- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 6, 2002

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan In his father's presence, Kaleem knelt at attention on the blood-red carpet, his turban a cloud of white coiled atop his head.

"I wish I could do what my father did," the son said. "He drove the Russians from our country. He served his tribe well."

The father sat cross-legged on a cushion, signing papers in his lap, one ear to what Kaleem was saying, one heavy arm draped over a small boy, another son, leaning up against his big frame.

"But I also want an education," said Kaleem, shy and handsome at 18. "Before" under the Taliban "we couldn't go to school. But an education would help me, as a tribal leader."

Now the father spoke. "If things settle down, I'll think about sending him abroad to get educated," Naqibullah said.

And if things don't? If Afghanistan slips back into war, destruction and killings? Might Kaleem eventually take command of his father's thousands of fighters? Could he, too, be "kommandan" warlord?

"God alone knows this," the father said.

The fraying flags hang forlornly from tall and slender bows of wood, bending beside the river Oxus in the north, above the snows in the valleys of the Hindu Kush, on the flats of the southern desert, whipped by wind. White and green, red and pink, these strips of cloth mark the graves, heaps of stone, of the "shahidan," those taken before their time. In Afghanistan, land of the warlords, the dead bear these flags beyond number.

Most estimates put the toll of those killed in Afghanistan in 23 years of war at more than 1 million, even without considering those who succumbed to malnutrition, disease and other indirect effects of war's dislocations.

The English term "warlord" gained currency early in the last century in China to describe regional military chiefs who sliced up that huge but weak land. "The whole warlord system is based on the interception of national revenue at the points where it is levied and on nothing else," a British journalist explained to readers of the time.


Tribal rivalries

The same could be said of Afghanistan late in the 20th century. In fact, this weak land had warlords long before the latest siege of wars, back at least to the 18th century, when an Afghan "state" was established under a king, sitting here in Kandahar, but the territory remained a collection of skirmishing tribal fiefdoms and regional groups, jealous of their autonomy in a multiethnic land.

It took an upheaval, in 1978, to unite Afghans. A small cadre of communists overthrew the government and imposed new ideas women's literacy, land redistribution, central control on a countryside steeped in Islamic conservatism. The countryside rebelled.

The Soviet Union poured troops across its southern border to try to save communism in Afghanistan. The resistance rallied into a broad movement, the "mujahideen," or holy warriors.

They were often tribal or ethnic militias led by self-styled generals who strutted across their pieces of mountainous Afghan landscape, dispensing money funneled to them by the Americans, Saudis and other anti-communist governments, flaunting U.S. Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, mounting attacks, often uncoordinated, on the Soviet occupiers.

These were the warlords. Some were young men, still in their 20s, like Ahmed Shah Masood, "the Lion of Panjshir," and like the tall, youthful Muslim cleric who rose to command thousands of fellow Alikozai tribesmen in the south, around Kandahar. This was Naqibullah.

As Kaleem and every Afghan boy knows, the mujahideen drove the Soviets out in 1989. But by the early 1990s, the warlords had turned on each other, in a civil war that devastated Kabul, the Afghan capital, and raged on into the mid-1990s.


Rise of the Taliban

The Afghan people grew weary of warlords and ceaseless violence. In 1995-96, a radical Islamic army called the Taliban, supported by Pakistan, gathered strength in the countryside and rolled over one tribal militia after another. Here in Kandahar, Naqibullah surrendered without a fight, and was retired to his village.

Only small pockets held out, like Gen. Rashid Dostum's in the north, which the fatigue-clad commander of ethnic Uzbeks equipped with its own currency, flag and airline.

Then, last October, the United States brought its war on terrorism to Afghanistan, to hunt down the al Qaeda terrorists and punish the Taliban government for protecting them. The Americans enlisted a platoon of warlords to their cause.

As the Taliban teetered under ground and air attack, Naqibullah summoned his fighters, some 7,000 strong, from their villages. This time, on Dec. 6, it was Naqibullah who took the Taliban's surrender without a fight.

The Taliban's defeat left behind an Afghanistan again carved into fiefs and enclaves, some ruled by commanders with official positions, such as provincial governor, some whose borders are demarcated simply by checkpoints manned by glowering young militiamen with AK-47s.


Exhausted warrior

Like many men in this exhausted land, Naqibullah looks older than his 48 years in his long salt-and-pepper beard, high forehead under gray turban, slow manner. His right lid droops at times behind his eyeglasses. He says he suffers from a neurological condition.

He was wounded three times in the "Russian war," not counting the odd shard of shrapnel that pierced him here and there. His eyes brighten nonetheless at talk of those days.

"My men and I killed 3,000 Russians," he said. And he personally? "No one killed as many as me," he boasted. "I took out 200 tanks with my rocket launchers."

Whatever the actual count, it was his battlefield prowess not his heredity, as the son of a teacher of Islam that gained Naqibullah leadership of the Alikozai.

As he spoke this day, the third day of the Eid al-Adha religious feast, old comrades-in-arms, bearded men with leathery faces, trooped in and out of the red-draped reception room, offering holiday greetings to their tribal chief.

His black Land Cruisers waited outside. But since the Taliban's fall, Naqibullah has declared himself inactive and turned his militia over to a trusted lieutenant, who plans its gradual integration into a national army.


Following his father

Habibullah Jan was 16 when he took up a gun in 1978 and joined the "holy war." His father, a tribal leader, had been imprisoned by the new communist regime. "He's still missing," Habibullah notes, for the record.

Today, Haji Habibullah is a heavyset man, with soft black beard, who chain-smokes Marlboro Lights through thick fingers. His entire adult life has been spent in fighting and exile, victory and defeat.

"We finally drove the Russians out and the communist government collapsed. But our bad luck was that the mujahideen came into power. They can't sit down together," Habibullah said. "The second bit of bad luck was that the countries that supported us abandoned us."

Now that the Americans are back, Habibullah said, the "international community" must help finance and train a new national army, to impose order on a disorderly map. "I hope that will mean the end of the warlords."

These mornings, Habibullah's men shuffle through the dust, marching, drilling, learning the discipline of a professional army. But his militiamen and others recruited to the new army are short on trainers, equipment, facilities. They're not even being paid yet; most don't have uniforms.

They're months from being able to face down any serious challenge, and Afghanistan's post-Taliban unity is already under challenge in the north, where the Uzbeks of the warlord Gen. Dostum have been plundering the homes of the region's minority Pashtuns. Many have fled to Kandahar and elsewhere in the Pashtun heartland.

The challenges lie not just in the north, however, or on a large scale.

Down the road from Habibullah's headquarters, his own fighters are in a standoff with armed men loyal to another commander, over control of a stretch of main highway.

Along such fault lines is the map of warlords drawn.

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