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“Everyone tries to have some sort of Plan B”: Warlord rhetoric, slight return

November 20, 2012

By Tim Foxley

Summary: Former warlord Ismail Khan’s plans to re-arm to enhance security suggest no support from the government.  We should expect posturing and rhetoric from former warlords during periods of uncertainty and change.  If the talk turns to action, we should be more concerned.

I reported earlier that western Afghan warlord (and current Minister for Energy and Water) was planning to create (or, perhaps, recreate) a militia force with the stated intention of providing security in areas where ISAF and the Afghan government had, in his judgement, failed to do so.

“This month, Mr. Khan rallied thousands of his supporters in the desert outside Herat, the cultured western provincial capital and the center of his power base, urging them to coordinate and reactivate their networks. And he has begun enlisting new recruits and organizing district command structures.

“We are responsible for maintaining security in our country and not letting Afghanistan be destroyed again,” Mr. Khan, the minister of energy and water, said at a news conference over the weekend at his office in Kabul. But after facing criticism, he took care not to frame his action as defying the government: “There are parts of the country where the government forces cannot operate, and in such areas the locals should step forward, take arms and defend the country.”

I gave a selection of possible explanations for the story in which I at least entertained the idea that some form of security initiative in Western Afghanistan might have been discussed between Ismail and Karzai.  I came across another news article shortly after, but only now found the time to write it up.  The more recent story appears to confirm the idea that Ismail Khan was at least talking about creating a new security force, but that, contrary to earlier comments attributed to Ismail Khan, the Afghan government were hostile to the idea:

New York Times, 12 November 2012

Now, in announcing that he is remobilizing his forces, Mr. Khan has rankled Afghan officials and stoked fears that other regional and factional leaders will follow suit and rearm, weakening support for the government and increasing the likelihood of civil war.

The governor of Herat Province called Mr. Khan’s reorganization an illegal challenge to the national security forces. And Mr. Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, tersely criticized Mr. Khan.

“The remarks by Ismail Khan do not reflect the policies of the Afghan government,” Mr. Faizi said. “The government of Afghanistan and the Afghan people do not want any irresponsible armed grouping outside the legitimate security forces structures.”

In Kabul, Mr. Khan’s provocative actions have played out in the news media and brought a fierce reaction from some members of Parliament, who said the warlords were preparing to take advantage of the American troop withdrawal set for 2014.

“People like Ismail Khan smell blood,” Belqis Roshan, a senator from Farah Province, said in an interview. “They think that as soon as foreign forces leave Afghanistan, once again they will get the chance to start a civil war, and achieve their ominous goals of getting rich and terminating their local rivals.”

The report, although detail is scarce and should not be over-played at this stage, also hints at one of my other concerns, that Ismail’s actions may not be isolated:

“Mr. Khan’s is not the only voice calling for a renewed alliance of the mujahedeen against the Taliban, and some of the others are just as familiar.

Marshal Muhammad Qasim Fahim, an ethnic Tajik commander who is President Karzai’s first vice president, said in a speech in September, “If the Afghan security forces are not able to wage this war, then call upon the mujahedeen.”

Another prominent mujahedeen fighter, Ahmad Zia Massoud, said in an interview at his home in Kabul that people were worried about what was going to happen after 2014, and he was telling his own followers to make preliminary preparations.

“They don’t want to be disgraced again,” Mr. Massoud said. “Everyone tries to have some sort of Plan B. Some people are on the verge of rearming.”

He pointed out that it was significant that the going market price of Kalashnikov assault rifles had risen to about $1,000, driven up by demand from a price of $300 a decade ago. “Every household wants to have an AK-47 at home,” he said.

“The mujahedeen come here to meet me,” Mr. Massoud added. “They tell me they are preparing. They are trying to find weapons. They come from villages, from the north of Afghanistan, even some people from the suburbs of Kabul, and say they are taking responsibility for providing private security in their neighborhood.”

Analysis and Outlook

Sabre-rattling from former warlords may be an inevitable feature of periods of transition and change in Afghanistan for years to come.  As the article also notes (and I would agree), warnings about the return of the warlords have been made more or less every year since 2001.

But this may be more than mere analytical cliché.  There are increasing levels of uncertainty – exacerbated by media speculation – in Afghanistan, as we move closer to 2014.  Fears of an economic downturn, the future role of the Taliban, the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces and corruption area few of the aspects of a wider concern that the country might drift towards some form of civil war.  It would be unwise to ignore the possibility that key groups are looking at alternative options for securing new opportunities and resources or preserving their existing positions of power.

For all those who believe a viable political settlement with the Taliban is achievable (President Karzai, Salahuddin Rabbani?) there are others who would agree with the views of Amrullah Saleh, an ethnic Tajik politician (and former member of the NDS, the Afghan intelligence service), when he claimed that “[the Taliban] are not our brothers, they are our killers”.

Posturing and rhetoric from Ismail Khan may come to nothing, or at least be little more than electioneering, but the future conditions that might turn his talk into more direct recruiting, training and equipping are not exactly implausible or even that far away.  There would almost certainly be a market within the Afghan population for local leaders that they feel could guarantee their security if they perceive that ISAF, the ANSF or the Taliban are unable or unwilling.

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