- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s historic Dec. 4 meeting with two Afghan Northern Alliance warlords has failed to attract the attention it deserves. This unprecedented summit with Abdul Rashid Dostum and Mohammad Ustad Atta has been almost overlooked by a press corps determined, as Newsweek did this week, to prematurely pronounce Afghanistan a failure. Ironically, Mr. Rumsfeld’s mission to Mazar-e-Sharif represents the first real turning point in bringing the historically factionalized Afghans under the leadership of President Hamid Karzai’s government.

Since summer, joint U.S. and British teams have been working in Northern Afghanistan to persuade the warlords to relinquish their Soviet-era heavy weapons, especially tanks, mortars and armored vehicles. This is a vital step in establishing the central government’s control over the country. By the time of Mr. Rumsfeld’s arrival, Tajik warlord Atta had surrendered 140 heavy weapons, representing 85 percent of his declared arsenal. Uzbek warlord Dostum had turned in 110 pieces, amounting to 35 percent of his weaponry.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s mission was intended to show Messrs. Atta and Dostum that disarmament and unity with Kabul is the way forward. Neither warlord is likely to relinquish all heavy weapons until bargaining for positions in the Karzai government concludes. Mr. Rumsfeld’s timing — on the eve of Operation Avalanche, the new U.S. offensive against Taliban forces in the South — dramatically underscored America’s commitment to securing Afghanistan.

That commitment is crucial. Mr. Dostum is convinced that war in Afghanistan is not over. He interprets the fact that international aid workers cannot operate in half of Afghanistan’s provinces as evidence that major combat is looming. The Dec. 1 edition of Newsweek is cited by Dostum aides as proof that the United States is losing the war on terrorism. A veteran survivor, Mr. Dostum will only yield to Kabul’s authority if he has a significant post in fighting what he now sees as an inevitable civil war.

Mr. Karzai has tried to co-opt Mr. Dostum by offering to make him vice president and minister of mines and industry. Mr. Dostum told Mr. Rumsfeld that he is holding out for first deputy minister of defense. Diplomats on the scene assess Mr. Dostum’s self-admitted laggardly pace in disarming as holding bargaining chips to ensure that he gets the cabinet post he wants. Mr. Dostum shrewdly negotiates with more than his weapons. When Mr. Karzai recently sent a cabinet member to offer a second civilian post, Mr. Dostum reportedly arranged a marriage between the envoy’s son and his daughter, thereby co-opting Mr. Karzai’s man.

Mr. Dostum remains a vital leader. In a traditional “buzkaschi” celebration for the circumcision of his 10- and 14-year-old sons this past weekend, the warlord raced after the goat carcass on horseback, whipping opponents and being whipped in turn, for hours. One diplomatic observer describes him as “tireless and spirited.” Those are qualities that will be badly needed if a civil war breaks out between the North and the South.

The bargaining will continue later this week when Mr. Dostum travels to Kabul as part of the elected delegation for the Loya Jirga, which must ratify a new constitution after 25 years of war. Balloting for delegates in Afghanistan’s five Northern provinces produced an ethnically diverse but all-male slate. Mr. Dostum was unanimously elected, but his victory was quickly challenged on grounds that he was a “factional” leader and, therefore, ineligible to attend the Loya Jirga. The effort to bar him failed, but it is widely viewed in the North as divisive and proof that “enemies in Kabul” are determined to limit the region’s influence.

It is now up to American Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to maintain the momentum toward unity between the North and Kabul that Mr. Rumsfeld’s summitry has put into motion. Diplomats close to Mr. Dostum report that the warlord trusts the ambassador. Consequently, the United States is positioned to broker a power-sharing arrangement between Mr. Dostum and Mr. Karzai that satisfies the warlord’s requirements for a role in national security, while consolidating Kabul’s command of the armed forces. A major turning point has been reached, but you would never know it from the news reports.

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