- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 22, 2009

SHIBERGHAN, Afghanistan | Afghanistan’s long-established warlords and tribal leaders are offering to step up their fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda if the United States sends them more money and weapons, reprising the role they played before 2001.

The offer could be tempting to President Obama, who is being urged to build up U.S. troop strength in the country in spite of rising domestic opposition to the war, especially in the aftermath of a fraud-tainted Afghan presidential election.

Afghans who led ethnic militias against the Soviet occupation two decades ago say more U.S. troops would not be needed if the United States provided them with financial and material backing.

“If you support me, I will destroy the Taliban and al Qaeda,” Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum told The Washington Times in an interview at his northern stronghold. “I don’t want to be a minister, not even the defense minister. I need to be with my soldiers. Give me the task and I will do it.”

Other ethnic leaders have made similar offers, but their support is problematic.

Gen. Dostum is one of Afghanistan’s most notorious warlords — a Russian-educated former defense minister who turned against the Soviet Union in the 1980s but became a key figure in the Russian-backed fight against the Taliban a decade later.

The U.S. backed him after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but human rights groups say he was responsible for numerous war crimes, including alleged links to the suffocation of about 2,000 Taliban prisoners of war in truck containers.

Banished by President Hamid Karzai to Turkey after he got into a political squabble with a rival, Gen. Dostum was invited back before the Aug. 20 presidential election to deliver hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uzbek votes to Mr. Karzai.

More than two dozen other warlords still hold significant power in Afghanistan. They include provincial governors Atta Mohammed Noor, Gul Agha Sherzai and Ismail Khan.

Several of these former mujahedeen, as the anti-Soviet freedom fighters were known, said they also want a shift in U.S. strategy.

“Afghanistan and its people are the only ones who can truly defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda,” said a former commander in the Northern Alliance who fought alongside Ahmad Shah Massoud against the Taliban. Mr. Massoud was killed by al Qaeda suicide bombers posing as reporters two days before the Sept. 11 attacks.

“We need weapons and resources,” said the former commander, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Mohammad. “More U.S. troops are not necessary, but we would fight alongside them if asked.

“We are not children that need to be watched over — we defeated the Soviets,” he added. “We can defeat the Taliban, but we need assistance from the U.S. Not more troops but we need the NATO commanders to listen to us, support us. So far, they are not listening and the Afghan people fear they will be abandoned. This is no way to defeat an enemy.”

On Capitol Hill, there is growing concern about sending more Americans to augment the 68,000 U.S. troops who will be in Afghanistan by the end of this year, particularly within the president’s own party.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, warned in a confidential assessment that a new strategy and additional troops would be needed to salvage the 8-year-old war. The assessment, first reported by The Washington Post and verified by a senior U.S. defense official Monday, does not request a specific number of troops, but says the Afghan army and police need to grow to about 400,000.

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