Voice

The New Mayor of Kabul

Why Afghanistan's next president won't succeed without the warlords -- or the Taliban.

Election Day is just around the corner, and once again campaign overload has struck Afghanistan in a riot of colors, candidate mug shots, and election symbols -- democracy at work via visual saturation in a country with one of the world's highest illiteracy rates.

But there's something disconcertingly familiar about the 2014 presidential campaign posters featuring candidates who are promising to lead Afghanistan into the future: They stink of the past.

The giant ones typically feature a triumvirate of presidential candidates flanked by two running mates, reflecting the three-person tickets that have turned these elections into a giant ethnic -bloc game. And it's here that the past is threatening to rudely barge into the future. The warlords are back -- if they ever really left -- with a renewed force.

One such poster seemingly designed to spark fear and loathing among many Afghans proudly displays two familiar turbaned characters with Santa Claus-esque white beards. To the left, gazing past traffic-clogged streets to the distant hills, is presidential candidate Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf, a beefy warlord sometimes called "the man of the mountain" for his hulking frame. Sayyaf is very familiar with the Hindu Kush foothills ringing the Afghan capital. During the mujahidin wars of the 1990s following the Soviet withdrawal, his forces pummeled a Shiite-dominated western Kabul neighborhood, indiscriminately firing into dense, civilian enclaves and committing "numerous acts of murder, pillage and looting," according to a 2005 Human Rights Watch report.

Most profiles of Sayyaf in the Western press kick off by introducing him as a former mentor of terrorist bigwigs such as Osama bin Laden. The 68-year-old warlord has not denied this, noting that it was during the mujahidin resistance when, "Not only Osama, but thousands of Arab people came during the period of our struggle against the Soviet Union."

Sayyaf is one of the few Pashtun commanders who joined the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. But he's also known as the man who helped three Tunisians, posing as journalists, get access to Tajik resistance hero Ahmad Shah Massoud in the fall of 2001. The Tunisians turned out to be al Qaeda operatives who proceeded to assassinate Massoud, just two days before the 9/11 attacks.

The "man of the mountain" most likely had no clue they were al Qaeda assassins. But more than a decade after the "Lion of the Panjshir" was killed, his family is still complaining about the Afghan government's failure to investigate the case.

Reckoning with the past has never been a priority for President Hamid Karzai who, lacking any militia or political party, has courted and accommodated the warlords.

Karzai himself is banned from running for a third consecutive term in the 2014 poll, but his legacy of appeasement will live on. Sayyaf's running mate, the second snowy-bearded gentleman on the billboard, is none other than Ismail Khan, Tajik warlord, one-time governor of the western Herat province and minister for water and energy in Karzai's cabinet.

In 2012, the strongman of Herat sent shivers down Afghan spines when he called upon his Tajik supporters to take up arms and defend the country against their traditional enemy, the Taliban. Tajiks -- who make up around 27 percent of the population -- fear a return to the dog days of Taliban rule, and Khan is believed to be enlisting new recruits and building local command structures. Khan has since toned down his rhetoric on the campaign trail. But the Afghan rumor mill has been buzzing with reports of various groups rearming in the lead-up to the international combat-troop withdrawal by the end of 2014.

Indeed, the year 2014 has haunted the collective Afghan mind since 2011, when U.S. President Barack Obama helpfully handed the Taliban a timeline to prepare for their comeback.

"Do hezar-o chardah," Dari for 2014, has turned into "a code word for uncertainty and possible chaos," notes Martine van Bijlert, co-founder of the Afghanistan Analysts Network -- and Afghans don't even use the Gregorian calendar. Not that their own solar Hijri calendar has been any kinder: This year -- 1393 -- kicked off with the brazen and deadly March 20 attack on Kabul's highly-secure Serena Hotel, just as guests were celebrating Nowruz, the Persian New Year. The assault, coming weeks before Election Day, put everyone on edge -- as the Taliban knew it would -- reigniting the worst of do hezar-o chardah anxieties.

It's this kind of fear that drives communities to their ethnic warlords. Most Afghans have no real love for the strongmen who destroyed their country and paved the way for the Taliban. But when it comes to the crunch, they confess that only a warlord can really protect them -- especially if they belong to a minority ethnic group.

The candidates know this, of course, and end up doing the ethnic electoral math when picking their running mates. The most cynical display of vote bank calculation came when Ashraf Ghani, a former Afghan finance minister, picked the controversial Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum as his vice presidential choice.

A Columbia University grad, former World Bank official, and Kabul University chancellor, Ghani is the favorite of the educated Afghan elites and has been a champion of democratic accountability. That doesn't count for much, though: He barely secured 3 percent of the vote in 2009.

This time, Afghanistan's Mr. Clean has picked a running-mate warlord whose gruesome past exploits are the stuff of legend. But Dostum will cream the Uzbek vote. During the 2009 presidential election, every single Uzbek I interviewed said he or she had voted for Karzai because Dostum had endorsed the incumbent. "Dostum protects us" and "He is the only man who has done so much for us" were the typical explanations.

The problem, of course, is that Dostum protected his ethnic tribesmen so well in the 1990s that his fighters blasted civilian areas of Kabul with heavy Soviet weapons meant to defend the city's approaches -- not level the city itself. Meanwhile, Sayyaf's Sunni forces, funded by Saudi Arabia, systematically targeted the Shiite Hazaras. That senseless, internecine power struggle between the warlords cost thousands of lives -- the exact figure remains unknown.

On the 2014 campaign trail, probably egged on by Ghani's civil society advisors, Dostum has offered a weak apology for past excesses. But none of the warlords has been held accountable -- and none ever will.

In 2007, the Afghan parliament approved a resolution granting amnesty to the warlords. Those who voted in favor included stalwart warlords such as -- hold your breath -- Sayyaf. But there were plenty of parliamentarians, not to mention ordinary Afghans, who disapproved. So, the warlords and their supporters put up a show of force in favor of the resolution, demonstrating at Kabul's football stadium, where the "man of the mountain" addressed the rally, thundering, "whoever is against the mujahidin is against Islam, and they are the enemies of the country."

With friends like these, who needs enemies? And who even knows who the enemy is anymore? There was a time when the Taliban were the bad guys. But now everyone from Afghan leaders to the international community has jumped on the "talking to the Taliban" bandwagon. Most of the Afghans I've interviewed support the negotiations. "There's no other way. The Taliban are Afghans, they're our fellow countrymen," they explain. Except that the Taliban are probably more Pakistani than Afghan. But never mind.

Foreign powers have always mucked around in Afghanistan -- as have local strongmen, murderers, rapists, and looters. Afghanistan can be very forgiving that way -- as the men with the Santa Claus beards know only too well.

WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images

COLUMN

Who Speaks for Crimea's Tatars?

FP talks to Mustapha Dzhemilev about his besieged people and bizarre conversation with Vladimir Putin.

The former chairman of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, or regional parliament, Mustapha Dzhemilev is still considered to be the father of the Crimean Tatar cause. His community, which he refers to as the only truly "indigenous people" of the Ukrainian peninsula which was invaded and annexed by Russia in February, numbers a mere 300,000 out of a population of 2.35 million, owing to the forced population transfers of the Tatars to Siberia and Central Asia ordered by Josef Stalin in 1944, an act the Mejlis consider to be a modern genocide. (Many Tatars were allowed back into Crimea during the glasnost period of the Soviet Union, but millions more remain as part of a far-flung diaspora.)

A famed survivor of the Soviet gulag, and now member of the Ukrainian parliament from the ruling Fatherland Party, Dzhemilev is in the United States to address the U.N. Security Council on the concerns and fears expressed by his people that now live under Russian occupation, and to press the urgency of the moment in Washington, D.C.

Dzhemilev is a 70-year-old soft-spoken whisper of a man, conspicuous in his curly Persian sheepskin hat. He spoke at the Ukrainian Museum in lower Manhattan on Sunday, March 30, where Foreign Policy caught up with him to discuss U.S. and E.U. options on Ukraine, the likelihood of another Russian invasion, and his recent one-on-one phone call with Vladimir Putin.

Foreign Policy: According to news reports this weekend, the White House has not even raised the status of Crimea with the Kremlin in trying to negotiate a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis. The United States therefore seems to have accepted that Crimea will remain a part of Russia. What is your response to this position?

Mustapha Dzhemilev: We are very disappointed because, as I said, accepting Russian occupation as a fait accompli will mean future problems for the international system. And, of course, that the Ukrainian forces left Crimea and would not fight. That has been a big disappointment for Crimean Tatars. Accepting this takeover of Crimea will mean that other countries which gave up their nuclear weapons will seek to get them back because no diplomatic accord can ever again be trusted. [The 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by the United States, Britain, Russia, and Ukraine, guaranteed the latter's territorial integrity and sovereignty in exchange for its relinquishment of its nuclear weapons.]

FP: What would you do if you were the United States or European Union?

MD: Increase sanctions. It is our belief that sanctions will be enough to resolve the crisis. We believe that very firm sanctions will do it. They'll work. I understand that there are first, second, third, fourth, fifth stages [for sanctions] -- the gap is very big between these stages. These sanctions should be taken immediately and the more aggressive stages should be taken going forward. Of course, this will take a toll on Western financial interests. But if the West doesn't pay this price now, it will be much higher in the future.

FP: If Moscow and Washington did manage to resolve this standoff diplomatically, would you take Putin at his word that he'd abide by any settlement?

MD: This would be very difficult for us to do because Russia has already broken the 1994 agreement.

FP: Do you think Russia will invade eastern Ukraine given its troop movements close to the border?

MD: This is a very provocative state of affairs. There might indeed be some unrest in the east because of what the Russians are doing there.

FP: You mentioned that of the 5,000 Tatars who have left Crimea for western Ukraine since the Russian invasion, only women and children remained as exiles, while all of the men came back. This has prompted suspicions that the Crimean Tatars will fight the Russians. Have you seen any evidence that self-defense militias or an armed resistance is taking shape?

MD: We have said that we want a diplomatic solution to this crisis. We cannot fight the Russians because our nation is very small, only 300,000.

FP: Putin called you on the phone several weeks ago, presumably to win your support for Russia's actions in Crimea. What did he say to you, and what was your impression of his state of mind?

MD: First of all, I was shocked that he repeated the clichés of Russian propaganda, that "Banderites" [followers of Stepan Bandera, a controversial Ukrainian nationalist who collaborated with the Nazis when Ukraine was under Soviet occupation] have come to power there, that fascists came to power, that there is a threat to the Russian population. That was ridiculous; there is none of that. The head of such a big nation should have sources of information that are objective, but here he represented all this as fact. I tried to explain that this wasn't the case, but it was useless. He explained his point of view; I think he was expecting that from this conversation he would at least ensure our neutrality.

FP: So Putin expected the Tatars to remain neutral?

MD: I said that there could be a provocation, there weren't that many of us, we were not going to fight, our methods are peaceful, but the problem could be solved only by diplomatic means with the government of Ukraine. Only through negotiations with our government could this be achieved. He should withdraw his forces then.

FP: As you know, there are several figures and parties in the Russian opposition who condemn the annexation of Crimea, such as PARNAS, December 5, and Alexey Navalny's Party of Progress. There have even been some antiwar demonstrations in Moscow, albeit suppressed or disrupted by the authorities.

MD: This is very important. To be frank, we place a lot of hope in the Russian opposition. Because if there isn't such a powerful movement in Russia -- I will sound cynical -- I fear that Russia will not wake up until they are confronted with coffins.

DFATD|MAECD/Flickr