Maimana, Afghanistan—U.S. Army Maj. Kerry Trent, a member of the 45th Infantry Brigade, a National Guard unit from Oklahoma, walks to the illegal checkpoint to meet with the armed men who run it. The Afghan soldiers escorting him scurry into position; they are members of the First Kandak (battalion) of the First Brigade of the Afghan National Army (ANA), which was set up under the auspices of President Hamid Karzai's interim government. Trent is their adviser.
Trent spies the men he is looking for as he walks past a cleft in the bluffs overlooking a river. The men, who are not uniformed, carry the ubiquitous Kalashnikovs, but they also have rocket-propelled grenade launchers and PKM squad machine guns. Even though two U.S. Humvee crews with a mounted .50-caliber machine gun and another with a grenade launcher back Trent's unit, it would be a fierce battle if the men wanted to fight.
Instead, they get up, greet Trent with "Salaam, salaam," and invite him and his ANA commander, Col. Kareem, for tea. One man introduces himself as a general in the loosely organized, militia-based 200th Division, a unit of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the hero of the famed Northern Alliance who turned on the Taliban and, with the help of American air strikes, defeated them. Dostum's forces sit on the pipelines that move gas into Uzbekistan and on the opium trade routes in the north that move heroin into Germany.
Trent, Kareem, and the interpreter sit down with the Dostum man on a large mat. An attendant brings them tea. Trent does not drink until the Dostum man drinks.
"Why are you here with weapons?" Trent asks. "The Security Council has agreed that no one but ANA forces are allowed to carry guns outside the compound."
"We came here to protect this village," the man answers via the interpreter. He casts a prolonged glance at a large truck driving past, carrying wool.
"Protect them from what?" Trent counters. "Are there Taliban here?"
"Are there Al Qaeda?"
No, the man admits.
"Then what are you protecting them from?"
"We are sightseeing," the general now says. "Many of the men are from this village, and they wanted to visit their homes. We are leaving this afternoon." The general glances at another truck passing by, this one carrying sand. "We will go back this afternoon."
"That is good," Trent says. "I'm glad you are going back this afternoon. That way no one will mistake you for bad guys who are out here robbing people."
The general nods. Then he speaks to the ANA colonel in Uzbek. Their voices rise. They interrupt one another. This goes on for some time. Trent observes. Then the general turns back to him.
"We are leaving this afternoon," the man says again.
"Good. I must take your guns from you if I find you out here with guns again," Trent says. "I am just a soldier, and my orders are to take the guns if they leave the 200th Division compound again."
The general nods and hangs his head in supplication. Then everyone gets up, shakes hands, and walks away. The team reassembles and convoys back through the village to Maimana, past fields of poppies with their bulbs swollen for harvest.
"I figured out what he was doing there," Trent says later. "He was stopping the trucks and charging them fees to pass his area. Every truck that passed, he was assessing how much money he was losing. You could see it in his eyes."
The next day, a patrol is sent back to the location. But even before they leave, the order comes that, despite his previous orders, Trent will not take the men's guns from them. The orders have changed.
"Well, they cut my nuts on that one," Trent says. "It's frustrating."
That small event, with its potential for sudden violence, underscores the balancing act in Afghanistan between the U.S.-led coalition, the warlords, and the weak but growing central government and its fledgling army. Both the interim government and the army are initiatives created by the Bonn II agreements, which charted the current path for Afghanistan's future according to the Western powers' vision for it. Dostum in the North, Ismail Khan in the West, and a host of smaller players throughout the country might have different visions.
In July, President Hamid Karzai postponed the country's parliamentary elections for six months, citing a threat of disruption. According to the president, Afghanistan's private militias had become the country's greatest danger—a bigger threat than the Taliban. Karzai told The New York Times he had attempted to disarm the militias "by persuasion." Now, he said, "The stick has to be used, definitely."
Dostum boasts he could raise as many as 40,000 militiamen. Khan in the West brags of a potent 20,000. Both numbers are probably inflated. Yet as of May, the ANA, the only military in the country with a chartered subservience to civilian government, numbers a little more than 11,000. Despite would-be peacekeeping ventures in both Khan's and Dostum's stomping grounds, the central government's control is at best shaky there.
In the north, Dostum's influence is strong. While the region is supposed to be under the law of the Karzai government, it is really ruled by a string of alliances between feudal warlords. In Faryab's capital of Maimana, Dostum lost control of his subordinate, Hashim Habbibi, who attempted to set himself up as an ally of the Karzai-appointed interim governor. On April 8 Dostum's local brownshirts, the Jumbish Youth, rioted and ran the governor out of town. The crisis precipitated the occupation of Maimana's airport by about 700 ANA troops and their advisers. The key to the ANA's power is the identity of those advisers: They are Americans.
"I guarantee you, if Dostum wants us, he can get us at any time," says Lt. Col. Jack Mosher, an Army Ranger who commanded Camp Spartan, the hastily built ANA base set up near the dirt airstrip serving Maimana. "The only question is, do they want to start a warlord war now or later?"
Mosher notes that a company of Dostum's T-62 tanks are housed at a compound fewer than three kilometers away from the airfield. The tanks could arrive at the camp within 10 minutes. The ANA infantry units could put up a fight, but they could be overrun if the tanks were as functional as feared. The two up-armored Humvees driven by the Americans wouldn't last very long either. It would be an even bet whether anyone in the camp would still be alive by the time American air support arrived.
Arrive they would, however. And according to Mosher, Dostum knows it. "The only reason we are still here is because Dostum has seen what air power can do," he said.
Mosher recalls that when his unit was dispatched to Maimana in the first days of the Jumbish Youth riots, his convoy had to drive through Sheberghan, Dostum's hometown. As the convoy, consisting of several five-ton trucks of ANA troops, two Humvees, and a few pickups, approached the front gate, it was met by a policeman who said it couldn't pass. "Dostum is coming," the man said.
In the minutes that followed, several tanks drove to the gate, facing the convoy. Dostum troops locked and loaded their Kalashnikovs and filed into a ready-made ambush trench running alongside the road near the gate. Troops encircled the convoy, four men deep.
Meanwhile, Mosher called in air support. The A-10 jets arrived as Mosher saw an armored SUV with blacked-out bulletproof windows pull up in front of the convoy. Mosher went to meet the vehicle. Out of it stepped Dostum.
Mosher describes the notorious strongman as a large, bloated figure dressed in a Western-style suit, sporting a thick moustache. When Mosher attempted to engage the general in introductory conversation, the man drunkenly roared "Me Dostum!" and shoved away Mosher's interpreter. As the two groups of soldiers stared at one another across gun barrels, the general ripped a cell phone out of his pocket and called President Karzai, screaming into the phone.
"A guy like Dostum has seen the Russians come and go, the Mujahedin come and go, and the Taliban come and go," Mosher says. "A guy like him really doesn't mind rolling the dice every now and then. I think he wanted to let Karzai know he had us if he wanted us."
Within moments of finishing the conversation with Karzai, Dostum would exclaim to Mosher that he wasn't "afraid of American planes."
"All the while, he kept looking up at the A-10s circling overhead," Mosher remembers.
Like a summer cloudburst, the moment passed. Dostum hung up the phone. Reeking of liquor, he embraced Mosher in a bear hug.
"We are both soldiers," the general told Mosher, glancing up at the planes. "Let us not have troubles like this." He ordered his troops to part and allow Mosher's unit through. As if the confrontation had never happened, Dostum's men waved and cheered at the convoy passing them.
The ANA started in December 2001 as a group of "volunteers" more or less donated by various warlords. The First Kandak consisted of about 400 soldiers trained in an ad hoc fashion by U.S. Special Forces. That kandak suffered an attrition rate of 50 percent in the first month as the soldiers grew tired of full-time military life and returned to their villages. Similar attrition rates continued through the first two years of the ANA's existence, although they dropped steadily as equipment, uniforms, facilities, and pay improved.
Training came under the 45th Mountain Division, then was transferred to National Guard units by late 2003. A private's pay rose from about $40 a month to better than $70 a month, still a low figure but considered a living wage for an Afghan. Perhaps just as important, that rate is sustainable for Afghanistan's third-world economy. By the time 15 kandaks had been formed, completing the army's Central Corps, the desertion rate had dropped to less than 2 percent a month. Such a rate is still considered high for a Western power but is acceptable in Afghan terms, said Brig. Gen. Thomas Mancino, the commander of the 45th Infantry Brigade. The 45th, a.k.a. the Thunderbirds, inherited the Afghan Army training initiative in November 2003.
"In the early formation of the army, there was an issue of a high loss rate," Mancino reports. "I don't like to use the word desertion, because to the Afghan that means you leave under fire. They have a unique term. They refer to them as 'escapees.'"
These "escapees" leave their kandaks for up to a month sometimes, taking their pay home to their families. Because the banking system is all but nonexistent in Afghanistan, the soldiers are paid in cash. Some travel for days or even weeks to their families to pay for rent, food, etc. Then one day, the soldiers return to their kandaks fully expecting to be welcomed back into the ranks, fully intending to continue their work as soldiers. Except for those who are gone more than a month, most are taken back.
"Once they get to the unit, they are well fed, well equipped, and well trained," Mancino said. "Attrition is down. If you look at the loss rate in basic training, it's less than what you'd find in American basic training."
Equipment and weapons are mostly donated Eastern Bloc items—old AK-47s from the former East Germany, light artillery from the Czech Republic, mortars from Poland, communications equipment from Romania. These items are not only already familiar to Afghans but more easily sustainable in the long run than high-tech, expensive military equipment produced by the West.
Afghan uniforms are American battle dress uniforms. The boots at first were made locally, and they fell apart within a couple of months, a matter of some consternation for the U.S. authorities when ANA soldiers had to train with tennis shoes. Now the boots are made in the U.S.
With the new equipment comes an alphabet mix of trainers. Americans are the primary trainers, instructing the members of a kandak from induction to combat. In between, French teach the officers, and the British teach the noncommissioned officers (NCOs), or sergeants.
The teaching of the NCOs is crucial. Eschewed in Warsaw Pact armies, noncommissioned officers form the backbone of both the American and British armies, allowing for independent decision-making leadership down to the squad level. Such independence is anathema to the top-down Soviet-style structure, which emphasizes strong central control at the expense of flexibility on the battlefield.
Through April 2004, the NCO trainers were from the British Army Gurkha Battalions. The Gurkha emphasis on traditional British military values is legendary. Maj. Frazer Lawrence commanded the Gurkha trainers in Afghanistan, who created a corps of Afghan trainers to build the army's NCOs. He expressed some trepidation when the Gurkhas handed over the training completely to the Afghans in April but remained broadly positive about it.
"The corps we have are good," he said. "Some are excellent and can hold their own against any American or Brit. The best way now is to let them run for it, and stand back with a hand on the tiller. You won't really know if they can do it until they do it."
Lawrence felt the time was coming when the Brits were going to pull out, and he wanted the Afghan Army to be ready to stand on its own. "The day the Brits are pulling out is still to be confirmed," he said. "I don't see us being here for years and years. I'll reword that: I don't see us teaching the NCO school for years and years."
Afghan soldiers who have had any formal military training at all in their background usually learned Soviet-style tactics and planning. For four years, the former Soviet-backed government of Mohammed Najibullah carried out military training at the Kabul Military Academy. There, Capt. Sayd Mohammed graduated as a teen and went straight into the forces that were attempting to shore up Najibullah's failing regime. Mohammed and others defended the city against the invasions, first of Hekmatyar, whose artillery barrages destroyed much of the then-intact city, then against the Taliban.
According to Mohammed, the Ministry of Defense values his training less than it should. Instead it values family ties, village ties, and former Mujahedin alliances.
"If they hire officers, they should hire officers according to good qualifications," Mohammed told me in April. "We should not hire officers who do not qualify, because we have some officers like that now who are problems."
U.S. Army Maj. Pat Foor, an embedded trainer with the 45th Infantry Brigade, seconded Mohammed's account. "Nepotism," he said. "That's a thing you see a lot of. You have family ties and village ties, henchmen ties. Sometimes I don't think we use our leverage the way we could."
Foor recounted Mohammed's career, which had spanned two decades of fighting in the country after the youth's formal military training. He acknowledged that Soviet training had its blind spots, such as its inability to properly use NCOs in a battle environment. But he insisted those problems can be trained away. He even said that Soviet military training, with all its baggage, is preferable to the guerilla-only training of the Mujahedin days.
"To me it doesn't matter if they are trained by the Soviets or not, because at least they understand the systems," Foor explained. "Combined arms, how to use tanks and artillery and infantry together. Mujahedin have only been doing guerilla warfare. They don't know how to use NCOs, chain of command, [or how to] conduct large-scale operations."
As the conversation turned to warlordism, Mohammed spoke up again.
"Right now we have commanders in Herat fighting," he noted. "We have Dostum in Mazar-I-Sharif fighting sometimes. First, you have to have a good army to keep Afghanistan secure. We have to annihilate these commanders. Then you can have a good Afghanistan. We can build good roads and make it a good place."
Within a month, both Foor and Mohammed's units would be moved to Maimana for exactly that confrontation.
The drama of Dostum vs. Karzai reached a critical juncture in Maimana in late April. Following the governor's ousting, the ANA started "presence patrols" throughout Faryab province. These patrols consisted of a few squads of ANA soldiers escorted by their American advisers, usually officers, along with interpreters and a squad in up-armored Humvees. The patrols, while not ostensibly intended to arrest or prosecute the warlords and their minions, nevertheless unsettled Dostum's hold on the region.
The patrols were the first evidence in Faryab of a new political order. Most villagers had heard of Karzai and the central government, but the patrols, consisting of a multi-ethnic mix of Afghans working in military unison, were the first sign that such a thing existed.
They also gave notice to Dostum's commanders that they would be watched, recorded, and even confronted for their treatment of villagers. Complaints were heard. Reports were taken on illegal taxation, in which villages were taxed either by headcounts on goats and sheep or by taking the livestock itself. Irregulars manning illegal checkpoints were told to pack up and clear away. Forced marriages, in which a woman or girl is snatched from a village for the pleasure of soldiers, ceased in patrolled areas.
The patrols were also a tool of recruitment. ANA officers would make tea time with village elders into an opportunity to show off their soldiers, equipment, and uniforms. They would give a talk about the benefits for young men who chose service in the army: good food, clothing, living quarters, and decent pay. At some of these gatherings, even Dostum officers would ask to join.
But while the wrongdoing of the warlords invited a response, action became ever harder to undertake.
On April 28 the ANA and American denizens of Camp Spartan got their wake-up call.
Mosher gathered the unit together in the Spartan HQ tent to give them the news: Karzai had met in his Kabul palace with a delegation of town elders. The elders had pressed Karzai to allow them to elect their own governor from their town rather than take back the governor who had been ousted. Karzai refused. According to reports, at further badgering by the delegation, the interim president became angry and ordered a plane to take the governor back to Maimana immediately.
Now, Mosher reported, the hated governor was on his way via plane to the Maimana airport. Mosher encouraged his soldiers to review the base defenses once more. "If there was anything on your wish list that you wanted to accomplish, now is the time," Mosher told them.
As the day wore on, the soldiers at Camp Spartan got mixed signals, both from Karzai and from their own command. The governor was on his way, the governor wasn't, and so on back and forth.
In Maimana, a leader of the Jumbish Youth (Dostum's martial youth organization) said, "If the governor comes back we will make this a new Palestine." Reports suggested the leader had ties to Hamas and supposedly had instructed other youths in the organization in the techniques of suicide bombers.
Then, late at night, Mosher got another call. Karzai had changed his mind. He had met again with the elders and agreed to a new election. The governor's plane was diverted to Mazar-I-Sharif. The governor would not be returning—although his final disposition is still not certain.
Warlord for President
The reversal gave little respite. The next day soldiers loyal to Dostum, armed and on horseback, were reported converging in hills south of Maimana. The renegade commander, Habbibi, had returned to a small village in the middle of an opium-growing area and had taken up residence with up to 300 gun-toting supporters. With opium harvesting season in full swing, Habbibi's motive was obvious. Presence patrols in the area were cancelled. With the fruit withering on the vine, word came that a deal was being cut between Habbibi and Dostum. But the fighting continued through mid-May, with sporadic, sketchy reports of casualties. By June it was quiet again.
Afghanistan's elections were first pushed back from June to September, then to October. Then they were split. The presidential elections would be held in October, followed by parliamentary elections sometime in the spring. Slow registration was predictable in a shattered country torn by 25 years of war, with a generation growing up with a 71 percent illiteracy rate. In some regions with impassable roads, voter registration remained close to zero.
Meanwhile, rhetoric between Dostum and Karzai continued to boil. In mid-July, Dostum announced his candidacy for the presidency, jetting from his stronghold in Sheberghan to Kabul late on the night of July 17. He made the trip in secrecy after agreeing to meet with journalists for Reuters and British television, leaving them waiting for hours at an airstrip near the town. The move seemed an about-face for the former ally of the Soviets, Mujahedin, and Taliban. Dostum had gone from having his followers discourage voter registration to depending on it to keep his stake in Afghan national affairs. It was at that time that a frustrated Karzai told The New York Times the threat of the militias was greater than that from Taliban insurgents, and that "the stick has to be used."
The "stick" could hardly be only the Afghan National Army, which by this time numbered just under 20,000, with the majority deployed throughout the country. Force to punish warlords could only come with the approval and involvement of U.S. forces. Would they wade into the warlord war, with resources and personnel stretched thin not only by Afghanistan but by Iraq?
Following his pronouncement, Karzai faced sudden dissension in his government when his defense minister, Marshal Muhammad Qasim Fahim, announced he was no longer on the ticket as Karzai's running mate. Fahim, himself a powerful Northern Alliance warlord claiming the allegiance of thousands of militiamen, as well as a number of other government ministers, overshadows possibly even Dostum as a threat.
Using Karzai's Stick
Karzai postponed a trip to Pakistan as rumors of a possible coup circulated throughout Kabul. U.S. officials planned an evacuation of Karzai and his remaining loyal cabinet members. By the end of July, the threat seemed to pass into unease. A roadside bomb with 16 kilograms of explosives was found at a major intersection near a string of coalition bases. It was defused before it exploded.
On July 29 the first shots of what may become the warlord war were fired. A contingent of ANA troops with their American advisers was attacked by what U.S. officers described as a "rogue" contingent of Afghan Militia Force (AMF) troops under Comdr. Mughabi of the 41st Division. The ANA was going to disarm that unit as a part of the U.N.-mandated disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration process. Somehow, reports indicate, the ANA unit confronted Mughabi's troops as they were transporting a load of opium into the town of Chacharan, between Herat and Kabul. The AMF opened fire on the ANA. The attack, which came at the end of the 45th Infantry Brigade's stewardship over ANA training, wounded two of the American trainers.
"There was a gunfight," said the 45th's Gen. Mancino. "Personnel were captured from both sides, by both sides. A-10s were called, and they engaged the enemy."
As predicted, when American air power intervened it wrought what was described as massive destruction among the AMF troops. They broke away from the fight.
"After the A-10s attacked, the enemy negotiated with the ANA, prisoners were exchanged, and contact ceased," Mancino said. "There were wounded Americans, none seriously, and wounded ANA." Officials refused to estimate the number of casualties on the other side.
Does this incident underscore Karzai's fears about the militia threat in the country?
"Actually, this is a good thing," remarked a U.S. spokesman at a press conference two days later. "This incident shows we are serious about the disarmament process and that we will act decisively."
On at least that occasion, Karzai's stick had proved effective. We'll see how it fares in the clashes to come.