In Afghanistan, Guns Hold Sway Over Law

Times Staff Writer

Obaidullah is watching his farm near this village in northern Afghanistan slowly wither and die. His orchard, which once numbered 350 trees, is down to 10. His fields, once filled with wheat and barley, are parched.

For years, the 46-year-old had survived even through patches of drought thanks to a centuries-old irrigation system based on sharing and community management. But he’s been left high and dry by armed thugs up-canal, who have hijacked his water for their own cotton and rice crops.

There is no government agency or aid organization strong enough to intercede, and Obaidullah has no weapons and, in any case, no stomach for a fight.


“The problem isn’t people, it’s guns,” Obaidullah said of the neighbors who have blocked his access to water near this village 15 miles north of Mazar-i-Sharif. “If all the guns disappeared, we could go back to the old system. But as the situation stands, people are afraid even to talk about it.”

A new pro-Western government led by President Hamid Karzai has replaced the Taliban regime that was ousted more than a year ago, but much of the country remains a lawless place where “anyone with a gun is the government,” as one youth here put it.

Impoverished farmers such as Obaidullah aren’t the only victims: His plight is just one example of how guns and the warlords who wield them are distorting the Afghan economy, obstructing the role of government and impeding the delivery of relief and reconstruction aid.

For more than 20 years, guns poured into the country as foreign-backed rebel groups fought the Soviet occupation and then the Taliban. Now, those militias find themselves as the de facto government outside the capital, Kabul, answerable only to themselves.

The U.S. and other nations are training a new Afghan army and police force, but they are at least two years from effective deployment. So the Karzai government has little means of injecting itself into disputes like Obaidullah’s. And the international community has refused so far to deploy peacekeepers outside Kabul who might help the central government take control.

Filling the vacuum are warlords and thousands of their armed minions. Their primacy over civil authority and the rule of law has myriad implications here.

Ministers in the Karzai administration are increasingly frustrated that warlords are collecting tens of millions of dollars in taxes and import duties at the country’s principal ports of entry, money the government desperately needs to finance its budget. The Afghan government estimates that the warlords’ take this year ran as high as $300 million.

In an interview, Mohammed Amin Farhang, the minister of reconstruction, said the government is powerless even to collect customs duties on imported air freight arriving at Kabul’s airport or on goods entering the capital by land at the main truck depot, because militiamen control those key locations.

“A central government that cannot get the country’s income itself cannot be called a complete government and will not have its national sovereignty,” Farhang said.

In northern Afghanistan, the situation is particularly acute. The region’s principal border crossings are controlled by three powerful warlords: Atta Mohammed, Abdul Rashid Dostum and Mohammed Sardar Sayedi.

All are former militia leaders who helped oust the Taliban but who still lead armed troops divided mainly along ethnic lines. Each has been given an official military title by Karzai, and Dostum is the president’s representative in the north.

But it is clear that the three are more responsive to their group’s interests than those of the nation at large. Finance Minister Ashref Ghani in July demanded that the warlords pass customs revenue on to the central government, but only Ismail Khan, governor of the western province of Herat, has complied, sending $5 million so far.

Warlord Mohammed said in an interview that his militia will share the revenue he collects with the government after it shows what it can do for the northern provinces.

“Of course, the central government is entitled to collect the revenue as long as they consider our needs,” he said.

Meanwhile, major relief organizations in the north say warlords interfere with their efforts to work with civil authorities to deliver aid, by setting agendas and demanding percentages of supplies.

“Who do you deal with? Self-motivated individuals looking to increase their power base, or legitimate [but powerless] civil authorities there to serve the needs of the people?” asked one exasperated relief official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Another relief official cited a recent gathering of major humanitarian agencies in Mazar-i-Sharif called by the provincial governor to set priorities for the coming year. Participants were surprised to find the meeting directed by Mohammed, who spoke for an hour, ticking off a list of projects he wanted funded.

Ongoing threats and sporadic violence also have taken a toll on aid groups here. In June, a convoy of vehicles belonging to the French nongovernmental agency ACTED was stopped by militiamen and robbed of its cash and computers, and a female member of the group was raped.

Whether the attack was random violence or a political act designed to let agencies know who is boss in the north is open to debate. But female Afghan relief workers have received warnings not to participate in programs boosting women’s rights and education, relief workers here say.

In October, U.S. Ambassador Robert Finn said he froze funding for new projects around Mazar-i-Sharif through the U.S. Agency for International Development after clashes among local militias killed six Afghans. The freeze remains in effect.

“We will not be able to institute any more programs of assistance in the Mazar-i-Sharif area because of the continuing inability of leaders in the area to provide a security situation that we felt we could say to U.S. citizens, ‘Yes, you can go and work there,’ ” Finn said at the time.

Multinational groups including the United Nations are pushing a voluntary disarmament program in the north that so far has netted 1,600 weapons, a program to which Mohammed and Dostum have given limited support. Although their troops are not about to disarm totally, both have intervened at a few collection points to order their subjects to give up their weapons.

Praising such actions, one Western diplomat said the three northern warlords are trying to ease tensions, going so far as to say that they had carved out an “island of tranquillity” when compared with other parts of Afghanistan.

This month, Minister of Telecommunications Mohammed Masoom Stanekzai attended a ceremony with Atta Mohammed inaugurating an Internet facility in Mazar-i-Sharif. Stanekzai praised the warlord’s growing civic involvement.

But Farhang is less sanguine. He believes that the U.S.-led coalition that helped the militias oust the Taliban may have to get involved in disarming them, “putting the genie back in the bottle.”

Meanwhile, fear remains palpable in the countryside, where farmers such as Obaidullah don’t dare to confront the water thieves, fearing a bullet will be their reward.

For centuries, water disputes were settled by arbiters called meerhabs, who were elected by farmers along the 50-mile-long canal system.

Now those judges are afraid to act -- and for good reason. One area farmer was killed over a water dispute this month.

“People don’t feel secure enough to work on any kind of peaceful plan to work the problem out,” said Obaidullah, who is not sure to which warlord the men who stole his water answer. “They know it will just fall by the wayside.”