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Way With Words Is Karzai's Main Asset in Afghan Politics


KABUL, Afghanistan — The future of Afghanistan's new transitional president, Hamid Karzai, and of the country itself hangs on a thin reed: words.

As a leader who won power without commanding an army, Karzai is betting on his not inconsiderable powers of moral suasion to make Afghanistan into "a country of laws, of institution," he says.

His first effort to rely on such invisible force appears to have worked. A two-day protest by soldiers and police employees at the Interior Ministry over Karzai's appointment of a new minister from the Pushtun ethnic group rather than the Tajiks ended peacefully Saturday.

The strike stopped after Karzai said publicly that it was both unpatriotic and a firing offense to refuse to accept the appointee.

In an interview in the presidential palace the day before, as he was putting the final touches on his Cabinet, Karzai talked passionately about the difficult task ahead to end what is known in this region as warlordism, and about his desire to create a working central government. Wearing his trademark sheepskin cap and a gray shalwar kameez--the traditional Afghan pants and shirt--he seemed completely engaged in his effort to forge the nation's future.

"I am planning to deliver to the Afghan people what they asked of me. And they have asked of me, clearly, security all over the country; clearly, an end to gunrunning and force against them; clearly, an end to separate stretches of power in Afghanistan," Karzai said as he leaned back comfortably in an armchair set under a mantelpiece made of white Afghan marble.

"They want one authority, and that authority has to serve them," he said.

That will be no mean feat. Western diplomats say that Karzai had to make difficult choices in the formation of his Cabinet and that he has more difficult choices ahead if he is to bring the warlords to heel.

Moreover, his only means of achieving his democratic goals are force of personality and some limited political maneuvering. For instance, if a warlord in a distant region refused to send customs duties to Kabul, Karzai could threaten to take away his governorship, but such threats have credibility only if they can be enforced. Afghanistan has no army under central government control and only a limited police force.

"To do the job of controlling the warlords may eventually require force, and at present that doesn't exist in the central government. These are the limitations he has to work with," a Western diplomat said.

In the interview, Karzai seemed aware of these limitations but sketched out ways of coping with the hand he has been dealt.

His original plan--to bring all the powerful warlords into his Cabinet in order to loosen their hold on the provinces--was undermined when two of them declined his offer. Karzai ended up with two of the leading warlords in and three out. In completing the Cabinet on Saturday, he attempted to tie in most of the missing warlords by including a son of Ismail Khan, the governor of Herat province, as well as several close allies of Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum.

Khan and Dostum turned down offers to join the Cabinet because that would have meant giving up their regional roles, according to sources close to Karzai. Khan, for his part, controls tariffs paid by those who bring goods from Iran--which, according to some reports, amount to more than $100,000 a day. Karzai said Khan has agreed to send the revenues to Kabul, but it was unclear what his incentive might be.

The role of warlords in Afghanistan is a complex one. In a country that in modern times has never had a strong central government, they control men and resources alike in remote regions. Within their fiefdoms, they enjoy an odd combination of opprobrium and admiration. They are feared and hated because they resort to violence, but many are also admired for their role as fighters against the Soviets when the USSR occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s.

For Karzai, the warlords' separate armies foster an atmosphere of instability and the constant specter of renewed fighting among commanders from different regions and ethnic groups, which makes it difficult for him to build a power base in Kabul. He seemed concerned to repeatedly make clear that, although he is attempting to bring the warlords to Kabul, he is not adopting their methods.

"There cannot be separate armed groups--that's very, very certain--and I will convey that in very certain terms: No private armies around here," he said.

If the warlords refuse to disband their militias, Karzai said, he is prepared to "ask the international community" to intervene. But he is hoping it will not come to that.

"The sentiment in Afghanistan for nation building, for state building, is strong. All of us see the demand of the Afghan people.... People are sick and tired of chaos and warlordism," he said.

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