Karzai takes on the warlords

A visit to Afghanistan is a sobering one. Like most Indians, I celebrated the Taliban’s overthrow. Eighteen months later, the celebration looks premature. In theory, democracy has been restored and reconstruction has begun after two decades of civil war. In practice, the country remains in a mess.

The bad news is that the reach of the government is feeble, and it cannot control thousands of bandits raiding travellers, or powerful warlords (many of whom are provincial governors). The good news is that President Hamid Karzai is making a daring bid to take on the warlords and restore the authority of the state. This is risky, yet essential to make Afghanistan a functioning state.

Max Weber defined the state as an entity that has a legal monopoly on the use of force. That is, the state can legally tax, jail and execute people, but nobody else can. By that definition, Afghanistan has a multitude of states in the form of warlords, but none in Kabul. President Hamid Karzai has sometimes been called Mayor of Kabul, so limited has been his reach.

The warlords have huge militia, estimated at 100,000 to 700,000 soldiers. But the national Afghan Army, being trained by the US, has just 7,000 men. Its expansion to 70,000 is being sabotaged by regional bosses, one of whom is the Defence Minister. Ideally, the soldiers of the warlords should be converted into the national army, but the warlords will resist that. The Pentagon has long provided covert support and cash to warlords, and stands accused of continuing with this even after Karzai assumed office.

Armed militia are needed by warlords not just for control but tax collection. Traditionally, the biggest source of revenue by far in Afghanistan has been customs duty. All the main import gateways — Herat, Kandahar, Mazar, Jalalabad — are controlled by local bosses who pocket most of the customs duty, and send only token sums to Kabul. The civil service is moribund after decades of civil war, and cannot collect other taxes like income tax. So Kabul has been pathetically dependent on foreign aid to run the country, indeed to pay salaries.

Karzai’s cabinet has two types of ministers. One is a group of high-minded reformers, mostly middle-class professionals who were abroad during the civil war and have now returned. The second group consists of warlords and their proxies. Prominent among these are bosses belonging to the Northern Alliance, who till recently controlled the Ministries of Defence, Interior and Education.

A functioning administration requires skilled staff who are paid regularly. But after decades of civil war, poor records and arbitrary warlord appointments mean that nobody knows exactly how many employees exist in different ministries. Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, a strong reformer, recently refused to make payments to ministries that failed to supply firm data on employees and receipts of payments, Many ministries have no data, and simply siphon off allocations. The Defence Ministry got a special allocation of $100 million last year for which it is unable to properly account. After Ghani’s radical decision, the Ministries of Defence, Interior and Education failed to produce the required data, and so were refused budgetary funds. In consequence, Kabul has witnessed demonstrations by non-paid employees. But Ghani is standing firm.

Indeed, he has said in public that at least 10 to 30% of money sent for salaries is stolen en route. To overcome this, he proposes to use hawala dealers (who are legal in Afghanistan, and are regarded as trustworthy, efficient and fast), to deliver salaries to staff all over the country, ending leakages at provincial and district levels. The World Bank has agreed to let loans for a community-based project be sent to communities by hawala. This innovation seeks to bypass a corrupt, moribund system that badly needs overhaul.

The provincial governors are nominally appointees of Kabul, but most are warlords with their own base. Last week, Karzai called all governors to Kabul, made them cool their heels for a couple of days, and then said he was asserting his authority. He decreed that nobody could hold two posts, so Provincial Governors could not simultaneously be military commanders: they would have to resign one of these posts. Second, he noted that under the old constitution, customs duties and some other taxes belonged to Kabul, not the provinces, and said he would strictly enforce Kabul’s rights. If so, $500-1,000 million a year would be relinquished by the warlords to Kabul, eroding their power base. Pessimists fear bloody clashes, even civil war. But Karzai and Ghani are standing firm, and have sent a trusted core of officials to the main import gateways to enforce collection of customs duty. Cynics say the warlords will prevent any collection, and the officials will be helpless.

For most Afghans, peace and security is top priority. Large sections of the west and south, especially the areas bordering Pakistan, are ruled by the guns of warring factions, including the Taliban. People cannot move safely on highways for fear of gunmen. Half a dozen provinces are out of bounds to UN staff, so dangerous are conditions. No economic development can take place without security, and Afghans need this above all.

Karzai has decided to create a mobile police force to patrol highways and end banditry. A Rapid Reaction Police Force is also being created round the country. Whether these efforts will stem the rot remains to be seen. Karzai is fully aware of the dangers of taking on the warlords. But he says he is not interested in just sticking to power, he wants to either run an effective government or resign. If conditions do not improve in three months, he says, he will call another Loya Jirga (national assembly) and offer his resignation. He hopes this announcement will convince the warlords he is deadly serious. But in this country, guns count for more than words.

So, Afghanistan is at the cross roads. If Karzai succeeds, the Afghan state will at last be re-established. If he fails, dysfunction and anarchy will reign.

What do you think?