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A changing of the guard for Afghanistan's warlords

Preliminary results from Afghanistan's parliamentary election indicate that warlords who built their reputations fighting the Soviets are being dumped for a younger generation.

By Correspondent / October 27, 2010

In this image made on Monday, Oct. 25, supporters surround parliamentary candidate Pacha Khan Zadran, center, as they block a major transit route in Paktia province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan.

Nashanuddin Khan/AP Photo


Kabul, Afghanistan

For a fifth day, supporters of losing parliamentary candidate Pacha Khan Zadran have blocked a major road in eastern Afghanistan. They've set tires ablaze and refused to let traffic pass – threatening to keep the road closed until the government reinstates the 1.3 million votes tossed out due to fraud, a decision Mr. Zadran's supporters say cost him the election.

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The local protest in favor of a prominent warlord is more evidence that the Afghan parliamentary election, trumpeted by the US as proof of a steadily emerging democracy, was marred by fraud and in some cases involved candidates unwilling to take defeat peacefully.

Zadran is from Paktia province and rose to power during the war against the Soviets along with a raft of militia commanders that remain some of Afghanistan's most powerful people to this day. While the defeat of a man like Zadran might be seen as evidence that Afghan's are turning away from leaders whose power flows from the barrel of a rifle, preliminary results from the Sept. 18 parliamentary elections instead indicate the old guard of warlords is simply being replaced.

Many of the apparent winners (election results have not yet been certified) belong to a new generation of Afghan warlords that has risen since 2001 and attained wealth and power through NATO security contracts and lucrative reconstruction deals.

“This is a new situation in Afghanistan. You saw in the last parliamentary elections that there were too many new people who spent a lot of money, millions of dollars, and they got this money over the last nine years,” says Waheed Mozhdah, a political analyst in Kabul. “It’s a kind of new generation of warlords and this generation is the harvest of the American presence.”

New warlords see opportunity for fortune

This new generation of warlords – most of whom dislike that title and prefer terms like “powerbroker” instead – are young men, many in their early 30s, who seized the international presence here as an opportunity to make their fortunes.

They provide social services in their areas of influence by supporting the poor, providing gifts to newly married couples, and often intervene in legal disputes. They also maintain private armies that are known for violent conduct and many of whose members are believed to be involved in smuggling drugs and running protection rackets.

In Kanadahar and Uruzgan provinces alone, the newly elected members of the parliament are dominated by loyalists of Ahmad Wali Karzai and Matiullah Khan, both considered to be among the strongest of the new generation of warlords. In Kandahar, at least five of the 11 victors had ties to Mr. Karzai and in Uruzgan all three members of parliament had ties to Mr. Khan.

Meanwhile, prominent members of the old guard who were previously seen as immovable figures in the Afghan political landscape were defeated in their bids for a seat in the parliament. Aside from Zadran, the losers included former strongmen like Zalmai Toofan of Kabul and Wali Jan Sabari of Helmand.