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U.S. Afghan Role May Grow

President Karzai is prodded to reclaim revenue from warlords. Military aid is possible.

May 13, 2003|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan — The United States is urging Afghan President Hamid Karzai to rein in provincial warlords who are hijacking hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue needed by his government, and has not ruled out U.S. military aid in the event of a showdown.

The U.S. views Afghanistan's deepening financial hole with increasing alarm, a well-placed Western diplomat said Monday. High-level Afghan officials say the gathering financial crisis threatens both the legitimacy and the future of Karzai's administration.

Up to now, the American military has refrained from becoming involved in warlord disputes, either with the central government or among the tribal chiefs. It's a measure of the gravity of the regime's predicament that this hands-off policy now seems open to change.

Karzai has scheduled a meeting with several provincial governors and warlords this week, and there has even been the suggestion that he should dismiss some of them.

"The U.S. government is very supportive of President Karzai and would like to see him take responsibility and take bold action," said the diplomat, who asked not to be further identified.

Afghan officials also expressed their concerns Monday.

"We need to take serious steps or this government is doomed to fail," Deputy Finance Minister Abdul Salam Rahimy said.

About half a dozen provincial governors and regional warlords are thought to collect an estimated $600 million annually in customs duties and taxes from importers and traders at border checkpoints. But they pass along little or none of it to the central government.

The United States' displeasure and impatience with the warlords -- many of whom were close allies of the U.S. during the war on the deposed Taliban regime -- seem to be growing. During a visit to Kabul on Friday, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage warned that "we'll have some rocky times in the future" unless warlords begin cooperating with Karzai on the revenue issue.

A week earlier, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, said in an interview that warlords who didn't support Karzai risked being "pushed not only through the margins but off the map."

A showdown of sorts could come at this week's meeting. Karzai has summoned the provincial governors and warlords to Kabul to demand that they pass revenue they collect directly to the central bank, with disbursement back to the provinces to come later.

On Monday, the Western diplomat was blunt.

"If the governors refuse to cooperate peacefully, then President Karzai needs to be ready to take some action," he said. Specifically, he said Karzai should fire any governors or army commanders who failed to comply.

If they refused to vacate their offices, Karzai could use the 4,000-member national army to impose his policies, the diplomat said.

Asked whether the U.S. would consider providing military support to remove governors or warlords from office, he replied: "That's an open question."

With Afghanistan's infrastructure and industry shattered by 23 years of war, the government has few other internal sources of income apart from customs duties and border taxes. Wireless telephone licenses and flyover rights to airlines provide some cash. But of Karzai's modest $460-million operating budget last year, only about $80 million was generated internally. The rest came from international donors.

Customs duties are the biggest potential source -- but governors in Herat, Kandahar and Nangarhar provinces and warlords Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammed in the northern part of the country are keeping almost all revenue that should legally go to Karzai.

Herat Gov. Ismail Khan has bragged that he collects $100 million a year in duties but hasn't sent a single penny of it to Karzai so far this fiscal year, the diplomat said.

Some Afghan Cabinet officials, including Reconstruction Minister Amin Farhang, say warlords are destroying the legitimacy of the country.

"If it's Dostum, Ismail Khan, Karzai or you or me -- anyone willing to trample the national interest should be stopped, or the government itself should go away," Farhang said in a recent interview.

The expectation among some U.S. and Afghan officials is that military action won't be necessary and that the warlords will fall into line under the threat of losing their jobs, which are key to their political legitimacy. National and provincial elections are scheduled in June 2004, and many are expected either to run for office or seek reelection. Presumably, they would not want their records besmirched.

Officials say firing one of the commanders could be a "catalyzing event" if the person Karzai named to replace him followed through on promises to return money to the provinces to pay salaries of teachers, police officers and medical personnel.

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