Once-powerful warlord is shunted aside
Badsha Khan's ouster helps strengthen the Afghan central government. But other warlords throughout the country may hold firm.
NEAR KHOST, AFGHANISTAN
With his bandoleer draped across his chest and a silver and black turban wound onto his head, Badsha Khan still looks like a model Afghan warlord.Skip to next paragraph
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But the once powerful regional governor and a crucial US ally in the war on terrorism has been cast aside since voicing his opposition to the central government of President Hamid Karzai. Mr. Khan now has a mere 500 troops and is treated as a national security threat.
Khost's current governor, Hakim Tanewal, has called for immediate military action against Khan, and US forces have arrested a number of Khan's subcommanders and family members to prevent them from mounting any further attacks against the central government.
The fall of Khan - and the possible alienation of his entire tribe, the Zadrans - mark a small but important milestone for the Karzai government. It's the first step in returning power to the hands of civilian rulers.
"[Mr. Karzai] has launched a serious campaign to challenge the warlords," says Ahmed Rashid, author of the book, "Taliban," and a 20-year political observer of Afghanistan. "He's ordered that no warlord can be military leader and governor of the same province and he's thrown out 29 people from the establishment. All this points to the fact that he's moving toward amassing great power for the central government."
Meanwhile, for Khan, abandonment has become a vexing personal betrayal, and Afghan officials privately fret that the one-time foe of Al Qaeda could switch sides and fight against both the Afghan government and US forces.
"My feelings toward the US are the same as they were six months ago, but I'm sorry to say I don't know what America is doing in this country," says Khan, sitting on a floor-level cushion in a guesthouse on the outskirts of Khost. "Why don't they know who are their friends and who are their foes?"
But while casting aside Badsha Khan was relatively easy - the US simply stopped paying him for joint operations - the same move will be difficult in other parts of the country where warlords and powerbrokers are more deeply entrenched and where the central government has little manpower to assert its will. The problem with Karzai's plan, Mr. Rashid notes, is that the president has little power of his own to assert. The new Afghan National Army now has only seven battalions, each composed of about 500 freshly trained but poorly paid men, scattered across the country. This makes him reliant on US forces, which have largely stayed out of domestic political squabbles unless they pertain directly to eliminating Taliban or Al Qaeda holdouts.
In such a scenario, only weakened warlords can be shoved aside. Others, such as Herat warlord Ismail Khan, Kandahar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai, Balkh warlord Gen. Rashid Dostum, or even Northern Alliance commander and now Defense Minister General Fahim - who have alternative sources of income - will continue to maintain personal private armies and the ability to assert their personal wills over local politics.
In a crucial province like Khost, where a few thousand US troops are based to take on Taliban holdouts, US military sources privately say the eccentric politics of Khan, an illiterate landowner but charismatic tribal elder, lost their charm long ago. Of special concern were a number of incidents that inflamed local opinion against US forces.