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.

Officials close to Gen. McChrystal have said he will request 20,000 more U.S. troops to provide security for Afghan civilians and to train Afghans. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the troop request had not been made.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican who traveled with the mujahedeen and witnessed their siege of Jalalabad in 1989, said U.S. planners are not heeding the lessons of the past.

“If the Taliban is going is be defeated, it’s got to be by the Afghan people themselves, not by sending more U.S. troops, which could actually be counterproductive,” he said.

He noted that Afghan militias did the fighting on the ground that toppled the Taliban in 2001 while the U.S. provided air support, money and weapons.

“We need widespread support for a moderate anti-Taliban decentralized system in Afghanistan,” Mr. Rohrabacher said. “Our allies there, who once shared our same goal are now alienated and alone, and many are being co-opted by the enemy.”

In a sense, the warlords have never gone away.

“It is like being transported to another place and time,” said a senior U.S. official with knowledge of the country who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

“We cannot expect after 30 years of war in Afghanistan that the people are not prepared to fight for their own freedom. … They have not been defeated since Alexander the Great. What makes us think that we can win this without the cooperation of the tribes? It’s not about Karzai; it’s about the tribes.”

Pointing to growing Taliban strength in the south and east and more recent inroads in the north, Gen. Dostum vowed that he could stabilize nine northern provinces with 10,000 fighters within three months if given the order.

Such bluster is not out of character for Gen. Dostum, whose homecoming was decried by rights activists as an affront to an already fragile democracy.

Still, public distrust of foreign forces has been amplified by hundreds of civilian deaths from errant military operations. The latest incident, a Sept. 4 airstrike in Kunduz province that Afghan authorities say killed 30 civilians, has provoked a fresh round of outrage.

To ease some of the pressure, former militia commanders should be enlisted to beat back the Taliban much as they did in late 2001, said several U.S. military officials and former Northern Alliance members. All spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing strategic review.

“Give us the support we need, and we will win this battle against the Taliban and al Qaeda,” said Sher, another former fighter with the Northern Alliance. “We are ready to do what we must to defeat them.”

Sher, who asked that only his first name be used because of security concerns, told The Times, “We are ready to die for our freedom and the freedom of our children. The U.S. commanders are not winning this fight. Every day we hear commanders saying that the Taliban is getting stronger.”

Contradicting that argument, a U.S. military official in Afghanistan said there are concerns that reverting to supplying informal “tribal” militias could “lead to the resurgence of warlordism” and defeat attempts to democratize the country and build a professional military.

Peter Tomsen, the U.S. special envoy to Afghan resistance fighters during the war against the Soviet Union, said warlords such as Gen. Dostum should not be trusted or “indulged.”

Gen. Dostum said those who want to keep him out of Afghanistan want to see the country fail and must be in league with the Taliban.

“Please realize who are friends and enemies. Don’t be anxious about the return of Gen. Dostum,” he said in an interview in his lavish villa.

Pointing to a laminated picture of Gen. Tommy Franks hanging in his living room, he noted that Gen. Franks, former commander of Centcom, had called him a national hero for his role in helping oust the Taliban.

“The U.S. needs strong friends like Dostum. They don’t need their own commanders who don’t know the land, the language, the people of this country,” he said. “Where is Washington? Where am I? This is the problem.”

When the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, “I was in the Hindu Kush mountains fighting against the Taliban on horseback,” he went on, recounting how the CIA and U.S. Special Forces reached out to him when they needed a strong ally to roll back the Taliban in the north.

“He may not be the clean-cut U.S. soldier and true, he has flip-flopped more than once, but he is a fighter and survivor,” said a U.S. military official, who has worked closely with Gen. Dostum in the past. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We need to count on the Afghan people and tribes much more than we are doing now. Without them this war is lost.”

Gen. Dostum insists he is ready to raise a militia and sweep across the north again, without the support of Afghan government forces which he deems “too weak” to do the job.

“All the way to Waziristan if I must,” he said, referring to the tribal refuge of the Taliban and al Qaeda across the Pakistan border.

• Sara A. Carter reported from Washington.

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