The revelation by the New York Times Wednesday that Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, has long been on the payroll of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is only the tip of a much bigger iceberg of heavy dependence by U.S. and NATO counterinsurgency forces on Afghan warlords for security, according to a recently published report and investigations by Australian and Canadian journalists.
U.S. and other NATO military contingents operating in the provinces of Afghanistan’s predominantly Pashtun south and east have been hiring private militias controlled by Afghan warlords, according to these sources, to provide security for their forward operating bases and other bases and to guard convoys.
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has acknowledged that U.S. and NATO ties with warlords have been a cause of popular Afghan alienation from foreign military forces. But the policy is not likely to be reversed anytime soon, because U.S. and NATO officials still have no alternative to the security services the warlords provide.
A report published by the Center on International Cooperation at New York University in September notes that U.S. and NATO contingents have frequently hired security providers that are covertly owned by warlords who have "ready-made" private militias which compete with state institutions for power.
The report cites examples of major warlords or their relatives or allies who have been contracted for security services in four provinces.
In Uruzgan province, both U.S. and Australian Special Forces have contracted with a private army commanded by Col. Matiullah Khan, called Kandak Amniante Uruzgan, with 2,000 armed men, to provide security services on which their bases there depend. That case was reported in detail in April 2008 by two reporters for The Australian, Mark Dodd and Jeremy Kelly.
Col. Khan’s security force protects NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) convoys on the main road from Kandahar to Tarin Kowt, where more than 1,000 Australian troops are based at Camp Holland, according to the The Australian in April 2008.
Col. Khan gets 340,000 dollars per month – nearly 4.1 million dollars annually – for getting two convoys from Kandahar to Tarin Kowt safely each month. Khan, now police chief in Uruzgan province, evidently got his private army from his uncle Jan Mohammad Khan, a commander who helped defeat the Taliban in Kandahar in 2001 and was then rewarded by President Karzai by being named governor of Uruzgan in 2002.
The Australian Defence Force claimed to The Australian that Col. Khan is paid by the Afghan Ministry of Interior to provide security on the main highways of Uruzgan province. The Australian military had previously refused to confirm or deny Australian payments to Col. Khan.
CanWest News Service’s Mike Blanchfield and Andrew Mayeda reported in November 2007 that the Canadian military had hired a "General Gulalai" to provide security for an undisclosed forward operating base. Gulalai is a warlord in southern Afghanistan who drove the Taliban out of Kandahar in 2001.
The same reporters revealed that Col. Haji Toorjan, a local warlord allied with Kandahar governor and major warlord Gul Agha Sherzai, was hired to provide security for Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar City, where Canada’s provincial construction team is located.
Blanchfeld and Mayeda found that the Canadian military had given 29 contracts worth 1.14 million dollars to a company identified as "Sherzai", suggesting strongly that the former governor of Kandahar, who had become governor of Nangarhar province, was the owner.
The Canadian military refused to confirm whether Gul Agha Sherzai is indeed the owner.
In Badakhshan province, Gen. Nazri Mahmed, a warlord who is said to "control a significant portion of the province’s lucrative opium industry", has the contract to provide security for the German Provincial Reconstruction Team, according to the NYU report.
The report suggests that the U.S. and NATO contingents are spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually on contracts with Afghan security providers, most of which are local power brokers guilty of human rights abuses.
In addition to Ahmed Wali Karzai, it names Hashmat Karzai, another brother of President Karzai, and Hamid Wardak, the son of Defence Minister Rahim Wardak, as powerful figures who control private security firms that have gotten security contracts without registering with the government.
Two anonymous United Nations sources cited in the report estimate that 1,000 to 1,500 unregistered armed security groups have been "employed, trained, and armed by ISAF" and "Coalition Forces" for security services. As many as 120,000 armed individuals are estimated by the U.N. sources to belong to about 5,000 private militias in Afghanistan.
Most Afghan warlords are widely reviled, mainly because the private armies they continue to control carry out theft and violence against civilians without any accountability.
In his initial assessment last August, Gen. McChrystal referred to "public anger and alienation" toward ISAF, of which he is commander, as a result of the perception that ISAF is "complicit" in "widespread corruption and abuse of power".
That remark suggests that McChrystal, who had carried out the Special Forces’ policy of relying on Afghan warlords for security in the past, was now expressing concern about its political consequences.
Jake Sherman, a co-author of the NYU report, was a United Nations political officer involved in the effort to disarm warlords from 2003 to 2005. He is sceptical that U.S. policy ties with the warlords will be ended.
"I don’t see how U.S. and other contingents could sustain forward operating bases without paying these guys," said Sherman in an interview with IPS.
Beyond their continuing dependence on the warlords for security services, Sherman sees another reason for keeping them on the payroll. If the U.S. and NATO military commanders tried to cut their ties with the private militias, Sherman said the warlords "would actually become a security threat".
Sherman recalled that during his period working for the United Nations in northern Afghanistan, local police were hired to guard a World Food Programme warehouse in Badakhshan. After a rocket attack on the warehouse, an investigation quickly turned up the fact that the police themselves had carried out the attack to pressure the U.N. to hire more guards.
The present U.S. and NATO dependence on warlord armies is rooted in the policy of the George W. Bush administration in the early years after the ouster of the Taliban regime in late 2001.
The Central Intelligence Agency put the commanders of the forces who had defeated the Taliban on the payroll and gave them weapons and communications equipment to help U.S. counterterrorism squads locate any al Qaeda remnants in Afghanistan.
The commanders used the U.S. support to consolidate their political control over different provinces or sub-provincial areas. Human Rights Watch observed in a June 2002 report on the new relationships forged between the United States and the warlords, "While the U.S. government does not view this policy as actively supporting local warlords, the distinction is often lost on Afghan civilians who see coalition forces openly interacting with the warlords."
Larry Goodson of the National War College, who participated in the 2002 process called the Loya Jirga under which the first post-Taliban Afghan government was established, told IPS he had recommended from the beginning a "de-warlordisation" process, in which "we took nasty, sleazy characters and turn them into less nasty, sleazy bosses."
But the warlords were kept on the payroll, Goodson recalls, mainly because the troops controlled by the former commanders were seen as "force multipliers", in a situation where foreign troops were in short supply.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist with Inter-Press Service specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.