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Will Afghanistan return to an era of warlord rule after NATO leaves?

Though NATO-led efforts have focused on democracy in Afghanistan, US forces still rely on Afghan strongmen to wield local influence. But power built on personalities are vulnerable to collapse.

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A close ally to the president, Mr. Sherzai currently serves as the governor of Nangarhar Province in the east. He is a rotund man who fits the stereotypical warlord mold. Sherzai was the governor of Kandahar after the fall of the Taliban in 2003 but was accused of making hundreds of millions of dollars from the drug trade and operating a band of thugs notorious for extortion, murder, and rape. A number of international and Afghan officials have ascribed the resurgence of the Taliban in the south partly to his heavy-handed tactics.

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As governor of Nangarhar, Sherzai’s reputation has improved. Internationals have credited him with playing a major role in eradicating poppy production throughout much of the province.

However, in his current position Sherzai is also accused of skimming money from international development projects and paying off officials and journalists to say positive things about him.

“In the media they say he’s a hero for Nangarhar, but it’s not true,” says Abdul Gafar, a member of parliament from Nangarhar. “These were the efforts of the people of Nangarhar who wanted peace. The credit does not go to Sherzai; it goes to the people.”

Sherzai waves off the accusations.

And many residents of Kandahar say that the circumstances have changed since Sherzai’s last term as governor and he would be unlikely to engage in controversial activities as he reportedly did before.

However, his appointment may risk further undercutting many Afghans’ faith in the international community and the government. Aside from political concerns, many Afghans are also worried that the Taliban may be gaining momentum, especially in the east where they shot down a US helicopter on Saturday, killing dozens. Even after a decade of international military involvement, it appears to many Afghans that stability is still far off.

“The people of Afghanistan have lost their trust in the international community because in the beginning, after the Taliban, when the warlords and criminals were hired as government officials, the people were expecting that they [would] be taken to court or removed from government positions after some time. But now that [practice] has continued, and they have become more powerful,” says Ahmad Shah Spar, a human rights activist.

Meanwhile, until his assassination, Mr. Hamidi represented the opposite of politicians like Sherzai. The mayor of Kandahar city for the past four years, he was a man of slight build, who spoke fondly of his time in Virginia and his love of his native Kandahar. Hamidi was perhaps as close to a Western politician as any government official in Afghanistan.

Although he was not completely removed from corruption scandals, he was regarded as a politician committed to making decisions based on the law rather than personal interests.

In a conversation with the Monitor the day before his death, he expressed optimism that the country had evolved politically and would not call on warlords to replace Ahmad Wali.

“Those power brokers, warlords, and drug dealers are losing their power, and we are going the way the development of Kandahar needs,” said Hamidi. “They will never get anything and we are proud of that, and the government is doing things in the correct way.”

But with the death of Hamidi at the hands of a suicide bomber, residents may now be more willing to turn to a strongman like Sherzai whom they see as capable of dealing with the region’s turbulence.

“For the current situation in Kandahar we need a former jihadi,” says Haji Faisal Mohammed, a prominent tribal elder in Kandahar. He says he backs Sherzai despite his questionable past, which includes allegedly murdering a respected elder close to Mr. Mohammed.

He also hopes that the death of Ahmad Wali will present an opportunity to form a tribal council that acts as a check on
leaders like Sherzai and creates more equality among the tribes.

“We don’t have any person like Ahmad Wali, so I have no doubt that there will be many people who share the power. There is not a single person to depend on. There will be three or four people from different tribes,” says Waheed Mujada, an independent analyst in Kabul.

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