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Warlords Threaten Afghan Peace Process

Afghanistan's broad-based interim government is in danger of losing two influential figures.
By Thomas Withington

Two prominent Afghan leaders are threatening to boycott their country's peace process because they feel they have been cheated out of seats in the new interim government.


General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ismail Khan said they might withdraw from the government if they are not given a greater share of power in the cabinet announced as part of the Bonn power-sharing agreement on December 5.


If the broad-based coalition is going to survive, it needs to have the support of the various Afghan factions. Yet accommodating them all in the way they would like is a near impossible task.


"An agreement signed with so many warlords and forces on the ground could be difficult (to implement)," commented the UN chief negotiator's deputy Fransesc Vendrell in Bonn.


However, it's the best, maybe only, possibility for peace in Afghanistan. And a lot more work needs to go into acknowledging the interests of Dostum, Khan and other warlords who believe that their role in defeating the Taleban should be reflected in their share of political power.


If a compromise solution is not found, Dostum and Khan could decide to withdraw from the peace process and retreat to their respective strongholds, maintaining private armies which would threaten stability.


This would fly in the face of the Bonn agreement which clearly states that all armed forces in the country are to come under the direct command of the interim government when the latter takes up the reins of power on December 22.


It is difficult to see how the powerful armed forces of Dostum and Khan will be brought into line if they refuse to voluntarily cede control. It seems unrealistic to believe that they might be disarmed against their will.


Dostum has been one of the most prominent critics of the Bonn agreement as he is eager to re-acquire the power he wielded in Afghanistan prior to the emergence of the Taleban.


Before the student militia ousted him in 1997, the general acted as de facto president of a state-within-a-state, comprising the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif and seven surrounding provinces.


In the recent fighting, his private army played a significant role against the Taleban - most notably in the retaking of his former "capital" on November 10.


Dostum had demanded the foreign ministry portfolio for his Jumbesh-e-Milli-e-Islami, National Islamic Movement. When this fell to Dr Abdullah Abdullah - already serving in that capacity for the Northern Alliance - the general announced that he would boycott the new administration. He feels his party deserves more than the two minor ministries it currently holds.


"We bore many casualties. Many people lost their lives, and others were injured," said General Alim Razem, one of Dostum's key political advisors. "Unfortunately, the final decision on the composition of the cabinet did not match what we had been promised."


Dostum's withdrawal could prove to be a major headache for the new administration because he might set up his own fiefdom around Mazar-e-Sharif. This will have serious political and economic consequences for the country. Revenues from as yet untapped oil reserves in the area are vital for the reconstruction process.


Another powerful individual who could upset the new administration is Ismail Khan - who also enjoyed significant power before the Taleban came to power.


Formerly the self-styled Emir of Herat, he ruled this region briefly in the Nineties before being toppled by Taleban forces. Khan recaptured the city the day after the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif.


Khan too has complained that the new administration fails to reflect the hold ethnic groups have on various parts of the country or the role played by different warlords in the fall of the Taleban.


There is also dissent on the Pashtun side. The southern province of Nangarhar is additionally reluctant to enter the ruling coalition. The region's governor, Haji Abdul Qadir, stormed out of the Bonn talks apparently feeling that he was being marginalised during the negotiations.


His loss could also have serious consequences for the interim administration - a government lacking senior Pashtun elements such as Qadir could be viewed with distrust in the Pashtun heartlands.


The new authority is going to have a hard time drawing Dostum, Khan and Qadir back into the fold. These warlords are well used to running their own show and will need a lot of convincing to give up their independence.


The Afghan leadership needs to move fast over the issue. The Taleban may have galvanised the country's disparate elements, but now that common enemy has gone, old interests and rivalries are re-emerging.


If likes of Dostum and Khan can subordinate their own interests for the sake of country's future, there is a genuine chance that a truly representative government of unity can be established.


But refusal by any of the key Afghan groups to participate in the interim government will threaten to unravel an already delicate peace agreement.


Thomas Withington is an independent defence analyst. His interests include South Asian security, air power, and Cold War history. He is also a Ressearch Associate at the Centre for Defence Studies, King's College, London.


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