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The Problems of Creating a New Afghan army –  and the critical dangers of failure!

Principal author: Dr Antonio Giustozzi 


Maps Afghanistan Political Map 2002
Map showing Areas controlled by Warlords & Political Factions, April 2002
The Movers and Shakers Who’s who
Factional alignments as of April 2002 Rabbani, Royalists, Dostum, Panjsheris, Hizb-i Wahdat
Parties, Factions and Groups in April 2002 Description and estimated military strengths
Major ethnic groups in Afghanistan Estimates 2002

Historical background

The army under the monarchy
The communist period: before the Soviet occupation
The communist period: under the Soviet occupation
The communist period: after the Soviet occupation
The armed forces of the Taleban

Underlying problems of forming a national army in Afghanistan

The Political-military picture in April 2002

Abdul Rashid Dostum - The eponymous warlord?
Ismail Khan: an Iranian puppet?
The legacy of Jamlat-i Islami’s Massud - Respectable warlords?
Hizb-i Wahdat - A people’s party?
The Pashtun warlords of Southern and Eastern Afghanistan

The warlords in the Afghanistan of tomorrow

Towards a real national army?

The initial debate
Theory and practice
The process gets started

Conclusion : ‘A brief window of opportunity’

The Movers and Shakers - Who’s who

Zahir Shah: King of Afghanistan from 1933, Zahir Shah was deposed in 1973 by his cousin Mohammed Daoud, who proclaimed a republic. Despite the existence of a strong monarchist sentiment among the Pashtun tribes, during his exile he never showed much interest towards the political developments inside Afghanistan. Even after his return to Afghanistan in April 2002, when he will open the Loya Jirgah, the King, now 87 years old, appears uninterested in an active political role

Hamid Karzai: a diplomat by inclination and experience and a monarchist by conviction, Karzai supported the Taleban in their early days, but later broke with them. He emerged in late 2001 as a compromise figure to lead the new interim administration.

Abdul Rashid Dostum: Formerly a military commander of the communist regime, Dostum contributed to its downfall in 1992 and allied with Jamiat-i Islami. An Uzbek, Dostum obtains most of his support from his own ethnic group and has enjoyed a good relationship with the neighbouring Uzbek government in Tashkent.  He has a reputation of being ruthless and effective.

Burhauddin Rabbani: The longest-standing Islamist politician in Afghanistan, Rabbani is the founder of Jamiat-i Islami, a party which he has led so far. He became President of Afghanistan in 1993, but was forced to flee in 1996 by the Taleban.

Ahmad Shah Massud: before his assassination in September 2001, Massud was reputed to be Afghanistan’s most able military commander. A member of Jamiat-i Islami, after the fall of Kabul to the mujahidin in 1992 he became Minister of Defence, but his reputation as a politician is not untarnished.

Mohammed Fahim: Massud’s chief of intelligence, Fahim became the military commander of the opposition to the Taleban after Massud’s death and was appointed Defence Minister in December 2001. A leading member of the Panjsheri faction of Jamiat, he is today one of Afghanistan’s strongest men.

Abdullah Qanooni: one of Massud’s closest associates, he is today one of the leaders of the Panjsheri faction of Jamiat-i Islami and has been appointed Minister of the Interior in December 2001.

Ismail Khan: after joining Jamiat-i Islami in 1979, he became one of the main military commanders of the mujahidin and ended up controlling most of Western Afghanistan. He was defeated by the Taleban in 1996, but with the beginning of the American offensive he succeeded in recovering his old stronghold.

Gul Agha: a monarchist, he was governor of Kandahar between 1992 and 1994, when the Taleban replaced him. Re-emerged at the end of 2001 at the head of his own army, funded by the Americans, and took over Kandahar once again.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar: once one of Afghanistan most prominent islamist politicians, he earned a reputation as an extremist and made several blunders, ending in a situation of near-total isolation.

Rasul Sayyaf: a veteran islamist politician and founder of Ittehad-i Islami, Sayyaf built his career on his strong relationship with Saudi Arabia and on the rich funding which he managed to obtain from it.

 Abdul Malik Pahlawan: having emerged as one of the key leaders of Jumbesh-i Melli  after the assassination of his brother, Rasul, Abdul Malik soon turned against Jumbes’s leader Dostum and tried to replace him at the top of the movement, but failed. He has since led a splinter faction.

Mohammed Najibullah: he started his political career as the head of the intelligence service of the communist regime in 1980, becoming then in 1986 President and leader of the party itself. A Pashtun known for his ability in dealing with the tribes, he managed to  stay in power for six years despite all the adversities, but was eventually overthrown once the supplies from the Soviet Union dried up. He was finally assassinated by the Taleban in 1996.

Babrak Karmal: brought to power by the Red Army in December 1979, Karmal’s performance as President and leader of the Hizb-i Demokratik Khalq was judged unsatisfactory by the Soviets, who in 1986 replaced him with Najibullah.

Kharim Khalili: head of one of the leading Hazara parties until 1988 and then of the unified Hizb-i Wahdat after the death of Mazari in 1995, Khalili remains the official leader of the party and heads its largest internal faction.

Sayid Muhammad Akbari: one of the few leaders of Hizb-i Wahdat not to be a Hazara (he is a qizilbash), Akbari broke with Khalili in 1993 and allied first with with Jamiat and then with the Taleban. He was reconciled with the majority of Wahdat in 2001.

Factional alignments as of April 2002

Rabbani Jamiat-i Islami (Rabbani faction); Jamiat-i Islami (Ismail Khan faction); Ittehad-i Islam;  Small Pashtun warlords formerly aligned with Hekmatyar
Royalists Gul Agha, Zaman and many other Pashtun warlords big and small
Dostum Jumbesh-i Melli (Dostum faction), Ismaili sect
Panjsheris Jamiat-i Islami (Panjsheri faction), Jumbesh-i Melli (Abdul Malik faction), Harakat-i Islami, Hazrat Ali
Hizb-i Wahdat has not committed itself openly to any alliance yet.

Parties, factions and groups in April 2002


Estimated military strength
Jamiat-i Islami - Islamic Society (Rabbani faction)

Formed in the second half of the 1970's by Burhauddin Rabbani as a relatively moderate Islamist party, Jamiat-Islami became during the war against the Soviet occupation the largest party within the mujahidin movement. Following its occupation of Kabul in 1992, differences within the party began to grow and after the defeat of the Taleban Jamiat-i Islami split, with its long-standing leader, Rabbani, maintaining the leadership of one of the factions.
Jamiat-i Islami - Islamic Society (Ismail Khan faction)

By the mid-1980's Ismail Khan, one of Jamiat-i Islami most powerful field commanders, had gained control over most of Western Afghanistan, either directly or through alliances. After falling in to disgrace in 1996, he succeeded in regaining control of his fiefdom at the end of 2002, becoming virtually independent of the leadership of Jamiat-i Islami
Ittehad-i Islam (Islamic Union)

Led by one of the earlier Islamist intellectuals, Rasul Sayyaf, had recruited a large number of Pashtun fighters during the war against the Soviet Union, but suffered massive desertions towards the Taleban in 1994-1996. It recovered some influence after the latest regime change. It is trditionally heavily supported by Saudi Arabia.
a few thousand
Dissident Hizb-i Islami warlords

In part due to opportunism and in part due to the loss of credibility and funds by Hekmatyar's Hizb-i Islami, some of his local commanders have been recruited to support Rabbani. It is not clear whether such warlords maintain any link to Hizb-i Islami.
a few thousand
Jamiat-i Islami - Islamic Society (Panjsheri faction)

Set up by supporters of the late Ahmad Shah Massud, the Panjsheri faction of Jamiat represents the new generation of Islamist intellectuals, often trained in Western universities and with a more secular outlook than older politicians like Rabbani.  It controlled the key ministries of defence, interior and foreign affairs in the Karzai interim administration, but by mid-2002 it showed signs of internal fragmentation.
Hazrat Ali

A warlord from Nuristan and a close ally of the Panjsheri, he is one of the few commanders in Eastern Afghanistan to have been constantly active against the Taleban in 1996-2001.
a few thousand
Jumbesh-i Milli - National Front (Abdul Malik faction)

Led by Dostum's main rival within Jumbesh-i Melli, this splinter faction is not active in its home province of Faryab, but appears to have retained some following there.
a few hundred
Jumbesh-i Milli - National Front (Dostum faction)

Created by Abdul Rashid Dostum and some allies in 1992 as President Najibullah was forced out of power, Jumbesh was mostly a coalition of former military leaders of the communist regime. Initially allied with Jamiat, the party switched alliances in early 1994 and aligned with Hezb-i Islami and Hezb-i Wahdat. Rooted out of Northern Afghanistan by the Taleban in 1998 after two earlier, failed attempts, the party resurfaced in 2001 to lead the first successful ground offensive against the Taleban after the beginning of American intervention.
Ismailis (Naderi's group)

A Shiite sect, many Ismailis have supported Naderi during the late years of the communist regime and after. Allied with Dostum, Naderi shared his fate when the Taleban took over Northern Afghanistan. In early 2002 he tried to take back his stronghold of Baghlan province from the Panjsheris, but failed.
a few hundred

A loose coalition of often rival warlords, the monarchists can count  on widespread support among Pashtuns, but their efforts at increasing their  weight are hampered by the lack of organisation and tribal and personal infighting. Hamid Karzai is one of them, although he tried to maintain a balance between factions while prime minister.
Several tens of thousands
Hezb-i Wahdat (Unity Party)

Created in 1988 by the merger of 9 Hazara parties, Wahdat comes close to representing the Hazara community. Traditionally rather pro-Iranian, has in the past been allied with both Jamiat, Jumbesh and Hizb-i Islami, but it has also fought against each of them. At present its ministers occupy minor positions in the Karzai administration, while the party has kept aloof from the factional alignments that are taking shape.
Hizb-i Demokratik-i Khalq (People’s Democratic Party)/Hizb-i Watan (Fatherland Party)

The Afghan communist party, originally Hizb-i Demokratik-i Khalq, then renamed Hizb-i Watan in 1990, no longer exists, but many of his members are still active, sometimes with prominent roles. The greatest concentrations of former members is in Jumbesh-i Melli, but there are many within the ranks of the Panjsheri faction of Jamiat too. Even among the Pashtun warlords some former communists still have some influence.
Others (non-aligned)

Especially among the Pashtuns, several warlords, while not opposing the interim administration, have only formally endorsed it, without taking any positive action and have adopted a wait and see attitude.
Several thousand
Hezb-i Islami - Islamic Party (Hekmatyar faction)

Some small warlords remain apparently faithful to Hekmatyar, one of the most prominent figures of Afghan islamist movements and founder of Hizb-Islami in the second half of the 1970's. The party is known for its extremist policies and in the past relied heavily on Pakistani funding. For these reasons, it is playing only a marginal role today, but its commanders have been involved in a spate of attacks on supporters of the Karzai administration during the early months of 2002.
a few thousand

Especially in the areas under tribal control, remnants of the Taleban are still present, although they have mostly kept a low profile during the first four months of 2002. They do not at present appear in a position to cause more than local trouble, unless central authority fails to become a reality.
Several thousand
TOTAL 250,000

Major ethnic groups in Afghanistan, estimates 2002

Pashtuns 38 - 45%
Tajiks 19 - 25%
Hazara 9 - 19%
Uzbeks, Turkmen and other Turkic 7 - 11%
Other 11 - 15%
Note: Refugees in other countries are excluded


It is being repeated by many that the priority for the future of Afghanistan is establishing security. While nobody would deny the truth of this statement, there is much complacency in many quarters, particularly in the West, about the prospects of pacifying Afghanistan through the creation of a new, non-partisan army. While the task is by no means impossible to achieve, there is a widening gap between rhetoric and reality. This special report looks at the problem of creating and maintaining an effective regular army in Afghanistan, taking into consideration both the historical background and the impact of the present political situation on it. The qualities and limitations of the present plans and at the prospects for the short- and medium-term future are also analysed with particular regard to a failure to achieve the stated objectives, which principally aim at creating a stable and orderly polity for this nation, and to prevent a recurrence of a situation whereby the Taleban originally came to power.

Historical background

The army under the monarchy

The origins of the Afghan regular armed forces date back to the 1920s and 1930s, when the first (not very successful) attempts to establish a disciplined military force were carried out. After virtually disintegrating during the 1929 revolt, the army was re-built during the 1930s. The military academy, in charge of educating the lower ranks of the officer corps, was established in 1932, while the top brass were trained in Turkey. By 1938 the Afghan army numbered 90,000 men, a size that would be maintained until the late 1970s. The police was instead a much smaller force of 9,600 men, based in the cities and towns. The Afghan Royal Air Force was created in 1924 and soon acquired its first bombers, whose potential in dealing with tribal revolts had become clear during the Third Anglo-Afghan war (1919), in which the intervention of the British RAF had proved decisive. It was only during the 1950s, however, that the Afghan army acquired the capability to deal successfully with tribal revolts, thanks to the purchase of modern aircraft and armoured vehicles from the Soviet Union. A turning point can be identified in the tribal revolt of 1959 among the Mangal, which was successfully put down without much effort by the Army, with the use of tanks.

The Afghan armed forces continued to develop during the 1960s and 1970s. The Army increasingly became concerned with fighting against external threats, since the relationship with Pakistan began to deteriorate as a result of the heating up of the issue of Pashtun irredentism. With the establishment of the Republic in 1973, the new ruler Mohammed Daoud decided to create a gendarmerie, to relieve as much as possible the Army of the burden of maintaining internal order. The gendarmerie also became a tool for strengthening central control over rural areas. Previously, as the Army and the police were concentrated in a few garrisons in the main administrative centres, such as provincial headquarters, villages were largely left on their own. The presence of gendarmerie units, by contrast, was more widespread, with many villages “benefiting” from the presence of a small garrison (10-12 men). Nonetheless, most villages even in the 1970s did not have any armed government presence. The gendarmerie numbered only 20-30,000, too few to garrison more than a small percentage of Afghanistan’s 36,000 villages.

The purpose of spreading armed government presence across the Afghan countryside was of course to maintain order, but the local population in general did not welcome this presence. From Kabul’s point of view, maintaining order meant first and foremost ensuring that government laws and decrees were enforced in the villages, that taxes were levied and conscription in the armed forces carried out. Hunting outlaws and preventing local conflicts were, at least in the eyes of the villagers, lower priorities for the gendarmerie. Their presence might well have contributed to push what modern states call the “crime rate” down, but as often happens, the value of prevention was not appreciated much by the population.

By the late 1970s, the Afghan ground forces stood at 118,000 men, of which 90,000 were in the army and 28,000 in the gendarmerie. While the latter were lightly equipped, the Army, despite consisting mostly of infantry, did have substantial amounts of armour and artillery and could rely on the support of a small Air Force. Mobility was limited due to poor logistics and transport and to the limited development of the road network, but available resources appeared sufficient to control local revolts. In 1975, an attempt by Islamist rebels to start a guerrilla war in the countryside failed miserably, without even the need to call in the Army.

The communist period: before the Soviet occupation

With the communist take-over of April 1978, however, the situation began to change rapidly, especially due to the political infighting within the fissiparious communist party (People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan – Hizb-i Demokratik-i Khalq-i Afganistan). Soon one of the two wings of the party, Parcham, was forced out of the government. In 1979, the dominant faction, Khalq, was split too between the followers of the two main leaders, Taraki and Amin. As the former was assassinated, political power became concentrated in the hands of a single faction of the Pashtun intelligentsia. The effectiveness and discipline of the Armed Forces began to suffer from both the growing level of internal opposition and the continuous purges carried out by the Amin faction in power against real or presumed enemies. The communists had been strong in the army, with almost 2,000 full members before the April 1978 coup, and had soon started recruiting more of their supporters into it. By the second half of 1979, despite all the purges, the losses and the desertions, a third of all officers were members of the Hizb-i Demokratik-i Khalq, although the same could be said only of very few private soldiers. However, most of these officers were recent promotions, often motivated by factionalism and cronyism rather than by military merit. While the political reliability of the army was increasing, its ability to operate successfully on the battlefield was being eroded. The situation was compounded by the fact that armed insurrections had begun to spread across the country, as tribes and ethnic minorities were starting to react to the policies of the new regime. Moreover, Islamist militants were beginning to infiltrate the country from Pakistan, with the aim of organising guerrilla warfare against the Communists. It was no longer a matter of keeping Kabul and a few major cities under control - the war was beginning in the countryside.

As a result, the Army and the gendarmerie, now renamed Sarandoy (“defenders of the revolution”), became increasingly demoralised, especially as far as that part of the officer corps that did not follow Amin was concerned. Waves of desertions began to reduce their numerical strength. Despite all the recruitment efforts and the expansion of the personnel charts, the actual number of men in the ranks fell rapidly. By the end of 1979, the Sarandoy had only 8,000 men (instead of 50,000 allowed by the new personnel charts) and the Army 50,000 men (instead of 90,000).

The communist period: under the Soviet occupation

After the Red Army had occupied the country between December 1979 and January 1980 and brought to power the Parcham faction of the Hizb-i Demokratik-i Khalq, led by Babrak Karmal, the regime and his Soviet advisers faced the problem of how to restore order in the countryside. After some early, unsuccessful attempts to “mobilise the revolutionary masses” and give a new lease of life to the regular army, the policies of Kabul began to shift towards a more pragmatic approach. In those days, as in 2002, it appeared clear that the priority had to be given to rebuilding effective armed forces. However, it also emerged that such a task could not be separated from the more political issue of establishing a foothold among the people who were actually running most of the countryside, i.e. warlords and guerrilla commanders.

In part because the presence of Soviet advisers was resented by the officer corps, which was still mainly composed of members of the Khalq faction, in part hostile to a government dominated by Parchamists, especially during the early 1980s the performance of the regular army was very modest. Operations without Soviet support were resumed only in October 1982 and even then on a small scale. In fact, the Afghan army demonstrated  recovery of real independent operational capacity only from 1986. Even then, it could defeat the mujahidin in a pitched battle, but such events were rare in the Afghan war, which was mainly fought by guerrilla methods. The regular army never performed very well when it had to fight in small units, due to the low morale of the troops.

If the power of the mujahidin had to be confronted at the village level, the regular army could not be expected to do it. Starting from 1981, at first in a rather shy way and then increasingly boldly, the Kabul government began to offer material incentives to the pro-mujahidin warlords in order to convince them to switch sides. Because the warlords represented very much the idea of a “counter-revolution”, such policy was controversial and until 1987 political concessions to the warlords were kept to a minimum. However, it became apparent that more than material incentives were needed to alter significantly the balance of forces in the countryside. With the replacement of Babrak Karmal by Mohammed Najibullah at the head of the regime, a man willing to further dilute the principles of the revolution, came to power. Local warlords began to receive a growing share of power in their regions, sometimes becoming governors of entire provinces, more often being in a position to control the judiciary and the economy at the local level without much supervision from the ruling communist party. Not only was this policy applied to warlords formerly aligned with the mujahidin, but even many militias created by the party itself began to develop along similar lines.

It was, in a way, a paradoxical choice: weakening the central state in order to strengthen its capacity to attract consensus. The administration of provinces was restructured along lines consistent with this policy. Whereas in the first years after the April Revolution there had been a shift of power from the hands of the provincial governors towards the provincial leaders of the communist party, starting from the mid-1980s the power of the governors started rising again. When Kabul succeeded in appointing governors with roots in the local society, they often managed to strengthen their influence through their own personal network, contributing largely to the successful recruitment of militias. Their success and popularity among the local people made them difficult to replace for central government, contributing to the general shift of power away from the centre and towards the provinces. The power of the governors reached its peak with the establishment, towards the end of the 1980s, of the rank of governor-general, who concentrated all the political and military power in his hands.

The importance of having leaders with some charisma and good personal relationships was evident in the figure of President Najibullah himself, who had a personal stronghold among his own Ahmedzai tribe, around the town of Gardez. It was no chance that the 1st Tribal Division was created there. Among the governors, the most significant examples were those of Fazel Haq Khaleqyar, governor of Herat province, and General Olomi, governor of Kandahar. The two governors, appointed in 1987, were successful in strengthening the government’s hold on the two provinces, which used to be controlled by the opposition. Military pressure played an important role in this success, but only because it was accompanied by an extensive campaign of befriending village elders and tribal leaders. The campaign was made credible by the reputation of Khaleqyar and Olomi, who were not identified by the population with the past excesses of the regime.

With the creation of the Tribal Militias and of the Regional Forces in 1982 and 1983 respectively, the development of semi-regular forces to be employed locally was officially sanctioned. At the same time, the Kabul regime did not abandon its plan to strengthen the regular armed forces, which actually assumed a new importance because of the need to counter-balance the growing power of the Regional Forces and of the Militias, which were largely made up of former warlords. The reconstruction of the Afghan armed forces was also influenced by the power struggle within the ruling party. For example, the Border Guard created in 1981 had the duty of controlling border infiltration, but at the same time it was a move to weaken the Army, which was under the influence of the Khalq faction, opposed to then President Karmal. During the 1980s, the main aspect of army reforms was the strengthening of fighting units under the control of the intelligence service (KhAD, then renamed WAD). KhAD/WAD was under the control of the ruling Parcham faction, as opposed to the Army and Sarandoy, where the influence of Khalq was paramount. The importance of WAD was especially highlighted in 1988, when the newly created Special Guard, a sort of strategic reserve consisting of the best troops and the best equipment, was put under its control.

The creation of the Special Guard was a crucial aspect of the policy of counter-balancing the increasing importance of the semi-regular units, often led by real warlords. Originally grouped within the Regional Forces and the Tribal Militias, starting from 1988 the most effective units began to be transferred to the regular army, with the aim of improving their discipline and to use them beyond their region of origin. The main shortcoming of the Regional Forces/Tribal Militias, which were quite effective in fighting the insurgents, was the their lax discipline and their inclination towards abusing the local population, especially when active outside their villages of origin. The regular army too had a reputation for looting, but the Regional Forces went beyond that, imposing their own taxes on road travellers and often going as far as raping and kidnapping civilians. Moreover, fighting between rival warlords was common even when they had both crossed over to the government side and joined the militias.

Since the early phases of its recruitment of local militias, the Kabul government was concerned with maintaining some standards of discipline and political control, but was never very successful. The attempts by President Najibullah to enforce military discipline in the ranks of the militias were rejected with great determination by the majority of the militia commanders. One such last attempt, in early 1992, would cost him his power.

The process of concentration of local and regional power in the hands of a few military leaders was strengthened by the military reform of 1986-87. It transformed the divisional headquarters of the Army in as many regional commands, in charge of all military units operating within the area assigned to them. The inevitable consequence was the regionalisation of military power, which allowed a greater military efficiency, but also contributed to weakening the central power. The transfer to the regular army of some divisions, originally belonging to the militias, blurred the boundaries between the regular army and the semi-regular forces. Now, some ex-militia leaders, newly appointed divisional commanders, could control areas as large as a couple of provinces. Just before Najibullah’s fall, General Dostum commanded 45,000 men, while his future ally Naderi led another 18,000.

The communist period: after the Soviet occupation

The survival of the Najibullah regime for any time at all after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops is in part at least to be attributed to the role played by the semi-regular forces in keeping the mujahidin at bay. By 1990, however, the leading militia commanders had accumulated powers which resembled those of a feudal lord. The opium trade, tax extortion on the highways, the looting of villages and the money paid directly by the government all contributed to transforming several militia units into the main economic power in their respective regions. They were even in a position to control the judiciary.

During the crucial years of 1988-1989, as the Red Army was withdrawing from the country, the Special Guard played a crucial role in acting as a strategic reserve to repulse the onslaught of the mujahidin. By 1990, however, its main role had become to guarantee the regime of President Najibullah from its enemies within the ruling party and preventing the insubordination of the Regional Forces and those army divisions, which had been originated from the Regional Forces/Tribal Militias, who were often former mujahidin. Its deployment was very significant: it was largely concentrated in the capital Kabul and in key points of the northern provinces. While the deployment in Kabul could also be justified by the need to act as a strategic reserve, the units based in the North were clearly warding off a mutiny of former warlords and militias. The threat of the insurgents to northern Afghanistan was minimal, while this was the area with the greatest concentration of militias and former militias turned into regular army units.

Aware of the need for a strong and reliable strategic reserve to maintain his power, President Najibullah expanded the personnel charts of the Special Guard from the original 16,000 to 40,000 in 1990, but it proved impossible to recruit enough troops to staff it, at least until the regime fell in 1992. In the meanwhile, militias and former militias were continuing to increase their role within the military system of the regime, strengthening the imbalance that the regime had wanted to address. By the early 1990s, there might have been 170,000 former mujahidin within the ranks of the armed forces, to which the various militias created by the Hizb-i Demokratik (by now renamed Hizb-i Watan) should be added. Moreover, some commanders of these units were in the process of becoming de facto rulers of large portions of Afghanistan. Abdul Rashid Dostum, for example, controlled the provinces of Jowzyan, Balkh, Samangan and Sar-i Pul, Sayyed Naderi controlled the province of Baghlan, Rasul Pahlawan ruled over the province of Faryab, Abdul Samad controlled the northern part of the province of Takhar and Jabar Khan controlled the central part of Helmand.

The Najibullah regime fell in April 1992, essentially due to the ending of supplies from the now no longer existing Soviet Union. However, the mutiny of pro-regime militias was the most immediate cause of his demise - a reminder of the inherent weakness of the power structure he was relying on. For the next four years, little central authority existed, as the struggle for power among the various factions of the mujahidin and the militias raged.

The armed forces of the Taleban

After their conquest of Kabul in 1996, the Taleban set out to create something resembling a national army, the first such attempt since the fall of the Najibullah regime in 1992 and the slide of Afghanistan into a state of war of all against all. Their efforts were not too successful, despite the assistance of Pakistan. Apart from the establishment of central army corps and an armoured brigade in Kabul and three regional army corps in Kandahar, Paktia and Herat, the Taleban army never developed an organisational structure similar to that of modern armies. In its mixing of elements proper to a modern armed force and of others more typical of a feudal army, the Taleban regular army effectively resembled the regional forces and militias of the communist regime. It combined relatively good mobility, logistics, command, control, communications and intelligence, with a reliance on personal relationships and charismatic leadership, lacking an abstract chain of command.

By September 2001, when it reached its peak, the hard core of the Taleban army (that is the “semi-regular” army) numbered around 45,000, including large numbers of foreign volunteers, mostly Pakistanis. The Taleban regime could also count on a large number of local militias, often former enemies who had reached deals with them. Many of these local militias were of doubtful loyalty and in fact went over to the opposition during November and December 2001. However, some tens of thousands of militiamen did have a genuine allegiance to the Taleban and fought actively on their side.

The fact that the Taleban came up with an army structure resembling that adopted by the communist regime for their militias is extremely significant and shows the extent to which this type of armed force is suitable to the Afghan environment. This structure, feudal in its organisational character, but strengthened by elements derived from modern armies, is relatively cheap to maintain, often effective on the battlefield and politically viable in a country where the real power is held by warlords. It is interesting to note that even in 1938, as the Afghan Army for the first time had just adopted a modern divisional structure, there remained a heavy reliance on tribal levies to pump up the size of the armed forces. It was then expected that in the event of war, 300-400,000 tribal warriors would join the 90,000 men of the regular army.

Organisational structure of the Communist and Taleban Armies

  1980 1987 1990 Taleban
Total armed forces 100,000 310,000 400,000 100,000
Percentage regular forces 92% 53% 40% 0%
Percentage “feudal” forces 0% 23% 40% 45%
Percentage local forces 8% 24% 20% 55%

Sources: Jane’s The World Armies; A. Giustozzi, “War, Politics and Society in Afghanistan”, Georgetown University Press, 2000

Underlying problems of forming a national army in Afghanistan

Across Afghanistan’s modern history, efforts to build a viable and effective modern army have been hampered by the ethnic diversity of the country. Despite the claims of part of the Afghan intelligentsia, there is little sense of an Afghan unity among the majority of the population, and even much of the intelligentsia itself does not stand up to its claimed standards. In an ethnically mixed unit of the army troopers would speak at least three different languages and have different cultural backgrounds, ranging from the tribal code of the Pashtuns to the Tajik, Hazara or Uzbek resentment against the domination of the Pashtun herdsmen. Because the loyalty of the troops rested with their village, if not with their ethnic group or tribe, all the governments, which succeeded at the head of Afghanistan, adopted the practice of posting troops far from their region of origin. While this made desertions more difficult and ensured a greater willingness of the troops to carry out the orders they were given, even when that implied harming the local population, it also made the relations with the local inhabitants more difficult. While the army became a more compliant tool in the repression of local disturbances, the ignition of more radical confrontations, which might then prove difficult to contain, also became easier.

The use of the air force in the repression of local insurgencies compounded this problem, both because of its rather indiscriminate character and because its availability tended to be seen as an easy substitute for the use of ground troops, especially in remote areas. The communist regime in particular paid a heavy price for its over-reliance on the air force, which contributed to alienate further the rural population from it. The use of planes and helicopters proved particularly problematic when it took place not in support of the action of ground troops, but independently, as a means of reprisal or for the interdiction of enemy convoys and caravans. In such instances, government forces would have to rely on tip-offs from their network of local informers in order to decide where to strike. In a context such as the Afghan one, where the population is divided by micro-conflicts over water, land, blood feuds, etc., the information coming from local informers can prove to be very misleading. During the Soviet occupation, reports abounded of villages bombed by the air force for no apparent reason, with villagers often claiming not to have seen any mujahidin for months. It is very likely that many of these villages fell victim to neighbouring rivals, belonging to a hostile clan, who could easily have supplied fake information to government agencies, causing the village to be bombed.

Both soldiers and politicians often forget the old truth that war is a continuation of politics (or vice-versa). It took the communist regime years before its started to seriously address the political dimension of their counter-insurgency war. The creation of the Regional Forces in 1983 was a key aspect of this finally recognised political dimension. These troops were allowed to serve in their region of origin and became an important tool for the expansion of the influence of the regime in the villages. Their existence represented on the other hand a limitation of the freedom of action of the regular army, which could no longer bomb at will and was constrained by the agreements signed, which in some cases could even limit the freedom of movement of army units. However, the political pay off was greater than the purely military damage caused by the loss of the ability to strike at will.

nother long-standing limitation of the Afghan national armies was the bad relationship between officers and troops, an issue once again related to the ethnic diversity of the country. Officers relied on corporal punishment to maintain discipline within their units and this was especially true when the troops belonged to an ethnic minority. The majority of the officers, especially before the Soviet occupation, belonged to the Pashtun majority, with a smaller number being Tajiks and very few belonging to other minorities. During the communist stay in power, the number of non-Pashtun officers rose steadily, even if the latter remained very numerous, and by the early 1990s Tajiks were over-represented in the army, compared to their share of the total population. However, Tajiks tended to be concentrated in logistical and other non-combat units, with the infantry being still led by a large majority of Pashtun officers. The same was true of the Sarandoy, while the armed branch of the intelligence service was characterised by a more balanced ethnic mix.

Even in this case the Regional Forces had an edge, because the rule here was that officers and troops belonged not only to the same ethnic group, but also to the same region if not village. The majority of commanders had gained their position through their charisma and their performance on the battlefield, earning therefore the respect, if not the affection, of their troops. What the regional forces did not have, at least in the majority of cases, was the training to use weapons more sophisticated than rifles, machine guns and rocket launchers, and the ability to manage effectively communication equipment and logistics, especially when operating in large formations. They also lacked the battlefield discipline required by complex operations and the ability to withstand heavy casualties for some abstract aim, such as the interest of the army as a whole, as their loyalty stopped at their warlord rather than going to the state.

The communist government tried to improve the quality of the Regional Forces, by addressing their deficiencies. Training programs were introduced, although often the warlords were not particularly interested in learning how to fight more effectively in the interest of the Afghan state, their aims being more local. Through the introduction of regular army officers within the ranks of the Regional forces, some of these units were eventually upgraded to the status of regular army troops, as in the case of General Dostum’s 53rd Infantry Division. Interestingly, these units emerged among the most effective of the whole Afghan armed forces.

The limited availability of skilled personnel to staff armoured units and the air force is another aspect that limits the potential superiority of a regular army over warlords’ forces in Afghanistan. Even if the Red Army left huge quantities of armour in Afghanistan after it withdrew, the local regular army lacked personnel to man and most of all to maintain them. Often during operations in the countryside broken down tanks were abandoned without any attempt to rescue them. Similarly, the size of the air force under the communists remained modest in part also due to the difficulty to train enough pilots and service personnel, despite Soviet largesse in terms of military equipment.

The political-military picture in April 2002

Coming out of the war against the Taleban, the interim government of Hamid Karzai now can only count on an array of warlords’ armies. Even the so-called government troops are nothing but the forces of the warlords aligned with Kabul, such as the troops of Jamiat-i Islami and of a few Pashtun warlords, such as Gul Agha and Badshah Khan.  However, the warlords of Afghanistan are not a homogeneous entity.

Abdul Rashid Dostum - The eponymous warlord?

Most commentators and analysts consider General Abdul Rashid Dostum as the Afghan warlord par excellence, mostly because of his presumed lack of any political commitment. However, the picture is more complicated than that. Born in 1955 in a village near Shiberghan from a family of peasants, he later entered the army, becoming first a paratrooper in 1973 and rising to command an armoured unit by the time of the April 1978 Revolution. He first commanded a militia battalion near the gas fields in Shiberghan, later expanded to a regiment and then to a brigade. Having shown remarkable skills in raising disciplined and battle-worthy troops, in 1987 he was assigned the duty to form the 53rd Infantry Division and began to be active even outside his home area. At that time, what was by then known as the "Jowzyani militia" was already renowned for its fighting discipline (which did not rule out looting at the end of the battle) and for its fierceness. The core of the militia was made up of relatively politicised troops, initially recruited in the militias of the Hizb-i Demokratik, although a growing number of former mujahidin were also accepted. While it is true that he built his career on his military skills, he joined the Hizb-i Demokratik-i Khalq at the time of his enrolment in the army and always maintained a close association to Babrak Karmal, the President of Afghanistan during 1979-1986, until the death of the latter in 1996. In March 1990, after he had been promoted to division commander, he was also accepted into the Central Committee of Watan Party, as the Hizb-i Demokratik had been renamed.

His division, the 53rd Infantry, became one of the most important of the Army, because of its fighting skills. It also became the most prominent and typical of those Army divisions, which had developed out of the militias. Contrary to what one would expect of the units of a regular army, the 53rd Infantry Division was virtually Dostum’s personal property and the soldiers were personally loyal to him, a typical feature of the regional militias. At the beginning of 1992, he rebelled against President Najibullah’s attempt to re-establish a more direct control over his and other “feudal” divisions and allied with the Tajik mujahidin commander Ahmad Shah Massud in a successful bid to take over Kabul.

Dostum, however, was never recognised as a full partner by the mujahidin leaders intent in sharing what was left of the Afghan state after the collapse of the Najibullah regime. His persistent requests to be given a share of power within the Kabul government were never satisfied by his allies of Jamiat-i Islami, who were instead intent on reaching a deal with the other factions of the mujahidin. He was only offered the position of deputy-minister of defence in 1993, which he refused, judging it an insult. It was his failure to obtain a full recognition of his role as regional leader and as a full member of the coalition in power in Kabul which prompted Dostum to switch sides in January 1994 and ally with Hizb-i Wahdat and Hizb-i Islami in a new bid to force Jamiat-i Islami to renegotiate the deal or oust it from power. In order to build up his political stature, Dostum created in 1992 his own party, the National Front or Jumbesh-i Melli, largely composed of former members of the communist Hizb-i Watan like himself. Jumbesh-i Melli is often described as an Uzbek party, but its membership was mixed, including many Tajiks and even a significant number of Pashtuns.

The “feudal” structure of warlord power is evident from the system of alliances on which Dostum built his own mini-state in northern Afghanistan. Building on his own military strength, which included the control of most of the regular units of the former Communist Army deployed in Northern Afghanistan, and his favourable strategic position, which allowed him the control of the main communications with Central Asia, Dostum could build around himself a coalition of regional warlords. Each one of those smaller warlords was in turn at the head of a another coalition of local leaders of armed formations. His monopoly of the foreign relations of Jumbesh-i Melli was a crucial asset for Dostum, which contributed to increase his power ahead of his allies. The three regional warlords who were the main allies of Dostum were Ghaffar Pahlawan of Sar-i Pul, Sayyid Naderi of Baghlan and Rasul Pahlawan of Faryab, to whom General Momin, a Tajik general of the regular army, could be added. Dostum was recognised as a leader, but the regional warlords maintained total control over the areas they ruled.

Like all feudal systems, the weakness of Dostum’s structure lay in the difficulty to control and mobilise the potential military resources of his allies. Nothing guaranteed that the other warlords would have followed without fail Dostum’s policies, and often this caused great trouble to him. This is especially true of Rasul Pahlawan, who was a sworn enemy of Jamiat-i Islami and in particular of Ismail Khan, the warlord ruling over western Afghanistan. After the conflict between Dostum and Jamiat’s Massud in Kabul and North-eastern Afghanistan had broken out, Dostum failed to mobilise all the military potential of Jumbesh-i Milli against Massud, because Rasul Pahlawan remained locked in a conflict against Ismail Khan. Later, after the Taleban had become a threat, Pahlawan appears to have opposed the reconciliation efforts between Dostum and Jamiat-i Islami, which could have proved crucial to the long-term future of Jumbesh. While Dostum was wearing down his best forces fighting in Kabul and Kunduz against Massud, Rasul Pahlawan was increasing his strength, and the feudal relationship between the two was becoming increasingly precarious. Eventually, Rasul Pahlawan was assassinated, allegedly on the orders of Dostum.

It tells a lot about “feudal politics” that even after the demise of Rasul Pahlawan, Dostum proved unable to seize direct control over his fiefdom, the province of Faryab. Rasul’s brother, Abdul Malik Pahlawan, took his place and continued to oppose any reconciliation with Jamiat. Moreover, Abdul Malik now held personal grudges against Dostum himself, whom he evidently considered responsible of the death of his brother. It was in fact Abdul Malik who, in 1997, allied with the Taleban and organised a putsch against Dostum, who was forced to take refuge abroad and was only able to return to Northern Afghanistan some months later, after organising a counter-putsch in November 1997. Jumbesh-i Melli, however, had been severely weakened by the rivalry at the top and succumbed to a Taleban offensive in August 1998, which broke through Faryab and Samangan provinces and reached the heart of Dostum’s mini-state, Mazar-i Sharif, in a matter of weeks.

The fact that Faryab province was the Pahlawan’s  “property”, again in a typical feudal fashion, turned out to be a crucial weakness of Jumbesh-i Melli. Even Naderi, who in the end never broke with Dostum, refused in key moments to align wholeheartedly with him. In January-March 1994 he maintained his neutrality after Dostum had allied with Hekmatyar against Jamiat-i Islami. Interestingly, things turned out quite differently with General Momin, who was a classic army general and not a warlord. He opposed Dostum’s alliance with the radical Islamist party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Hizb-i Islami. When he died in an accident, again allegedly organised by Dostum, his replacement was not problematic. His troops were mostly incorporated into the central forces of Jumbesh, with a minority going over to Jamiat-i Islami.

This is not to say that Jumbesh-i Melli was based exclusively on charisma and personal relationships. There were obvious political interests in common at least among the main leaders, first and foremost their opposition to the Islamist parties, even if among the local commanders of Jumbesh quite a few had come exactly from those parties. The social base of Jumbesh was always precarious, but never non-existent. Dostum was popular in the Northern cities and towns, excluding Kabul, which was sacked by his troops. However, much of the rural population did not support him, including part of the Uzbek one. This was mainly due to the undisciplined behaviour of his troops, which were very inclined to loot. To some extent, it was not just a matter of indiscipline. Clearly northern Afghanistan did not have the resources to maintain such a large armed force and looting often represented part of the soldier’s pay, as Dostum himself admitted.

Despite his background in the Hizb-i Demokratik, it is true that ideological politics is not one of Dostum’s greatest strengths. To control the countryside, Dostum relied instead on the co-operation of leaders of armed groups, although he always tried to maintain good relations with local notables when possible. It was that part of the local population who had no links to small warlords or directly to Dostum that was exposed to the depredations of his troops. From his soldier’s point of view, the fate of the civilian population did not matter much.

In theory, the strength of his army in 1992-1997 was up to 60-70,000 men, but in practice the actual number he could field was much lower. This was in part because of the unwillingness of his fellow warlords to cooperate, but also because of the logistical and financial difficulties that such a large force would have implied. For example, during his 1993-94 campaign against Massud, one of the most important he ever fought, Dostum never fielded more than 5,000 men. As a whole, including the troops employed on all fronts, Dostum never fielded more than 20,000 men at the same time.

The unruly character of some of his fellow warlords was not the only weakness of the system. Especially when the news that the Taleban had put an end to the abuses of the warlords of other parts of Afghanistan, the deal “peace against dominance of the warlords” began to lose much of its attractiveness. Although Dostum planned to continue the social projects of the communist regime, such as bringing electricity to the villages, etc., he did not have the resources to do so. During 1997 an economic crisis hit northern Afghanistan, caused in part by the fact that Dostum had relied too much on printing money to finance his campaigns. Even the urban population began to complain of the hoarding of food by the army and of the increased looting carried out by the troops, who were rumoured to be selling the booty on the Central Asian markets
[1]. Other factions active in Northern Afghanistan, especially Hizb-i Wahdat, began to challenge the monopoly of power of Dostum, in fact facilitating the victory of the Taleban.

After his escape from Afghanistan in 1998, Dostum was given as finally defeated by most commentators. He is not, however, a man who easily gives up. In April 2001 he returned to Afghanistan from his Turkish exile, in order to start the resistance against Taleban rule, and allied with Jamiat-i Islami and other parties to form the United Front. If a large part of the population of Northern Afghanistan had welcomed the Taleban in 1998, hoping that they would rescue the people from the economic crisis, the depredations of the warlords and the fighting among the different factions, by early 2001 the mood had changed and the Taleban had few friends left in the northern provinces. The drought, which severely affected the countryside, and the lack of any support to the population from the Taleban, contributed decisively to the delegitimisation of the Taleban among the rural population, while the cities opposed also their strict Islamic rule, in many cases exacerbated by their heavy-handed treatment of the local ethnic groups, especially the Shiite minority.

Dostum and his revitalised Jumbesh-i Milli have played a crucial role in defeating the Taleban at the end of 2001, allegedly with some help from the Uzbek army
[2] and, of course, with the help of American air strikes. Before September 11, Dostum’s attempts to start a guerrilla war against the Taleban had not achieved much. His men active in the mountainous areas of northern Afghanistan were just a few hundreds, unable to be more than an annoyance to the Taleban. However, as Americans started their bombing campaigns, many of his former troops, who had demobilised after the Taleban had taken over, and some of the units which had gone over to the Taleban and formed local militias within their military structure, rapidly aligned with Dostum. In a matter of weeks, his force had grown to several thousands and, by the end of the campaign, after the Taleban had been defeated, to an estimated 20,000.

As rapidly as it had collapsed, it would appear that Dostum’s mini-state has resurrected. However, Dostum, despite still being one of Afghanistan’s most powerful warlords, is not at the height of his power. The areas of Afghanistan he controls are not as wide as they used to be, especially in the North-east. The important province of Baghlan, once controlled by his ally Sayyid Naderi, is now in the hands of his rivals from Jamiat-i Islami. Naderi made an attempt to regain his former stronghold in January 2002, but was defeated by forces loyal to Defence Minister Fahim. Even within the provinces he still controls, especially in Balkh, Sar-i Pul and Samangan, Dostum’s power does not go unchallenged anymore. Two other armed factions, Jamiat-i Islami and Hizb-i Wahdat, control sizeable chunks of territory. Jamiat in particular, under the leadership of the dynamic and aggressive Mohammed Atta, has shown a willingness to seize from Dostum as much territory as possible and succeeded in establishing a partial control over the city of Mazar-i Sharif, once Dostum’s capital. Jamiat had controlled some areas of Northern Afghanistan in 1992-1994, but as the alliance of the party with Dostum broke down, Jamiat had been decisively defeated by the Uzbek general and never played a role anymore until 2001.

Soon after the new interim government led by Hamid Karzai was formed in December 2001, history appeared to be repeating itself. The new government, dominated, like the one which ruled Kabul after the fall of Najibullah in 1992, by Jamiat-i Islami, immediately showed a willingness to sideline Dostum, who in their eyes was still the former communist and turncoat. Despite his claims to have been promised an important ministerial position (he asked for the foreign ministry), his party was given only two minor ministries. Dostum complained loudly, threatening not to recognise the authority of the government. Apparently American pressure on both the government and Dostum led to a compromise, with his appointment as deputy minister of defence in exchange for his cooperation with the government. However, Dostum was clearly unhappy about the reluctance of the government to recognise his role and continued campaigning for a reorganisation of Afghanistan along regional lines, which would guarantee him a role.

His relationship with Jamiat-i Islami rapidly began turning sour, as shown by repeated armed clashes in and around Mazar-i Sharif, to the point that Dostum appears an increasingly warm supporter of the monarchists, on the basis of a common inclination towards secularism. While this in part at least tactical manoeuvring, despite his negative reputation, Dostum is among the warlords today one of those less inclined towards challenging the “new order”. His power base, challenged from within from both Jamiat-i Islami and rival Uzbek warlord Abdul Malik Pahlawan, looks more fragile not just than that of Jamiat’s faction leaders, Rabbani and the alliance Qanooni/Fahim, but also of Ismail Khan, the warlord who controls western Afghanistan. Moreover, contrary to Jamiat, Dostum cannot aspire to play a hegemonic role in the whole of Afghanistan. His main ambition could be to expand his influence to regions where Uzbeks are significant minorities or even majorities, as in Kunduz and Takhar. There are reports that he has tried to do just that in December 2001, as his troops were chasing the Taleban in Kunduz province. Some Uzbek and Turkmen warlords in those provinces appeared to welcome Dostum, among them relatively powerful ones such as Abdul Rauf in Kunduz and Matalib Beg in Takhar, but Jamiat succeeded in placing a lid on his attempts to reach potential sympathisers in North-east Afghanistan, mostly because Dostum himself decided to avoid an open conflict. He gave up any ambition on Takhar province and reached a deal on Kunduz, where his party received the governorship and a Jamiati was appointed military commander. Similarly, he has not tried again to help his old ally Naderi to re-establish himself in Baghlan province, as he had done in January 2002, despite the presence of strong local tensions between Jamiat and the Pashtuns, which could have favoured Jumbesh.

Instead, Dostum claims to be willing to integrate his troops within the national army and was involved in official negotiations with India in order to obtain military support, but at the same time is clearly keen to maintain a degree of control over his army. Possibly smarter at the political game than most had thought, Dostum is betting on the pacification of Afghanistan and is trying to recycle himself as politician. He has dismissed the old uniform, which he had worn without interruption during his rule over Northern Afghanistan, and now wears civilian clothes. He is building bridges towards the monarchists, who tend to share with him at least some inclination towards secular politics, while at the same time he is succeeding in keeping Jumbesh-i Milli compact behind him, as shown by the performance of his delegates at the Loya Jirgah. As a reward for its support in the election of Karzai as president and the acceptance of the status quo, Jumbesh has been given one ministry in the second Karzai administration and has been offered more in exchange for Dostum accepting to move to Kabul. However, the focus of Dostum’s political plans remains Northern Afghanistan, of which he is probably still trying to become a regional leader, as shown by the fact that he refused to be appointed to the new administration.

Ismail Khan: an Iranian puppet?

While General Dostum has often had a bad press, the same does not apply to Jamiat-i Islami, which has often been appreciated as a positive force within the Afghan environment. Certainly, Jamiat has a successful PR department, which has long lobbied to present the party in a positive light in the international press and among foreign governments. Its success is in part due to the presence in its ranks of charismatic commander Massud, who, until his assassination in September 2001, was hailed as Afghanistan’s most able military leader. More in general, since the mid-1980s the party has tried to position itself as the Afghan equivalent of a centrist, catch-all party of a western democracy. Having strong links to émigrés communities in the West, the party leadership was aware of the usefulness of having a good press in the long term. However, as far as its internal politics are concerned, the ideology of the party has little to do with democracy in any proper sense. A moderate islamist party, in its internal publications it used to state clearly its refusal of electoral democracy. To the extent that it can actually be defined as a centrist party, it is due to its moderate approach to dealing with local and religious notables, who are often integrated within the party structure at the local level. However, the real power lies with the military commanders and its military structure is not radically different from that of most other parties, i.e. feudal in nature.

The history of the party clearly illustrates this. Its moderation favoured the spread of its influence across Afghanistan and especially among the Tajik commanders of the opposition. However, the party was able only to exercise a weak control over its main commanders. Ismail Khan, who by the early eighties controlled most of western Afghanistan, soon started showing signs of being independently minded. Despite efforts by party stalwarts, such as the Afzali brothers and the grass-root militants who were active mainly in the refugee camps beyond the Iranian border, to pressure Ismail Khan into re-aligning himself with the leadership of Jamiat in exile, his distance from it only grew over time. After the fall of the communist regime in 1992, Ismail Khan became absolute leader of western Afghanistan and maintained a de-facto independence from the new government in Kabul, despite the fact that the latter was dominated by his own party, Jamiat-i Islami. His personal rivalry with Jamiat’s other leading commander, the late Ahmad Shah Massud, only compounded this difficult relationship.

In other terms, it was not Jamiat-i Islami that controlled Western Afghanistan through its local commander, but rather Ismail Khan who did it with his personal army and maintained a weak allegiance to the party that had supplied him with weapons and cadres during the war against the Soviet Union. The large majority of the local commanders responded to him and nobody else. Ismail, however, faced problems similar to those met by Dostum in dealing with his own commanders, who controlled smaller portions of western Afghanistan. Even if he tried to develop a centralised army, including resorting to conscription, which made him unpopular among the inhabitants, he was only able to enforce his direct rule on the central parts of Herat province, with outlying areas subjected to the control of allied warlords.

The collapse of what was effectively his small emirate in 1996 at the hands of the Taleban was as swift as that of Dostum’s, which it preceded by a couple of years. Following a military defeat in Southern Afghanistan and the alleged bribery of some of his commanders, in a few days his once powerful emirate had disappeared. He then made some attempts to start a guerrilla war against the Taleban, with little success, until he was captured by them and held prisoner for three years. After his escape, once again he became engaged in small-scale military activities against the Taleban, but until the start of the American bombing campaign he had not managed to build his force beyond the relatively modest strength of 3,000 men. In other words, he did not succeed in attracting the local warlords back to his side, except in Ghor province, where hostility to the Taleban was especially high. With the start of the bombings, everything changed. After Dostum took Mazar-i Sharif, events developed so rapidly that it did not take much fighting for Ismail Khan to retake Herat and the surrounding areas, while his armed forces swelled to many thousands.

By the beginning of 2002, Ismail controlled Herat and Baghdis and parts of Ghor, Nimruz and Farah, through his alliances with a number of warlords, some relatively big, such as Dr. Ibrahim and Fazul Karim in Ghor province, and others small, such as those sharing control of Farah province. Being a Tajik, after his return to Herat at the end of 2001 his relationship with the mostly Pashtun population of the surrounding countryside has been problematic. Benefiting from the customs he levies at the border with Iran, where trade immediately started flourishing, and allegedly from the support of Iran, he was able to enforce standards of discipline among his troops higher than in most of the rest of the country. Nonetheless, there were complaints of ill treatment by many Pashtun villagers, who suffered revenge attacks by Tajiks for their earlier association with the Taleban regime. Given the links between the tribes of Herat and those of Southern Afghanistan, such attacks contributed to the rapid deterioration of his relationship with the Gul Agha, the warlord in control of Kandahar. The hostility was also motivated by the different political alignment, as Gul Agha is a monarchist, and by fears that Ismail Khan might have wanted to expand southward, as he already had done before being defeated by the Taleban.

As a result, Ismail Khan was excluded from the interim administration, although after his complaints his son received a ministerial post. Moreover, the new government seemed reluctant to recognised Ismail’s power over western Afghanistan and his appointment as governor was long delayed. Even after his appointement as governor, he refused to recognise the appointment of local officials in the region he controls by the central government. Repeatedly accused by the monarchists of Kandahar (and sometimes by the Americans) of being an Iranian puppet, Ismail Khan is more likely to be playing his own game. He has clearly been receiving Iranian help, as the custom taxes he levies on the flourishing trade along the Iranian border are likely not enough to maintain an army which according to some estimates is as strong as 50-60,000 men
[3]. The status of his membership in Jamiat-i Islami is not clear, although local Jamiat activists cooperate with him. He finds himself in a position similar to that of Dostum in Northern Afghanistan, trying to find a permanent role within the new, post-Taleban Afghanistan. It is not surprising, therefore, that he appears to be maintaining relatively good relations with his old foe, Rashid Dostum, with whom he shares a common interest in pushing the government towards some form of division of Afghanistan into autonomous regions. The status quo suits him, but he knows it is not sustainable in the long term. He is now allied with Rabbani, former president, old leader of Jamiat-i Islami and presently head of his own faction within the party, who opposed the first Karzai administration. During the Loya Jirgah, together with the “Jihadis” led by Rabbani, Ismail Khan’s delegates voted in favor of Karzai, but the warlord remained aloof from any direct involvement in the administration, despite being offered a post. His son remains a minister, but there is little indication that Ismail Khan is going to be more cooperative with the central government than he was before the Jirgah.

The legacy of Jamiat-i Islami’s Massud - Respectable warlords?

The one Afghan warlord who was rarely dubbed as such was Ahmad Shah Massud, a popular romantic hero even in some quarters in western countries, especially France. It is certainly true that he was more concerned with military effectiveness than most, if not all, his fellow warlords.  His own personal position remained very solid due to his own charisma, earned through his battlefield performance, and he adopted meritocratic methods in the selection of his field commanders whenever possible. Especially when he embarked upon the creation of a central striking force of a few thousand men, he made sure that the selection of his commanders rested exclusively on his own judgement.

However, these commanders still had their own areas of influence in North-eastern Afghanistan and could not honestly be compared to the officers of a regular army. He was unable to eliminate this “semi-feudal” feature even after taking over several units of the former communist army and intelligence service in 1992. While the numerical strength of his central force was boosted to an unprecedented 20,000 men, the structure changed little and even former regular army units witnessed a degrading of their command structure. Even as late as 1994, when he was fighting on two fronts against Dostum and against Hekmatyar, his “army” was still mostly only nominally organised in units such as battalions, regiments and divisions. Such units were only names attributed to pre-existing mujahidin groups, without a real centralised organisation
[4]. It might have been in part this residual “feudal” character even of Massud’s central force that caused his conduct on the battlefield to be very cautious most of the times. Massud was often accused of missing strategic opportunities, especially at the time of the Soviet withdrawal and afterwards. He was not in a position to afford heavy casualties in his small “army”, as although he had the power to decide who could be admitted into it, he did not have the authority to keep them there in any circumstances.

The next component of Massud’s military system was the Shura-i Nazar, a coordinating council of small and medium warlords of North-eastern Afghanistan. In this case the structure was much looser than that of the central force, being in fact weaker than both Ismail Khan’s and Dostum’s systems. Despite its loose character, some Jamiat commanders of the North-east still refused to join it, as in the case of Basir Khalid, who controlled a third of Badakhshan province and resented Massud’s growing power.

Most importantly, Massud himself continued to behave as a warlord, refusing to be subjected to party discipline. As the captor of Kabul, he became the strongman within the mujahidin governments that were formed in Kabul starting from 1992. Soon a rivalry with the political leadership of Jamiat-i Islami became increasingly explicit, especially after Jamiat’s leader, Burhauddin Rabbani, became president and settled in Kabul. The new generation of young military leaders, which formed under the protective wing of Massud, supported his bid to replace the old generation of politicians, often accused of corruption. The influx of former members of left-wing parties and of former members of the communist armed forces, who joined Jamiat because of the common Tajik ethnic background, contributed to strengthen Massud’s faction within Jamiat and to dilute its ideological islamism, which remained instead the banner of Rabbani and his supporters. His faction within Jamiat became increasingly known as the Panjsheris (from the name of Massud’s base area) or Shura-i Nezar.

During the 1990s the split never became too explicit, despite at least one armed clash between supporters of the two factions being reported. The military situation remained difficult for Jamiat, which defeated a number of challenges from Dostum, Hekmatyar and Hizb-i Wahdat, only to be faced with the threat of the Taleban, who in 1996 succeeded in forcing Massud out of the capital. This was the lowest ebb of Jamiat’s fortunes since the beginning of the 1980s. The party had lost all its influence among the southern Pashtun, among whom it had once attracted a number of warlords, and had lost western Afghanistan and part of the North-east, to be confined to just four provinces. It was also threatened by new offensives by the Taleban. Massud’s force was now down to 10,000 men and it was hardly the time to squabble with the “old politicians”, especially since Rabbani’s own stronghold, Badakhshan, was key to the strategic survival of Massud himself.

However, the situation changed with Massud’s assassination in September 2001 and with the military defeat of the Taleban. No longer restrained by Massud, who always tried to avoid breaking up completely with Rabbani, and emboldened by their re-occupation of Kabul as the Taleban fled, the Panjsheris imposed their power during the negotiations in Berlin, which led to the formation of the interim government. No “old politician” of Jamiat received any post, while three Panjsheris were given top positions, such as the ministries of Defence, Foreign Affairs and Interior. Significantly, the ministry of defence went to General Fahim, who had already been chosen as military leader after Massud’s death.

Rabbani and his supporters expressed their unhappiness and started gathering support within and without the ranks of Jamiat-i Islami, with an eye to create a strong voting block within the forthcoming Loya Jirgah, planned for June 2002. Rabbani brought over to his side Mohammed Daoud, the Jamiat warlord who controls most of Badakhshan, Takhar and parts of Kunduz and Baghlan, and later even Ismail Khan, who had always opposed the influence of Massud and the Panjsheris.

By the spring of 2002, endowed with a relatively well equipped and trained force of 15,000 men, the Panjsheris were manoeuvring to consolidate their position in power. Having evolved into one of the least feudal of all Afghan factions, they looked upon their warlord and corrupt politician rivals as an obstacle to the re-building of a better Afghanistan. Exploiting their weight within the interim government to staff the state administration and the new national army with their supporters, who are quite numerous among the Tajik intelligentsia, the Panjsheris are now locked in a confrontation on many fronts. As of early 2002, the Panjsheris could not hope to win much more than 10% of the seats in the forthcoming Loya Jirgah, too little to maintain their position of power in the long term. In Northern Afghanistan their local commanders are trying to take over the control of as many towns and villages as possible, with an eye to influencing the June elections to the Loya Jirgah. In Kabul and in Southern Afghanistan, they are trying to stem the rise of the monarchists, both by supporting Pashtun warlords who oppose the monarchists and by scaring the supporters of the king into keeping a low profile.

However, the Panjsheris are more a coalition of personalities than an organised party and the faction showed signs of internal fragmentation after the conquest of Kabul. After their aggressive politics appeared to have played a role in the assassination of the civilian aviation minister Abdul Rahman in early 2002, foreign minister Abdullah appeared to be leaning closer to Hamid Karzai and the monarchists. More imporantly, the three ministers who lead the faction appear divided about which path to take in the near future, especially in terms of forming an independent political party or not, a move which could sanction the break away from Jamiat. Faced the decision of Ahmad Massud’s brother, Ahmed Wali, to launch his own political party, Nehzat-i Melli (National Party), the ministers hesitated. Only after having been denied the confirmation at the head of the Ministry of Interior, Qanuni decided to join the new party. The main threat to a longer-term alliance between the Panjsheris and the monarchists is therefore not the difficulty to reach a power-sharing deal, which already exists and could well last, since the former need political support across the country and the latter need an organised force, such as the Panjsheris certainly are, to help rebuilding the state. The real danger is that an internal fragmentation of the two factions, which are ridden by personal rivalries, could make Afghanistan impossible to rule.

Hizb-i Wahdat - A people’s party?

Probably the most representative of Afghan parties and factions and at the same the one closest to actually representing a whole ethnic group, Hizb-i Wahdat (Unity Party) rules the central highlands of Afghanistan peopled by the Hazaras, although it also claims to represent other Shia groups. After the fall of the Taleban, Wahdat succeeded in presenting a relatively united front towards the other factions competing for a share of power. Still, its representatives within the interim government were given only minor posts and the complaints of Wahdat did not succeed in obtaining any improvement. However, the party has adopted a low profile after the fall of the Taleban, remaining relatively aloof from the fight for power among the warlords. Compared to the other factions, Hizb-i Wahdat enjoys a crucial advantage: no other faction competes with it for the control of the Hazara heartland. Therefore, its success at the elections for the Loya Jirgah in June is guaranteed. Its difficult strategic location, remote from any international border, makes the option of an armed insurrection especially unlikely, especially since Hazarajat has already suffered heavily in the past from the blockading of the Taleban.

Still, in the past the Hazaras were far from united and peaceful. Before the formation of Hizb-i Wahdat in 1988, several conflicting parties were competing for the favours of the Hazara population. Two civil wars broke out, first between the pro-Iranian Nasr and the traditionalist Shura, and then between two pro-Iranian factions, Nasr and Sepah. By 1988, with the creation of Hizb-i Wahdat, it had seemed that peace had come to Hazarajat. But it was not to be. After the fall of Najibullah in 1992, Hizb-i Wahdat wavered between different options, but faced the unwillingness of the Sunni factions to hand over to it the share of power that its leaders considered it deserved. The party became involved in the Kabul fighting and finally split into two factions, Wahdat-Akbari, which allied to Jamiat-i Islami and Wahdat-Khalili, which instead opposed Jamiat. From Kabul the conflict spread to Hazarajat, where Jamiat’s troops, aided by the minority Akbari faction, managed to reach the provincial capital of Bamyan, but never to decisively defeat the Khalili faction. In the end, Jamiat abandoned its attempt to impose its ally at the head of Hizb-i Wahdat, but peace was not round the corner yet. In 1998 Hazarajat was occupied by the Taleban, who allied with Akbari and forced the remaining supporters of Khalili to flee to the mountains, while the majority of the local commanders signed up a peace deal with the new rulers.

Following the demise of the Taleban, in those parts of Afghanistan where Hazara and Shia Afghans are mixed with other ethnic and religious groups Hizb-i Wahdat has become once again involved in scuffles with competing warlords. Apart from Kabul, where the international contingent has maintained peace, there was much tension initially between Ismail Khan and Wahdat around Herat, before they could reach an agreement, apparently sponsored by Iran. The deepest involvement of Wahdat in the local political play of post-Taleban Afghanistan took place around the northern city of Mazar-i Sharif. After much tension between Jumbesh, Jamiat and Wahdat, an arrangement was reached for a power-sharing solution within the city in early 2002, but in the countryside Wahdat commanders continued to be protagonists of revenge attacks against Pashtun villagers, as did Dostum’s Uzbeks. Even Jamiat’s Tajiks were involved in reprisals against the Pashtun, especially in Baghlan province, but Wahdat’s troops were particularly keen.  Under Taleban rule, the Hazara and other Shiites had suffered more than anybody else at the hands of the regime.

As far as Hazara society is concerned, the Khalili and Akbari factions claim to be reconciled. In reality, armed clashes have taken places in parts of Hazarajat between members of the two factions during 2002, although one cannot speak of a return to the civil war.To some extent, Hizb-i Wahdat can claim to represent the different strata of Hazara society, in particular the clergy, the intellectuals and the local notables. However, as far as its military structure was concerned, it differed little from that of the Sunni warlords of the rest of Afghanistan, with local commanders ultimately responsible mostly to themselves.

However, because it represents part of its population to a higher degree than most other factions, the integration of Hizb-i Wahdat into the political framework of new Afghanistan might not be as problematic as that of other warlords, provided it can be guaranteed a fair share of power. This, however, is far from certain, especially in the army, where the presence of Hazara has traditionally been weak and limited mostly to foot soldiers. During the communist regime, the Hazara saw their lot in the Army improve, especially through the formation of all-Hazara units, where even the commanding officers belonged to the same ethnic group. It is unlikely that in the future, after years of ethnic clashes and of raised ethnic consciousness, Hazaras will serve in the national army without a fair representation in the officer corps. However, there are signs that other factions, and the Panjsheris in particular, might be willing to court the Hazara, with the aim of establishing some form of alliance. Among the first recruits for the new police academy, controlled by Qanooni, a Panjsheri Minister of the Interior, apart from a majority of Tajiks, there were many Hazaras and only very few Uzbeks and Pashtuns.  Like most other groups, Hizb-i Wahdat’s delegates voted for Karzai at the Loya Jirgah, although its weight within the new provisional government remains modest, with one vice-presidency (Khalili himself) and a single ministry (gone to Mohaqqeq).

The Pashtun warlords of Southern and Eastern Afghanistan

Despite having theoretically been wiped out by the Taleban between 1994 and 1996, the Pashtun warlords of southern and eastern Afghanistan reappeared on the scene between the end of 2001 and the beginning of 2002, sometimes spontaneously and sometimes after having been offered a strong incentive by Americans, keen to stimulate the growth of Pashtun opposition to the Taleban. Due to American help, however, the picture does not appear as fragmented as it used to be before the arrival of the Taleban. A few warlords managed in fact to became the conduits for American funds, aimed at fighting the Taleban and Al-Qaida, and succeeded in establishing an influence much wider than it had previously been possible. However, large parts of Pashtun Afghanistan have not yet  seen the emergence of any especially powerful warlord, as in Ghazni, Wardak and Uruzgan.

The most prominent of these warlords is Gul Agha, a Sherzai tribal chief, appointed governor of Kandahar by the interim government after a confrontation with Mullah Naqibullah, another warlord with a claim to the seat. His control of Kandahar province is far from complete, with not just Mullah Naqibullah maintaining his hold among the Aliqzai tribe, based just north of Kandahar, but also other warlords controlling vast areas. Among them, the most prominent are Haji Bashir, a leader of the Nurzai, who controls the area around Spin Boldak, and several commanders aligned with Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i Islami, rooted among the Ghilzai tribe. However, Gul Agha, using his investiture as governor and the sudden upgrade of his warriors to government soldiers, began disarming the troops of his rivals and attracting new recruits to his own force, which by spring 2002 had passed the 15,000 mark. Gul Agha, however, is a controversial character, having in the past been involved in the drug trade, which could explain why initially Hamid Karzai, himself with a power base in the province, within his Popolzai tribe, had originally preferred Mullah Naqibullah. Pressures from the American side, who disliked Mullah Naqibullah because of his earlier alignment with the Taleban, contributed to the success of Gul Agha. However, so far Mullah Naqibullah has cooperated with Gul Agha, who in turn is trying to expand his influence beyond the province of Kandahar and especially towards Helmand. More resistance is to be expected from commanders close to Hizb-i Islami, such as Haji Asadullah, Sarkatib and Abdul Rahman Jan.

Gul Agha, a monarchist, is on bad terms with both Ismail Khan, the “emir” of western Afghanistan, and Defence Minister Fahim. In part, such rivalry might be due to the fact that both Gul Agha and Ismail Khan want to extend their influence to the province of Helmand. Not all the commanders aligned with Gul Agha appear however to support his hostility towards Ismail Khan, with a split between pro-war and pro-peace factions reported within the 14 commanders appointed to the Kandahar council of elders. The consolidation of Gul Agha’s hold on Kandahar has so far been the greatest success of the monarchists, who have by contrast experienced difficulties in establishing their leadership in most other areas.

The personal politics that threatened to wreak chaos in Kandahar until Gul Agha succeeded in establishing his rule was indeed characteristic of most Pashtun provinces. Zabul is a typical example, with a three-way context between three warlords, Hamidullah, a former associate of Hizb-i Islami, Sardar Mohammed, a follower of former president Rabbani, and Salam Khan, a tribal leader. Interestingly, Hamidullah allied himself to Salam Khan against Sardar Mohammed and declared his support for Karzai, managing to be appointed governor and then using his position to influence the elections to the Loya Jirgah.

In eastern Afghanistan, no really powerful warlord has emerged over the others, with the partial exceptions of Hazrat Ali and Mohammed Zaman Ghun Shareef, both of whom were elected to top positions in the tribal shura, which is ruling the area under the leadership of Abdul Qadir, himself an influential figure, who commanded the loyalty of 148 delegates to the Loya Jirgah, the strongest support enjoyed by any Pashtun notable.  They benefited from the determination of the Americans to pursue Al-Qaida remnants in Eastern Afghanistan, especially in the mountains of Tora Bora. Hazrat Ali and Mohammed Zaman provided the indigenous infantry to support the operation and American money suddenly transformed them into much more powerful leaders than before. Mohammed Zaman Ghun Shareef is a monarchist and appears to have expected to become the military commander for Eastern Afghanistan and was originally appointed as such, but has met the hostility of Defence Minister Fahim, who would like the region to lie in trusted hands. Instead, Fahim has supported Hazrat Ali, a longtime ally of Jamiat-i Islami, despite the fact that he is hampered by his ethnic origins (he belongs to the Pashai minority). Fahim succeeded in March in having Hazrat Ali appointed military commander in place of Zaman, who was even arrested and held for two weeks, before being finally forced to take refuge in Pakistan.   Neither Zaman nor Hazrat Ali appear to have been harmed in their relationship with the Americans by the fact of being on record as having been involved in the drug trade before the arrival of the Taleban.

In South-eastern Afghanistan, the emergent warlord, again funded by American money, was at least until May Badshah Khan, a supporter of former King Zahir Shah based in Paktia province. However, his attempts to take over the provincial capital of Gardez, after his appointment to governor, were defeated by the local warlord, Saifullah Khan, aligned with Rabbani’s faction of Jamiat-i Islami, and ended with a defeat of Badshah’s men. This development is clearly a demonstration of the limited power of Pashtun warlords, especially when they try to project their power far from their strongholds.  On the other hand, despite all government threats of punishment for his ruthless bombardment of Gardez, Badshah Khan continued to rule undisturbed over his region, which shows how strong they are in their own environment.

The relative weakness of Pashtun warlords was reflected in the first interim Karzai administration, which was heavily biased towards the Panjsheris in terms of the importance of the ministerial posts held. The first signs of a mobilisation of Pashtuns against this ethnic unbalance during the run-up to the Loya Jirgah contributed to a strengthening of the role of Pashtun notables in the new provisional government, which took office after the end of the Jirgah. Abdul Qadir, a known sympathiser of Islamic fundamentalism, was appointed vice-president, a reward for his newly-found willingness to support the Karzai administration, towards which he had been very cold until the Loya Jirgah. Qadir had already been a minister in the interim government, but had never bothered to move to Kabul. The most noticeable signs of a shift away from the total Panjsheri control, which had afflicted the interim government, was the appointment of a old monarchist notable, Taj Mohammed, as minister of interior. However, the importance of such change was diminished by the subsequent appointment of Qanuni, the Panjsheri former minister of interior, as special security adviser, with some supervisory powers over the ministry of interior.

The warlords in the Afghanistan of tomorrow

Do Afghan warlords maintain the power to play their traditional game of never-ending war and shifting alliances? Quite a few observers and commentators have recently argued that, after so many years of war and other calamities, Afghans are increasingly aware of their common interests, if not of a common identity. To some extent, this appears to be true. After all, national identities the world over have been slowly shaped by a shared history. Today the room for manoeuvre of warlords and politicians is certainly narrower than it has been for quite a few years. However, in the case of Afghanistan the importance of this development is qualified by two important  aspects. The first is that the war fought since 1978 was mostly a civil war, especially after 1989, and therefore its unifying effect can only be modest. The second is that, while the civilian population is certainly tired of war and wants peace, the ability of ordinary Afghans to influence events is limited. The political divide is today not as strong as it used to be, as shown by the coming together of Afghans from radically different backgrounds, such as Islamists, monarchists and communists. However, ethnic tensions have grown, especially since 1990. Resources are scarce and especially in the Northern provinces, but also in the Western ones, a wave of ethnic revenge attacks against Pashtuns has been reported. Moreover, as refugees (who are mostly Pashtun) come back from Iran and Pakistan, the demographic pressure on the population might increase and cause tensions between different clans and even between different ethnic groups, especially at the southern fringe of Hazarajat in central Afghanistan, where Hazara and Pashtun traditionally compete for land.

This continuing background of ethnic strife, sometimes very real, sometimes only potential, might in the medium term offer the opportunity to the warlords to recover a role in the eyes of the population, who at present tend to be rather hostile to them. After all, positions in the state bureaucracy and in the army, especially top ones, will always be available in limited numbers and some of the politico-military factions are already trying to monopolise them. This might well add to ethnic animosity.

Towards a real national army?

The initial debate

s soon as the interim government led by Hamid Karzai took power, the discussion started on how to re-form a national army and what type of army the country needed. Defence Minister General Fahim was the first one to put forward a proposal, at the Tokyo conference, making it clear that a significant share of the international aid pledged to Afghanistan would have gone to this task. In Fahim’s view, the country needs an army as large as 250,000 men, in order to be able to control the countryside and force the warlords to comply with the decrees issued by the government. What role he envisages for the warlords themselves, some of whom played a key role in the defeat of the Taleban, he did not make immediately clear.

It appears obvious that such a large army could not be trained and equipped to high standards, unless international donors were willing to cover the huge costs, which looked extremely unlikely from the start. Fahim might well have been aware of this from the beginning, so his 250,000 figure is to be taken in part as a ploy to try to obtain as much as possible in terms of international funding. In reality, Fahim was probably ready from the beginning to settle for a smaller amount. Moreover, his 250,000 figure might have derived from the assumption that not all of Afghanistan’s army will be fully trained and equipped. In other terms, Fahim might be envisaging a two tier army, with a hard core relatively well trained, to be used as a central reserve, and a larger part of the army composed of regional forces, with little mobility, second-rate equipment and modest training, to be used to maintain order in the provinces. Such an army  would be in line with the experience of communist regimes.

General Fahim’s proposal of a 250,000-strong army was not welcomed by most international donors, especially the US and the UK, who always favoured the creation of a smaller, elite army of 50-60,000 men, which in their view would be easier to isolate from the ethnic and political feuds that are still alive within the country, not to speak of the funding issue. The Bush administration appears to have commissioned studies from private consultants, that have indicated how a volunteer army of 60,000 might be the most viable option, at least if the aim is to de-politicise the armed forces. UN envoy Lakhtar Brahimi has endorsed such views. Subsequently, the debate about the size and the characteristics of the new Afghan army has continued. In part due to the unwillingness of international donors to accept his earlier 250,000 figure, General Fahim and other members of the Karzai administration appear to have revised downward their estimate, first to 200,000, then to 100,000. It is worth noting that the latter figure would still have been higher that the 50-60,000 proposed by the US and the UK.

Finally, at the beginning of April, at a meeting in Geneva detailed plans were drawn about what the future Afghan army should look like. The interim government appeared to have accepted the 60,000 figure for the size of the army, if for no other reason that international donors were not willing to make funding available for a larger army, although the official decree which established the new national army, issued on 20 May, while setting a voluntary service with a term of four years and the dependence of the army on a civil command structure, did not mention the size of the army. In fact it is proving difficult to raise enough money even for the more modest 60,000-strong army, despite the fact that its cost is estimated at a relatively manageable at US$422 million for the first year, of which US$187 million is for the police force. This budget is expected to cover all costs, with some purchases of new equipment being made a necessity by the lack of spare parts and communications and transport equipment. Purchases of weapon systems are unlikely in the short term. New uniforms began to be delivered by Russia even before the Taleban had fallen, while more recently new shipments have arrived from China and others have been promised by Turkey. Personnel costs are going to account for the lion’s share of military expenditure in the early years of the new Afghan army, despite salaries which have not been set exactly high: soldiers will get $50 after the completion of the training course, NCOs will receive $50-70 and officers $150. As far as the police are concerned, by April little delivery of any material had taken place yet, not going beyond pens and paper to take notes at crime scenes and bycicles to be used for patrolling the cities.  Germany, however, has promised to donate eight vehicles, while Britain has promised communications equipment.

It was also established that a 8,000-strong air force, a 70,000-strong police/gendarmerie and a 12,000-strong border guard will be created. The air force, of course, is not much of a priority and it appears unlikely that much money will be spent on it in 2002, although some spare parts might be purchased from Russia. The border guard, as in the past, is expected to be part of the army and therefore depend from the Defence Ministry. The  same ministry will also control the intelligence service, about which no decision has been made public yet, although a deputy minister has been appointed to lead it. On the other hand, the new police force will be under the control of the Interior Ministry, as it has previously been the case. Although the first deployments of police units have taken place in cities, the size agreed upon clearly suggest that the new force is meant as a replacement of the old Sarandoy and will be deployed across the country, including rural areas.

Plans were also drafted for the demobilisation of an estimated 70,000 combatants who will not be needed in the new armed forces, and for helping 100,000 incapacitated former combatants. Among the rank-and-file troops, only those aged between 22 and 28 were meant to be enrolled into the new army, while older combatants were to be demobilised.

The idea that a small, well trained, disciplined and politically non-aligned army would be the best chance to bring peace to Afghanistan is certainly a reasonable one. There is, however, a problem as far as the political management of the creation of such a army is concerned. Estimates of the number of firearms circulating in Afghanistan vary widely, with figures as high as 10 million being quoted. Only a relatively small part of these weapons, probably around 700,000, are in the hands of people involved in political, ethnic or tribal infighting. The number of troops and militiamen under the control of warlords big and small is estimated at 200-250,000. The problem of how to deal with this mass of people who, often, do not own any other skill than fighting, is therefore obvious. In this regard, integrating as many former militiamen into the new army could have been seen as a shrewd move to ease the pacification of Afghanistan. The idea of a pay-off to demobilised combatants is clearly an attempt to answer to this type of concern.

What makes the 60,000-strong army option look more attractive is most of all the prospect of continued factional infighting in the event of an integration of the warlord armies within the larger 200,000 or 250,000 army. Such a large contingent would be impossible to re-train and difficult to monitor and manage. A number of commentators, while discussing the issue of funding the new Afghan army, have doubted the need of training it, claiming that Afghan veterans already know how to fight. The point, however, is that a regular army needs to know more than how to shoot. It is not by chance that the crash basic training course to which the troops of the future army are being subjected is focused on teaching discipline and other skills not directly related to fighting in battle, such as crowd control, patrolling and emergency aid.

Among the consequences of a policy of rewarding every warlord with a dignified position in the army, is a proliferation of officers well beyond the theoretical requirements, especially if the future army will be only 60,000 strong. In the first new battalion to be commissioned, a captain would be in charge of 20 men, a rather generous title, especially for the army of a developing country. All the warlords, including those more hostile to the interim government such as Ismail Khan, are claiming a place for their men in the new army. The attempts of some monarchists, including some former high-ranking officers of the royal army, to bring back to Afghanistan ex-officers from exile to help rebuild the army do not appear likely to succeed and if it did it would only add to the mass of aspiring generals. There are close to 20,000 former officers from the monarchist and communist periods who live in foreign countries.  A few came forward during the first months of 2002, volunteering for service in the new national army, but have met a hostile reception, being forced to wait for months and in the end being granted grades well below those they used to hold in the past.

Theory and practice

An untrained army would be more difficult to control for the future government and would be more likely to be responsive to the solicitations of warlords, ethnic groups and political factions. For all the rhetoric about doing away with the warlords and creating an army of all Afghans, there are already justified complaints that General Fahim has been playing an injudicious, certainly a less than fair role in the initial appointments involved in rebuilding the national army. Many former mujahidin disliked him from the start because of his past in the communist army, while his alignment with Jamiat-i Islami after the fall of President Najibullah in 1992 earned him more enemies among the monarchists and most other political factions. Suspicions aside, General Fahim’s actions have done little to reassure about his non-partisan approach. With regard to appointments in the army, for example, General Fahim chose 38 generals in February, to constitute the command structure of the army. Of them, 37 are Tajiks and one is Uzbek. Furthermore, of the 37 Tajik generals, 35 are Panjsheris. In terms of political alignments, 15 of the 38 generals are members of Jamiat-i Islami, while 16 are former members of the Hizb-i Watan, who subsequently aligned themselves with Jamiat. 5 Even more criticism was attracted by the fact that most of these new generals, including several of the former communists and most of the others, do not have a professional army background, although they all have been active in the civil war. The criterion for the selection of the top brass in the new army appears to be a long-standing commitment to fighting on the right side, especially against the Taleban, which excludes almost everybody except for the members of Jamiat-i Islami. In the words of Commander Mirjan, head of the Defence Directorate of the Defence Ministry, “we fought the jihad…, should we give the slaves of foreign forces these positions in government? 6

Even at lower levels there have been reports of favouritism and nepotism. At the Police Academy Institute, for example, the newly appointed president and two deputies come from Jamiat-i Islami and are Tajiks. 7 Of the first 450 recruits, 300 are Tajiks and most of the rest are Hazara, with very few places going to either Uzbeks or Pashtuns 8. It appears obvious that Tajiks, especially if connected with Jamiat-i Islami, are being favoured in all types of appointments, members of other minority ethnic groups occasionally get a post or two and Pashtuns are clearly being discriminated against. Even in a province with an overwhelming Pashtun majority such as Nangrahar, it was warlord Hazrat Ali, a member of the Pachai minority, who has in the end been appointed as military commander, despite the availability of other strong candidates for the job among the Pashtun warlords, such as Haji Zaman. 9 Interestingly, when Qanuni was not confirmed as Minister of the Interior after the Loya Jirgah, Kabul’s policemen rioted in protest and proclaimed their refusal to serve under the new minister, the Pashtun Taj Mohammed. Their protests contributed to the appointment of Qanuni as special security adviser, with a supervisory role over the police force too.

Another example of bias in the conduct of General Fahim has been his (indirect) involvement in the row between his fellow party member, Mohammed Atta, and General Dostum in Northern Afghanistan. Fahim and Jamiat-i Islami encouraged Atta’s claims to a greater share of territorial control over the region. Not only, but they have even threatened Dostum with dispatching against him his former deputy Abdul Malik Pahlawan, who broke with Dostum and allied with the Taleban, succeeding for a few months to oust his rival from Northern Afghanistan 10. Pahlawan is now a guest of Jamiat-i Islami in Kabul and maintains a small army of Uzbek fighters from his native province of Faryab, where he is still said to enjoy a significant support.

It looks likely, therefore, that the integration/assimilation of the warlords’ armies into a national one could be carried out to the advantage of some factions and at the expense of others, especially as long as General Fahim will be in charge of overseeing the process. At the time of writing (April 2002), all options remain open. The process of merging the warlords armies into a national one has just been set in motion and the steps taken so far are compatible with several outcomes, at least in the medium and long term. It could emerge as a multi-ethnic volunteer army on the Indian model, or as a two-tier force containing both regular and semi-regular units.

The process gets started

In the early stages of post-Taleban Afghanistan, priority has been given to the formation of the police force, especially to the 3,600 policemen of Kabul, whose help was needed by the multinational force to help patrolling the streets of Kabul. A number of senior officers were recruited among those who served in the 1970s, but the rank-and-file was recruited among the warlords’ troops. Other cities, such as Mazar-i Sharif, have seen the creation of smaller police contingents, recruited to an even greater (if not exclusive) extent from troops belonging to the warlord armies. The leading role in the training of the police is being taken by Germany, which had already trained Afghan police officers before the war. Germany will provide direct training and hand over some equipment, but most of all it will coordinate the whole program, to which 28 countries take part. It is  expected that in a matter of a few months, 25,000 police officers will be trained, a substantial chunk of the overall planned size of the police force (70,000). Of course, according to an official statement, “equal representation of all ethnic groups is a key element” of the program, as well as “complying with international human rights standards and integrating women during the rebuilding of the Afghan Police Force 11.
As far as the army is concerned, the first step taken by the Ministry of Defence has been to try to bring the troops of the warlords under its command, with mixed results. As of April 2002, Defence Minister Fahim still only had direct command over the 15,000 or so troops of his own Panjsheri faction. Most other warlords had accepted to be nominally part of the new national army, but in practice no chain of command has been established and Fahim has no actual control over their troops. A divisional and corps structure has been superimposed to the warlord armies, with the title of general being generously distributed to the various warlords.

Most troops were first of all ordered out of cities and towns, in order to contain episodes of looting and violence involving the urban population. In reality, while the order was obeyed in many towns and cities, in Kabul many troops belonging to Jamiat continued to hang around and were reported to be behind a crime wave hitting the capital. Outside Kabul, patrolled by ISAF troops and Afghan police, a number of the warlords’ troops aligned with the government troops were maintained in active service and issued with uniforms, with the task of trying to collect weapons from the population. The remaining part of the armed men supposed to become part of the new national army were gathered in improvised garrisons and asked to hand over their weapons, in order to have them registered, before being re-issued with their firearms.

The collection of weapons from the population is expected to last for a long time and even the early phases of the process did not go entirely smoothly, despite the targeting of the “softer” spots first. Some violent accidents were reported and probably more took place that went unreported. Estimates of the number of weapons circulating in the country run as high as 10 million. Therefore, the collection of 60,000 firearms in Kandahar province by 5 March (as claimed by the local police chief) can be seen as a success only when compared to other provinces, such as neighbouring Helmand, where the process had not even started at all. Furthermore, as UN envoy Lakhtar Brahimi himself said, most of the weapons collected, especially in places other than Kandahar, are old and unusable ones, while more efficient weapons are kept and hidden. 12 The difficulty is of course that after years of widespread insecurity, many Afghans view the possession of weapons as a basic form of self-protection. In the word of Hamid Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali, “every family will keep at least one Kalashnikov and some pistols for itself. Afghans always have weapons in the house -- it's a part of the culture”. 13 Interior Minister Qanooni suggested that individual weapons be purchased by the government (at the expense of the international community), in order to make the task of collecting them easier. This proposal met approval from diverse quarters, but no decision was immediately taken. The cost of such a plan was estimated at US$200 million, but it is unlikely that even if it was implemented it would achieve a great degree of success, especially among the potential troublemakers.

In Kandahar, the local authorities first started by appealing to the population, asking to give up the weapons voluntarily. Then, starting in January, roadblocks were set up and finally raids against buildings suspected to hide weapons caches were staged. Most of the weapons collected by the beginning of March in Kandahar province (90% in Kandahar city) had been issued by the Taleban in the early days of the American offensive, as it resulted from the records found after the occupation of the city by the anti-Taleban warlords. Widespread home searches have not been carried out yet, for fear that this might cause a violent resistance among the population.

The start of the disarmament process was much more troublesome in Balkh province, where there is no predominance of pro-government warlords as in Kandahar. While an agreement for the withdrawal of armed units from the city of Mazar-i Sharif was reached relatively soon, it took quite a while to enforce it, especially since the agreement was clearly crafted to favour Atta Mohammed of Jamiat-i Islami. His men were given the command of the police force and the majority of posts within it. Once the militias were actually withdrawn from the city, the situation remained tense in the surrounding countryside, where bloody clashes between factions continued until the end of the winter. It was only during March that the collection of weapons from the troops for registration started, but even then the number of weapons held by people not scheduled to become part of the national army appeared to be in the increase.

At the same time, the creation of a first elite corps, trained by international advisers and troops, has started its training program. The idea is that such an elite unit, which will at first consist of 1,500-2,000 troops, will become the hard core and central reserve of the new national army and could be used to keep the warlords in the line, playing a role similar to that of Najibullah’s special guard. It should also become a “model” for the rest of the army and presumably contribute to its training. This central force should be based on recruits send by the 33 provinces (200 each), in order to achieve a balanced mix of all regions and ethnic groups.  Some of the officers in charge of the plan, such as Captain Mohammed Hashim, administrator of Kabul military college, have a reputation of honest military professionalism and declare themselves keen to purge the new army of all those corrupted by ethnic and political bias. Similarly, the new Interior Minister, Taj Mohammed, a former minister before the war, promised shortly after his appointment to professionalise the police force within seven months or quit. However, the enforcement of such policies remains in the hands of those same biased individuals who should be purged.

The first 600-strong battalion has started the basic training course in mid-February and completed it at the beginning of April to become the first battalion of the national guard, after some initial problems in gathering the recruits were overcome. The formation of Afghans trainers of future recruits, aimed at the eventual replacement of the international advisers, is also expected to start shortly. Given the present plans, however, the central force trained by Americans, Britons, Germans and Italians will grow only very slowly. The creation of fully trained and disciplined units is expected to take six months, so that, given the plans as of early April 2002, by September 2002 there should be only 4,000 fully trained Afghan troops. One year later, the number will have grown to 12,000, still just a fifth of the planned size of the new army. Some US officers involved in the training program talk of even lower figures, with around 2,000-3,000 men ready by October/November and 9,000 after another year, and with good reason. The second and third battalions to undergo the training program, this time under the supervision of US and French troops, filled only two thirds of their personnel charts and recorded a high rate of drop-outs, with 25% recruits quitting within the first four weeks. Even the First National Guard battalion, trained by the British with some more success, as it numbered 550 men out of a theoretical 600 at the time of completing the course in April, had slumped to less than 400 men by June, as many deserted and went home.

Given the difficulties being met, the help of more countries is being enlisted in the training effort. Turkey also agreed in January 2002 to send training officers to Afghanistan. Discussions are still being held with India, which might also play an important role in the training of the new Afghan army, and in January the Deputy Minister of Defence, Abdul Rashid Dostum, discussed the matter in detail with Indian Foreign Minister Fernandes. India’s help could prove especially valuable since the country has a considerable experience in fighting mountain warfare with comparatively modest resources and in managing a multi-ethnic army. The Indian government and armed forces appear keen to take up this task, which would strengthen their influence in Kabul. However, by the end of April it had not be decided yet whether India’s role would go as far as sending a contingent of trainers to  Afghanistan, or rather would be limited to inviting a few Afghan officers to its war colleges, which had already been agreed upon in January. Karzai expressed his wish of an Indian participation in the training programme when he visited New Dehli in March, despite the obvious irritation that such a move would cause in Pakistan.

The obvious implication is that for a long time the regular, western-trained army and the warlords’ armies will de facto coexist, whatever might have been decided on paper.  In other terms, the warlords armies, even if in a disguised form, will remain at least partially mobilised during the crucial early years of the consolidation of the post-Taleban Afghan state.

Plans to train a new army stress the need to guarantee its multi-ethnicity and efforts are being made to incorporate soldiers from all ethnic groups in every single unit. However, it is not clear whether an attempt will be made to respect such proportionality in the composition of the officer corps too. The purpose of course is to undermine the hold of the warlords over their former troops, while at the same time achieving a more disciplined behaviour of the troops towards the civilian population. Assuming the government, or some of its ministers, have no double agenda, mixing people from different backgrounds, speaking three different languages (Dari, Uzbek and Pashto) might however make the creation of an effective army problematic. The record from the past and especially from the communist regime is that mixed units are not very motivated when fighting. Certainly, during the war against the mujahidin, ethnically homogeneous units had a more successful record. The army which is being planned by the ISAF, the UN and the international powers involved in the rescue of Afghanistan looks more like a National Guard, meant to maintain order and confront relatively limited threats, rather than face tough fights against a determined enemy. While this type of army might be suitable as long as a foreign contingent is available to support it and most of all as long as strong air support is forthcoming, the longer-term prospects are more doubtful. Unless the situation becomes completely stabilised before the attention of the world is diverted by some other crisis, trouble might resurface at a later stage.

Conclusion : ‘A brief window of opportunity’

“No Warlords”, repeated Karzai in early April. But despite all the rhetoric about doing away with the warlords, most of them are in the process of being incorporated into the new army too. For example, Atta Mohammed, the Tajik warlord of Northern Afghanistan, has been appointed general in charge of the 7th Army; while Hazrat Ali has been appointed commander of No 1 Army Corps. The fact that some warlords are being favoured over others might on the one hand guarantee a greater homogeneity of the new army, but at the same time is bound to make the opposition to it permanent among the factions discriminated against. The military, let alone political dangers of driving disaffected warlords and politicians together in an alliance of mutual disaffection are very real, as shown by the strengthening alliance between Rabbani (who commands the loyalty of many important commanders of Jamiat-i Islami in North-eastern Afghanistan), Rasul Sayyaf (a radical Islamist with some following among the Pashtun tribes), Ismail Khan and a number of Pashtun warlords who used to adhere to either Jamiat-i Islami or Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i Islami. Rabbani has hinted that he is planning to mould such alliance into an unified party, with which to compete in the political arena, but of course such a process has hardly begun. The fact that quite a few recruits sent to the central training camps of the national army are not coming from the former warlord armies should be seen as worrying, considering that in theory there shold be at least two experienced fighters for every position available. In other terms, the warlords seem to be in no hurry to demobilise their own troops and relinquish control over them. In order to convince civilians to enlist in the new army and meet the quotas assigned to each province, local recruiters resorted to false promises of salaries much higher and conditions of service much better than the real ones. Even the central administration of the national army, tightly controlled by General Fahim, has so far refused to issue weapons for the recruits, except for old and often unserviceable ones, despite the large stocks that should be held.

The alternative, a more carefully ethnically and factionally balanced army, would on the other hand be difficult to craft and require a greater capacity of the centre to intervene in the regions than it actually has. Moreover, it is not even sure that such an approach would attract more consensus, since striking a balance between the egos of the various commmanders could prove very difficult and backfire. A third alternative, supported mostly by some former monarchist officials of the old generations, who however have little or no actual weight on the ground, would be a genuinely unbiased army, manned by professional officers. Apart from the lack of political support for such an option, the old generation of officers of the royal army is now mostly too old to form the officer corps of the new armed forces, while forming a new class of officers from scratch would require too much time. The picture would look different if large numbers of officers from the communist period were brought in, something that in part Defence Minister Fahim is already doing, although only if they are politically aligned with him. Former communist officers would in many cases offer the advantage of having little or no strong political base within the country, therefore offering some greater chance of remaining aloof from factional infighting. The problem, in this case, is that such a move would create jealousies among the former mujahidin who fought against them during the 1980s.

In the medium term, it is quite possible that any army would do, given that the population is too tired of war to support a long guerrilla campaign against a new government, especially if the latter enjoys even a modest degree of direct international support. Attempts by the remnants of the Taleban or other disgruntled factions to actively oppose the government would likely remain confined to pockets in areas difficult to access, without threatening the existence of the new regime. Any conflict is likely to be of very low intensity, taking the form of small-scale insurgencies and/or assassination of prominent political figures, such as happened at the beginning of July with the execution of Abdul Qadir. This does not mean, however, that there are no major dangers lying in wait both in the short and long term. As long as the new army does not reach a level of operational effectiveness such that it could take on internal challenges if needed, there is always the possibility that the international mobilisation which brought the Taleban down might go missing, as newer crises hit the international arena. On the other hand, after the new army has been established and the international contingents leave the country, the nature of the army will be key to its ability to maintain order. As the experience of the war becomes more remote, some groups of Afghans might become increasingly frustrated by their inability to have a fair access to careers in the state and army bureaucracies, trouble might emerge once again. In particular, the wilful exclusion of Pashtuns, the majority ethnic group in the country, is surely stirring up trouble for the future and even threatens the possibility of a revived Pashtun-backed party emerging, a potential re-run of some of the circumstances in which the Taleban suddenly emerged on the scene. Despite the granting of more power to Pashtun ministers in the post-Loya Jirgah provisional government, there is still much dissatisfaction among Pashtuns about their insufficient role in the running of the country. At the June Loya Jirgah, a vocal group of about 300 hard-core pro-monarchy Pashtun delegates emerged, a sign of the mass following that Pashtun nationalists have. The next few months will be crucial to the establishment of a truly national army. Once the structure that is being created now will have been consolidated, it will be too late to reform it.

 1  New York Times, 16 February 1997.

 2  Stratfor, Ground War Strategies Part 2: The Northern Alliance Offensive, 7 November 2001

 3  In reality Ismail’s Khan army appears to number around 30,000 men.

 4  Sandy Gall, Julian Gearing, T.A. Davis; "Massoud builds Afghan power base with national army",Jane's Defence Weekly, 20:14 (October 2, 1993); Anthony Davis, "The Battleground of Northern Afghanistan", Jane's Intelligence Review, 6:7 (July 1994).

 5  The Friday Times, 22-28 March

 6  The Frontier Post, 8 April 2002

 7  Ooman Wafa, in Report on Central Asia, IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 112, April 3, 2002

 8  Afghan police training institute starts operation, ..........

 9  Walid Baidar, in IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 112, April 3, 2002

 10  Peter Baker, Washington Post, February 7, 2002

 11  Press Division,  German Foreign Office, Berlin, 13 February 2002

 12  Time magazine, 15 April 2002

 13  Washington Post, April 9, 2002

 14  Scott Baldauf, “Afghan neighbours eye prize: training the future army”,  The Christian Science Monitor, 6 March 2002; “India to help Afghanistan set up an army” AFP 31 January 2002

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