- The Washington Times - Monday, September 27, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, speaking less than two weeks before historic elections, denounced Afghanistan’s warlords yesterday as “forces of the past” and said they must either reform or face imprisonment.

Mr. Khalilzad spoke a day after meeting notorious warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum in northern Shibergan city, where President Hamid Karzai opened a provincial road on Sunday.

Human rights groups say political repression by the warlords, who still control much of Afghanistan, is a more serious threat to the integrity of the Oct. 9 presidential election than attacks by remnants of the deposed Taliban regime.

Responding to the latest such report from New York-based Human Rights Watch yesterday, Mr. Khalilzad said that although the job is not finished, progress had been made in recent weeks toward “breaking the backbone of warlordism.”

“Their days are numbered,” he said. “They are forces of the past. If they want to be part of the future of Afghanistan, they will have to reform. Or end up in some hole, some jail somewhere.”

The ambassador did not detail the progress, but the government this month dismissed the long-ruling warlord Ismael Khan as governor of western Herat province, sparking several days of fighting.

Mr. Khalilzad’s meeting with Gen. Dostum, who is contesting the presidential elections, set off speculation that the United States is trying to get the Uzbek warlord to withdraw in favor of Mr. Karzai. Other rivals of Mr. Karzai have complained of U.S. pressure on candidates to drop out.

Mr. Khalilzad rejected the accusation and said U.S. involvement was limited to creating conditions that allow Afghans to choose their own leader.

He admitted that he had met some leading presidential candidates. “But it is not my business to ask candidates to withdraw,” he said. “My role is to help. So if somebody believes that communicating something through me to somebody else is helpful, I do provide that service.”

The Human Rights Watch briefing paper issued yesterday warned that in the run-up to the election much of Afghanistan’s political activity is being dominated by warlord factions.

“While many observers inside and outside Afghanistan continue to focus on the Taliban as the main threat to human rights and political development, in most parts of the country Afghans told Human Rights Watch that they are primarily afraid of the local factional leaders and military commanders — not the Taliban insurgency,” the report said.

Three U.S. soldiers were wounded, one of them critically, when their vehicle was attacked Saturday with rockets and guns by insurgents, the Associated Press reported.

It quoted U.S. military officials yesterday as saying that the attack occurred near Qalat in southeastern Zabul province. More than 900 people have died in attacks in Afghanistan this year.

Despite the government’s policy of disarming the warlords, which Mr. Khalilzad said had picked up momentum recently, people insist that their greatest fear is a midnight call on them by gunmen of a local militia.

“Who says the old days are gone,” said motor parts dealer Mohammed Aziz. “The gun is still there. People are afraid to talk. Only when there is disarmament will people come out of their fear.”

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