambling to mollify Northern Alliance leaders upset at his overtures to the Taliban. Some reports said he had promised key ministries to Northern Alliance members in return for supporting his election bid.

This, in turn, dismayed the same U.N. election consultants and Kabul-based diplomats who had been largely silent over Mr. Karzai’s overtures to the Taliban remnants.

Quoted in the Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post, they echoed the complaints of technocrats in the government that the meetings with Northern Alliance officials involved “backroom” deals and would promote public cynicism by unjustly rewarding armed warlords.

Northern Alliance loyalists retorted that it was the technocrats who were trying to coax the worst thugs of all — former Taliban and Hekmatyar followers — to join the government.

As for the armed power of the regional warlords, they noted, the entire populace of Afghanistan is heavily armed.

The real issue, argued Mohammad Es’Haq — a confidant of late anti-Soviet and later anti-Taliban resistance leader Ahmad Shah Masood, is that Mr. Karzai is struggling to extend his authority and win re-election with no popular base of his own.

“Local leaders can’t be imposed on the people. They emerge and are tested in times of crisis,” said Mr. Es’Haq, who was director of state-run Kabul Radio and Television until December.

“The [Northern Alliance] mujahideen will remain leaders in their communities for a long time, because of historic, linguistic and ethnic ties, and the sense of security they project at a time when the people are not very sure about the future.”

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