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Afghan warlords stall on disarming while jockeying for power
CHARBOLAK, Afghanistan -- Hunkered down behind walls topped with razor wire built by the U.S. military, Afghan army Capt. Abdul Jabar boasts his less than 200 lightly armed soldiers could easily take on the warlords who hold sway across northern Afghanistan.
The odds are not in his favor: The warlords have thousands of militia itching to fight, and tanks and artillery they refuse to hand over despite promises to President Hamid Karzai.
Uzbek warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum and his Tajik rival Gen. Atta Mohammed -- the two main militia leaders who have supported the U.S.-led anti-terror coalition -- agreed to turn in all their heavy weapons after the most serious post-Taliban factional fighting between their forces erupted in October, killing at least 10 people.
Yet the north has remained tense, with more clashes breaking out in April. The disarmament process has bogged down amid mutual suspicion and political jockeying ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections in September.
At Jabar's base west of the northern capital of Mazar-e-Sharif sit a dozen rusting tanks and some 75 artillery pieces handed in by Dostum -- an estimated 40 percent of his heavy arms, according to Australian Army Lt. Col. Chris Mead, military liaison officer for U.N. operations.
"They're only turning in their junk, it's evident," said U.S. Army Maj. Danny Vice, 39, of Leroy, Ala., a military trainer working with Jabar's battalion. "They're just turning in enough to appease the government."
East of Mazar, where the rest of Jabar's battalion is based, sits another weapons storage site, where Atta has turned in 28 tanks, 25 armored personnel carriers and about 30 pieces of artillery -- some 90 percent of his arms, according to Mead.
That imbalance has led Atta to cry foul -- prompting repeated trips to Kabul by both warlords to hash out a deal with Karzai. Dostum, Karzai's special adviser on security in the north, is believed to be holding out for a top spot in the central government before he hands over his weapons.
Already 1,000 men from each side have gone through the internationally backed disarmament process. However, Dostum is believed to have another 3,000 fighters, and Atta another 2,000, according to Mead.
Despite their armed-to-the-teeth posture, some say the warlords are realizing Karzai's U.S.-backed government is here to stay -- and the real battle is now at the ballot box.
"There is an acknowledgment that promoting agendas by military means is coming to an end," said Michele Lipner, head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan.
Dostum is not only a warlord but also has his own Jumbesh-e-Islami political party and the support of fellow ethnic Uzbeks across the north. Atta is closely allied with Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, a fellow Tajik, and part of the Jamiat-e-Islami political party.
Lt. Gen. Majid Rouzi, Dostum's deputy, reclining at his home in Mazar-e-Sharif, sounds more like a politician than a warrior, stressing that Jumbesh will field presidential and parliamentary candidates in the elections and has close relationships with leaders across north, west and central Afghanistan.
While Karzai is widely expected to win the presidency, a possible coalition between Dostum, the brother of slain northern alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massood, powerful Herat Gov. Ismail Khan and ethnic Hazara leader Mohammed Mohaqeq -- recently ousted from the government -- could win a sizable opposition faction in parliament.
Letting the warlords get involved in government also serves the greater goal of security, Lipner said. "Inclusion is a greater form of containment," she said, adding that most Afghan government officials were also involved in past infighting that decimated the country.
Still, the relatively powerless acting governor of Balkh province, put in place by Karzai seven months ago, argued warlords' role should be limited in the election.
"If we had left everything to the warlords, they wouldn't want even the situation we have today," said Habibullah Habib, who is also dean of Balkh University.
All around Jabar's base -- an outpost of the fledgling Afghan National Army meant to supercede the warlords' militias -- lies the most potent symbol of Karzai's impotence: Field after blooming field of pink and purple opium poppies. Zooming by on the main road between Mazar-e-Sharif and Dostum's hometown Shiberghan are dozens of motorcycles driven by drug runners.
If fighting were to break out, Jabar also has a not-so-secret weapon: The U.S. Army trainers with his unit could call in airstrikes.
"When we came on duty, we knew we had U.S. and international supporters behind us," said Jabar, intelligence and operations chief for the 5th Kandak, or battalion, 3rd Brigade of the Afghan army, based in Pul-e-Charki outside Kabul. "They're just 8,000 -- if they were even 80,000 we could defend ourselves."