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Little electricity but lots of power

Times Staff Writer

For an hour, the minister of energy and water listened in silence as his employees complained about their department’s dismal image: People called them lazy, corrupt and inefficient. Customers accused them of demanding bribes for the smallest services.

Ismail Khan sat on a stage in a dank meeting hall and glowered beneath his wild white beard. His eyes were narrow slits beneath his fierce black eyebrows. At last he spoke.

“Baseless lies!” he spat out. That was the end of it.

Khan runs his ministry the way he once ruled over western Afghanistan as supreme warlord from his headquarters in Herat. His word is law.

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But Khan the warlord is now also Khan the public servant. In his gleaming white robes and black-and-white headdress, he still looks like a strutting pasha. However, he works in an office adorned with ancient maps of Kabul’s power grid. And he is accountable to the public for failures in what even his critics acknowledge is an impossible mission.

Afghans expected a great leap of progress after U.S. forces, aided by Northern Alliance warlords such as Khan, toppled the Taliban regime five years ago. But electrical service is as unreliable as ever, despite millions of dollars in aid and U.S. promises of a modern, developed Afghanistan. Khan’s ministry is barely able to provide two hours of electricity per day to Kabul, the capital, and 90% of the rest of this ruined nation gets none. His own ministry’s offices are without power several times a day.

Khan represents one of the grand experiments of the post-Taliban era: the transformation of warlords into public servants. Five years ago, President Hamid Karzai declared that Afghanistan’s “era of warlordism is over.”

With U.S. help, he strong-armed Khan and other major warlords into relinquishing their roles and maneuvered them into jobs as ministers and governors, asking them to deliver services for Afghanistan’s first democratically elected government.

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But despite Karzai’s declaration, the warlords are among the most powerful forces in the country. Scores of them are as entrenched as ever in the provinces, fielding private armies, profiting from the opium trade and co-opting police officials. Those who have come to Kabul know they could easily reconstitute their militias. In the meantime, they are untouchable.

The United Nations Development Program, which runs a project designed to rid the country of warlords and illegal militias, says at least 500 members of Karzai’s government are directly linked to illegal armed groups. That number does not include Cabinet ministers, governors or members of parliament. Warlords are so entrenched at those levels that the U.N. program dares not target them.

“We are not now addressing the level of governors and ministers and above -- in other words, none of the big guys,” said Ariane Quentier, a strategic advisor for the U.N. program. “That would be political suicide at the moment.”

Large private armies

U.N. officials and international donors say one of the biggest obstacles to disarming militias is Karim Khalili, a former warlord who is the leader of the frequently persecuted Hazara minority. Khalili also is Karzai’s vice president -- and is the government’s director for the U.N. project, the Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups.

There are more than 2,000 such groups across Afghanistan, U.N. officials say, with 180,000 to 200,000 men under arms. Most are paid with profits from the opium trade, which also helps warlords finance the gaudy new mansions springing up in Kabul.

In addition to drug money, warlords typically enrich themselves and pay their private armies through illegal taxes, bribes, extortion, kickbacks and “fees” imposed at checkpoints. They dispense favors to petitioners, and in many cases, maintain a patina of legitimacy in their dual roles as governors, police chiefs or district commissioners.

Given the lack of central government authority, warlords and tribal commanders also provide a semblance of security in the countryside.

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Some provincial officials are suspected of helping the Taliban. A U.S. military computer flashdrive purchased by The Times in April at an Afghan bazaar in Bagram contained a file that named 13 corrupt officials in six provinces who were still in their jobs, including governors, deputy governors, police chiefs and security advisors. The document accuses the officials of recruiting fighters for the Taliban; hiring Taliban for government jobs; kidnappings; illegal checkpoints; attempted assassinations; and opium smuggling.

Khalili and Khan formally disbanded their militias and turned over heavy weapons under U.N. supervision when they entered the government. But Khalili recently helped block an expansion of the disarmament program into Bamian province, his political stronghold, according to U.N. officials and diplomats. Bamian, in central Afghanistan, is home to at least 15 illegal armed groups, the diplomats said.

Karzai cannot move more forcefully against the militias because his police and military have little authority outside Kabul.

“The army is still weak and the police are worse,” said Shuhei Ogawa, who serves as liaison to the U.N. disarmament program from Japan, its leading donor. “Until the government can provide security, no one will feel secure enough to turn over their weapons. It’s very frustrating.”

The U.N. program has collected 57,000 light and medium weapons and 12,000 heavy weapons since 2003. It has disarmed 63,000 former militiamen. About 1,200 warlords and commanders have handed over weapons.

“But that doesn’t mean they handed over all of them. Most kept a lot of their weapons,” said Ahmad Jan Nawzadi, an official with the U.N. program.

There are still 5 million to 10 million weapons in Afghanistan, according to estimates by international study groups. U.S. and NATO forces regularly uncover large caches of weapons, not all of them belonging to the Taliban.

A recent U.N. attempt to disarm militias in five provinces, including Herat, failed dismally. Only a few old weapons were collected. Local government officials and police refused to help. When U.N. directors asked for assistance, a U.N. official said, Karzai’s office answered: “We can’t help you. Do it yourself.”

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Khalili, like Khan, says he is committed to public service but is hamstrung by the legacy of more than two decades of war, and by the Taliban’s resurgence in the country’s south and east. Unlike Khan, Khalili concedes that corruption and bribery permeate the warlord-dominated government.

“I agree that people are mistrustful of the government,” Khalili, 56, said in an interview in the stately Gulkhana Palace in downtown Kabul, dressed in a silver turban, a tailored blue blazer and white shalwar kameez -- a loose-fitting tunic and pants. “The expectations of the people are high, but the fight against terrorism means the government has not been able to do much for them so far.”

Afghanistan’s history of tribal wars requires vigilance, Khalili said. Afghans are unwilling to give up their weapons and militias unless they are convinced that rival groups are disarmed.

“Insecurity means people feel they need their weapons, and they refuse to turn them over to a government that cannot protect them,” he said. “Afghans have had bitter experiences in the past.”

Khalili was referring, in part, to his own Hazara group, who are Shiite Muslims and considered apostate by many of Afghanistan’s dominant Sunnis. Under Taliban rule, Hazaras were massacred and their villages razed.

He said illegal weapons in Bamian had been gathered up and locked away in depots controlled by “ex-commanders.” However, diplomats say those commanders still report to Khalili.

Khalili acknowledged the limits of his new role as public servant. In Bamian, he said, “I was able to take fast action.” But as a top national government official, he says, his authority has limits. Like Ismail Khan, he has found that the transformation from warlord to government official can be frustrating.

“Unfortunately,” he said with a small sigh, “I cannot implement decisions as easily as before.”

13 years, no electricity

For two years, Ajab Khan has trudged down the darkened hallways at the Ministry of Energy and Water, papers in hand, seeking permission to hook up electricity to his home. Short and sturdy, with a stringy black beard, Khan is a remarkably patient man.

But now, after spending the equivalent of $320 from his meager government salary, Khan, who is no relation to the minister, is livid. The money went for rishwat -- bribes. Each time he needed a signature, he said, a ministry functionary demanded shereniy -- sweets, or slang for a bribe.

And yet, he still has no electricity. He hasn’t had any for 13 years, since electric lines in his west Kabul neighborhood were destroyed by civil war.

Standing outside a ministry office with dozens of angry men who had lined up for official signatures, Khan tenderly withdrew a folded piece of paper, its worn folds secured with tape. Each official signature on it came at a cost: $4 for low-level employees, $10 for midlevel officials and $20 for deputy ministers.

“The first thing they ask is not: ‘How can I help you?’ It’s: ‘How much will you pay?’ ” Khan said. He says his problem is also America’s.

“The Americans promised us a modern country, but now everyone is disappointed in them,” Khan said. “All the American money has gone to the top people in the government, and to the warlords. There’s nothing for the people.”

Ismail Khan, the warlord-turned-minister, professed to be shocked at reports of bribes.

That very morning, he said, he had toured a ministry complex where bribes were said to be demanded. He talked to people waiting in lines there, but not one complained of bribery.

“So these are baseless claims spread by people frustrated by years of war,” Khan said. “They have unrealistic expectations that we cannot fulfill.”

As important as corruption is, the problems Khan faces trying to supply electricity to Afghanistan are even more daunting.

The steady roar of private generators reverberates throughout Kabul as homes and businesses provide their own power. But poor districts, 30% to 40% of the city, have no power at all.

Power shortages could worsen this winter, when the U.S. Agency for International Development cuts off payments for diesel fuel to run the ministry’s power plants. The agency has paid $130 million over two years, but the final payment covers fuel purchases only through this month.

U.S. officials said the payments were meant to give the ministry time to provide its own fuel, but now it is on its own. The problem will be compounded in winter when the rivers dry up. Hydroelectric generators provide nearly half the electricity Kabul gets.

Khan said the Finance Ministry had promised him $34 million. He hopes international donors will provide the rest.

“Yes, we are faced with huge problems,” Khan, 59, said in an interview, looking flushed and weary after a day of addressing employees and inspecting a power plant, all on an empty stomach because of Ramadan fasting. “The main problems are money and time, and a country that has been ruined by war.”

When the Taliban regime fell in December 2001, Kabul had a population of about 500,000. Today, with the return of exiles from Pakistan and Iran, the city’s population is estimated at 4 million. Thousands of new homes and businesses have shot up, and demand for electricity has skyrocketed.

“In fairness to Ismail Khan, no country in the world, including the U.S., could have managed this kind of explosive growth, especially with an infrastructure that hasn’t been improved in 20 years,” a Western diplomat said.

USAID, which is providing $750 million over five years for energy development, is leading a $468-million project to build transmission lines to electricity-rich Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. If completed on schedule in two years, the new lines could help meet much of the burgeoning demand across Afghanistan.

Until then, local entrepreneurs and warlords are building some small-scale projects. And Khan is responsible for delivering the government’s trickle of power. It is a miserable job, but Khan seems to confront it the same way he confronted the Soviets and the Taliban, with bluster and supreme self-confidence.

Western engineers say Khan’s ministry has only four or five competent technical experts among 9,000 employees. Ministry workers say Khan, who graduated from a military academy, constantly asks questions, trying to educate himself on technical issues.

After listening to his employees complain about their woeful image, Khan took the stage at a district electricity complex and spoke without notes for an hour and a half. Twice the power failed and the lights and microphone went off, but Khan thundered on as if nothing had happened, pounding the lectern for emphasis.

He spoke in parables and aphorisms. Things are bad, he said, but employees should do what he did when he was imprisoned by the Taliban from 1997 to 2000 -- have faith in God. (Khan escaped with the help of a sympathetic guard.)

“Our problems are great, but we will not lose courage, even with our limited resources,” Khan said, concluding his speech. The workers clapped perfunctorily.

Then Khan was off, escorted to a convoy of white Toyota Land Cruisers that sped off for a tour of a power plant, going the wrong way down one-way streets. At the plant, Khan poked at gauges and valves and peppered the plant engineers with questions. He seemed energized and engaged, projecting the same florid-faced authority as when he dominated the political and military affairs of Herat and five western provinces.

But, when he was asked whether he could reassemble his once-feared Herat militia if Afghanistan again descended into civil war, Khan brightened.

“Ah, the mujahedin,” he said wistfully.

A thin smile played on his lips. “They remain on call,” the minister said. “As long as they are alive, these mujahedin remain loyal to me.”

Khan folded his hands in his lap. His plant managers leaned in, straining to hear his low voice.

“If I called them to once again help me liberate the country, for any reason,” the minister said finally, “you would hear a very loud shout all the way from Herat.”

david.zucchino@latimes.com


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