The warlords who fought a bloody civil war during the 1990s in Afghanistan are talking about making a comeback. And that has many Afghans worried. A former Afghan warlord, Mohammad Ismail Khan, the current minister of energy and water who served as governor of Herat province, has caused consternation by suggesting that militias reform to fill the gap left when international troops withdraw in 2014.
The mujahedeen groups that fought the Soviets in the 1980s and each other in the early 1990s have faded from view under United Nations-backed disarmament initiatives since 2001. Despite the formation of the Afghan National Army, Ismail Khan says the old militias need to be reconstituted as a bulwark against the insurgents after 2014. He said he had discussed the idea with President Hamid Karzai, as well as former mujahedeen commanders.
“I have spoken in detail with the president, who is a former mujahedeen member himself. We are now working on registering names, an agenda and a draft structure for a nationwide jihadi formation,” he said.
“I have talked to jihadi leaders from different provinces,” he continued. “We want to establish a general council of the mujahedeen of Afghanistan very soon, for the sake of the country’s future and in order to uphold the Islamic system.”
The idea of reconstituting armed militias would appear to undo more than a decade’s worth of efforts by the United States and its coalition partners to build a centralised government and national army.
In a speech delivered in October, Ismail Khan made no secret of his contempt for such efforts. “They gathered up our artillery and tanks, and piled them up somewhere like trash,” he said of efforts to disarm the militias. “In their place, they brought in German girls, French girls, Dutch girls and armed American girls. They brought in white European soldiers and black African soldiers and thought they could ensure security here, but they weren’t able to,” he said.
Although the mujahedeen factions are notorious for fighting among themselves, Ismail Khan’s plan has won support in some quarters. One of his old allies, Gholam Mohammad Masun, expanded on the proposal.
“Since people are expressing some fear and trepidation about the withdrawal of foreign forces after 2014, Ismail Khan decided to tell them he is standing side by side with them,” Masun said. “As for the mujahedeen forces ... who were dismissed in the name of DDR (Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration), it’s been decided to register and mobilise them so that if need be, they can help the national army and police.”
Qazi Nazir Ahmad Hanafi, a former militia commander in Herat and now a member of the Afghan parliament, insisted that Ismail Khan’s remarks had been misinterpreted and that Ismail Khan had no intention of setting up his own military force.
“Ismail Khan’s aim is to get the mujahedeen involved in the government’s political and military system so as to provide better security once foreign forces withdraw,” he said.
But such reassurances have done little to calm the fears of those who remember the bloody civil war of the 1990s. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed, indiscriminate shelling and rocket fire devastated large parts of Kabul and lawless paramilitaries brutalised the population and looted property. When the Taliban arrived in Kabul in 1996, they were greeted as a much-needed force for stability and order.
“I don’t know who Ismail Khan is going to wage jihad against ... probably against our oppressed nation,” said Mohammad Hassan, a civil servant. “I have a few requests for Ismail Khan and his jihadi friends. The biggest service they can do us is to refrain from harming us and our country.”
The upper house of parliament condemned Ismail Khan’s proposal as illegal. “Any (non-state) military formation is illegitimate and against the national interest,” Ajmal Sohail, leader of the Afghan Liberal Party, said. “This move by Ismail Khan will further weaken the people’s confidence in the Afghan government and armed forces. In fact, it is doing the enemy a favour.”
Sohail suggested that militia leaders were keen to demonstrate their continued ability to wield power in the face of accusations of human-rights violations and war crimes. “They are doing this to defend themselves. It is a preemptive response to the (possible) implementation of transitional justice in this country, or trials at the International Criminal Court in The Hague,” he said.
Others speculate that Ismail Khan is positioning himself to play a major role in a new, decentralised Afghanistan that could emerge after 2014. With talk of Afghanistan eventually being divided into eight distinct districts, political analyst Wahid Mozhda says Ismail Khan may be manoeuvring to secure the western territories he previously controlled.