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US Support for Warlords Continues to Destabilize Afghanistan

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Warlordism grew to new heights in Afghanistan after the CIA channeled around $1 billion to malign actors for their help during the post-9/11 Taliban takedown. To make matters worse, the United States injected more than $100 billion of poorly-supervised reconstruction aid into the Afghan economy, which fueled corruption and bolstered these very same strongmen.

In fact, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) confirmed this in an audit last fall, warning that U.S. military’s financial and political support for warlords threatened the long-term stability of the Afghan state.

“The U.S. government should limit alliances with malign powerbrokers and aim to balance any short-term gains from such relationships against the risk that empowering these actors will lead to systemic corruption,” the SIGAR report said.

The warlords have grown in power both politically and militarily over the past 16 years, with some even occupying senior government positions. At a time when Kabul needs Washington’s help in countering warlords, however, the White House is mulling a strategy that will likely strengthen them.

On July 10, the New York Times reported that senior White House officials were considering an offer from former Blackwater chief Erik Prince to install an American viceroy in Afghanistan to oversee a private army, which experts say might only facilitate the rise of even more warlords.

To Defense Department Chief James Mattis’ credit, he refused to include the viceroy plan as an option in his soon-to-be-released military strategy. However, the Pentagon says it would consider private military units as an option even in light of the risk of fueling warlordism.

“I can tell you CENTCOM has used contractors in many roles in the Global War on Terrorism. Many of them have fulfilled their duties and responsibilities admirably,” CENTCOM spokesperson Major Josh Jacques told The Globe Post. “We will continue to look at a mix of contractors, civilians, coalition and American forces to accomplish the missions across the CENTCOM area of operations.”

Kabul-based writer and political commentator Bilal Nikyar argues, however, that one of the keys to stability in Afghanistan is ensuring that the warlords are neutralized.

“Warlordism is something that was propped up by the U.S. in the first place immediately after 9/11,” Mr. Nikyar told The Globe Post. “They existed before that as well, but they didn’t have the money or power.”

The United States, Mr. Nikyar claimed, provided both money and power to the warlords, allowed them to occupy “all the top positions in the government,” and then the U.S. “turned a blind eye.”

However, Mr. Nikyar also noted that while the U.S. is part of the problem, it can still be part of the solution. The U.S. and its allies in tandem with the Afghan government can marginalize the bad actors while supporting more moderate and democratic political figures.

“Our international partners should send a firm message to all the warlords that they must change their behavior and respect rule of law,” he said. “And then steadfastly stand with the Afghan government against them [warlords] to show them that the days of impunity are over. Be serious about it.”

Mr. Nikyar then suggested that Kabul, with the support of the international community, can make an example of one of these warlords: U.S.-backed Afghan Vice President General Abdul Rashid Dostum. Mr. Dostum recently left for Turkey amid allegations of kidnapping, torturing and sexually abusing a political rival, Ahmad Ishchi, the former governor of Jowzjan.

The Dostum case exemplifies the warlord problem in Afghanistan, especially considering he is a key ally of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who sees the warlord as valuable given his large base of support in the country’s north. Mr. Ghani has said the government is “totally neutral” on the legal proceedings and that Mr. Dostum was allowed to depart to Turkey for medical treatment.

“Our rule of law organs must make an example of one of those warlords. Bring them to justice,” Mr. Nikyar said. “Dostum’s case provides a good opportunity.”

There are other ways to tackle the problem of warlords, Mr. Nikyar continued, including taking all of their weapons away, which he admitted was an extreme measure.

“That will put an end to their crimes,” Mr. Nikyar argued. “Make them respect our law enforcement agencies and believe that the only people with power is the government. Not any individual.”

University of Arizona Professor of History David Gibbs told The Globe Post something unthinkable that would raise the hackles of many Afghans, Americans and human rights activists the world over. Mr. Gibbs’ point, however, is not without merit given the warlordism, corruption, violence, and overall instability brought on by the U.S. occupation.

“I suspect there may even be some official regret that the U.S. ever overthrew the Taliban at all in 2001, since the country was at least relatively stable under Taliban rule, as ugly as that rule surely was,” Mr. Gibbs claimed.

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