On a cold January morning, Uzbekistan opened its first mission in its battered neighbor to the south with as much ceremony as weary Afghanistan could muster: generals were in uniforms, bureaucrats in Western suits and delegates from the rugged hinterland wore their traditional pakul.
Officials doled out praise for the depth of ties between the Central Asian nations, and gracious thanks went to Afghanistan’s interim leader, Hamid Karzai. But the mission was not inaugurated the Afghan capital of Kabul, but in Mazar-e Sharif, a commercial city in the north. The real celebrity was not Karzai, but Abdul Rashid Dostum, a burly Soviet-trained general-turned-warlord who speaks Uzbek and, most importantly, brings guns and money to the region he rules.
Four months after the fall of the Taliban, the new Afghanistan is beginning to look more and more like the Afghanistan of old.
Outside Kabul, from which the US-backed interim government extends its shaky writ over five provinces at best, familiar faces are back. They are staking their claims to fiefdoms that pay tribute to Karzai but increasingly go their own way: Ismail Khan in Herat, Gul Agha Shirzai in Kandahar, Hajji Abdul-Qadir in Jalalabad, warlords and loosely affiliated commanders in nine provinces, and Dostum, who has stated that the future government “must answer the needs and wishes of people in the regions.”
Courting these statelets in the making are the countries that have long vied for influence in Afghanistan: Iran to the west, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to the north, Russia and India, always eager to frustrate the ambitions of neighboring Pakistan.
When it comes to nascent state-building, Dostum — known to his soldiers as “the wrestler” — has perhaps the most to show. Television in Mazar comes from the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, and the city’s currency is known as junbushi, an Afghan note that Dostum printed before the Taliban took over and that operates by an exchange rate different from the government-minted currency. It takes its name from Junbush Milli, the armed movement that Dostum has led.
The city itself is better off than Kabul: the phones work from Mazar to the four northern provinces Dostum controls. In his de facto capital, where he rides around in a convoy of a dozen pickup trucks carrying soldiers with guns and rocket-propelled grenades, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have opened their only missions in Afghanistan.
Dostum serves in the interim government as deputy defense minister and says he is in contact every other day with Defense Minister Mohammed Qasim Fahim. But Dostum, with the soldier’s lack of diplomacy, makes clear his intention. Seated at a table after the ceremony to open the Uzbek mission, he predicted that the only viable government in Afghanistan would be the one that “will be in accordance with realities.”
In just months, Herat, a city once home to some of the Muslim world’s most esteemed poets, painters and architects, has come to rival Mazar in the autonomy it enjoys. The city and surrounding region is run by Ismail Khan, who like Dostum has reclaimed his authority of old. A famed guerrilla commander, Khan had taken over after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and ruled, with a degree of popular support, until the arrival of the Taliban. They swept him from power and later put him in jail, but his escape in 2000 added to his mystique. He sought refuge in Iran, which has supported his return with the dispatch of aid, military advisers and thousands of weapons.
Since his return, Khan has moved against potential opponents. He has arrested supporters of exiled King Zahir Shah, a nostalgic figure for some Afghans who see his return as a way toward reconciliation. People have complained of nepotism within Khan’s ranks, particularly in his appointments to military commands and authority over trade across the Iranian border, a lucrative source of bribes and smuggling.
So far both Dostum and Khan have sought to avoid public disagreements with Kabul. That’s proving less the case in other more lawless regions, where US bombing has continued and commanders and warlords are aggressively vying for power.
Hajji Abdul-Qadir holds tenuous sway in three provinces in the east that have come to define the banditry and looting many fear will spread elsewhere. UN officials openly acknowledge the warlords are stealing tons of donated food that pour into the eastern city of Jalalabad every month. Most residents don’t wait for the 9 pm curfew — they secure themselves in their homes as soon as darkness falls.
To the south, Gul Agha, a former governor in the 1990s, has proven to be a wildcard in relations with Kabul, despite the support provided by US Special Forces. Like Karzai, he is a Pashtun. Unlike Karzai, he has a force of thousands of fighters who answer directly to him, and he has set out to disarm his opponents in the four provinces he controls in the south, home to key smuggling routes from Pakistan. Agha, a man who shot his father’s killer and hung his trophy from a tree, will speak only to Karzai, and not to the Tajiks in the interim government. Agha, like the other warlords, is keeping the fledgling institutions of government at arm’s length.