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General Values Alliance With Afghan Warlords

The stability provided by regional leaders in the absence of a strong central government trumps allegations of rights abuses, he says.

November 04, 2002|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — The U.S. military will continue to work closely with Afghan warlords, despite allegations of human rights abuses, because they provide stability and security in the absence of a strong central government, the American commander in charge of coalition forces in Afghanistan said over the weekend.

Army Lt. Gen. Dan McNeill said in an interview that he has urged regional warlords to respect human rights and support the government in the capital, Kabul. But until U.S. military trainers are able to help build a viable national army, he said, warlords who helped the U.S. topple the Taliban regime last winter will continue to receive American support.

McNeill's comments came after a Human Rights Watch report last week accused Herat provincial Gov. Ismail Khan, an ethnic Tajik, of condoning torture and other abuses against the Pushtun minority in the five western provinces he controls. Other warlords who were supplied with cash and weapons by U.S. forces during the campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda also have been accused of human rights violations in recent months.

"For the near term, these regional leaders -- while they might appear unsavory to some, and some accuse them of having sordid pasts -- they are providing a degree of security and stability out and away from Kabul," McNeill said inside the tented tactical operations center at Bagram.

In recent conversations with Khan and other warlords, McNeill said, he has been assured that they support the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai. He said they are supplying militiamen for training by U.S. Special Forces troops as part of the national army and have promised to disband their private militias once the national force is deployed throughout the country.

"As each day goes by and the central government gains strength and the Afghan national army gains a few more trained soldiers, each of them will see that their future lies in being not, as you call it, a warlord," McNeill said, "but in being what I call a regional leader."

He added: "I don't sense that any of them intend to break off a chunk of this country and form a separate state and to protect it at all costs. But without the central government being able to push out a well-trained and disciplined and well-controlled army to their locations, they are more inclined to hang on to" their private armies.

In the hourlong interview, McNeill said the U.S. might be able to begin reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan within 18 months to two years, provided progress continues on eliminating Al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts and building the Afghan army.

He acknowledged that Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters have found sanctuary in lawless Pushtun tribal areas in neighboring Pakistan, but he said the U.S. will continue to rely on Pakistan rather than send in U.S. troops to root out terrorists.

McNeill, a three-star general, also said he has been assured by the Pentagon that he will continue to be given sufficient resources in Afghanistan if the Bush administration decides to attack Iraq.

Warlords are a contentious issue in Afghanistan, a tribal nation with no history of a strong central government or national army. Khan and others use private armies to collect import duties and other taxes that otherwise would go to the central government, as well as to extort money and crush political opposition. Many profit directly from Afghanistan's lucrative opium and arms trades.

But the same warlords -- among them Khan in the west, Abdul Rashid Dostum in the north, Gul Agha Shirzai in the south and Hazrat Ali in the east -- proved to be valuable allies in the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. U.S. commanders developed close relationships with them that continue to flourish. In the cities of Herat, Jalalabad, Kandahar and Bamian, U.S. Special Forces soldiers live in compounds provided by warlords and guarded by their gunmen.

At the same time, U.S. civil affairs soldiers are providing basic medical and humanitarian assistance in the warlords' areas of control, enhancing these leaders' credentials among the local population. In most cases, the civil affairs officers are also protected by the warlords' gunmen.

McNeill sidestepped questions about human rights allegations against Khan, speaking instead of warlords in general.

In a series of interviews in Herat earlier this year, Khan did not directly deny that his men had abused Pushtuns. But he pointed out that the Pushtun-dominated Taliban committed atrocities against Tajiks, and suggested that any abuses committed by his men against Pushtuns were motivated by vengeance and thus to be expected.

McNeill, asked about the future of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, said they will remain at close to present levels (about 8,000) until two primary goals have been achieved: the removal of remaining Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters and the establishment of a viable national army.

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