Afghans wary of warlord rule

As their leaders begin talks in Germany today on a future regime, Afghan civilians remain skeptical.

Two weeks after the Taliban's departure from Jalalabad, there are signs that civil society here is returning to something that resembles normality.

Schools are reopening. Markets are crowded with shoppers. And the number of gun-toting militiamen, who once prowled the streets by the thousands, has dropped noticeably in recent days.

But to many Afghans here, America's anti-Taliban allies are not benevolent rulers, and the warlords' ability to secure a lasting peace is much in doubt.

"These people don't know how to run a government," says Najibullah, a physician who jumps into a cab with reporters to avoid being overheard by militiamen. "They rule only for money. They take money on gunpoint and do what they want. People are afraid to express their ideas now. They are not safe."

As Afghan warlords, politicians, and tribal elders meet today in Bonn, Germany, to discuss the shape of Afghanistan's post-Taliban government, the populations these groups now rule back in Afghanistan remember the robbery, rape, and revenge that erupted the last time Afghan warlords came to power - between 1992 and '96. The Taliban militia came into being largely in response to this anarchy.

So far, Jalalabad residents give their latest rulers mixed marks.

Some people here say the warlords who replaced the Taliban have done nothing to curb crime, including the looting of homes, offices, and aid agencies. In fact, they say, militiamen are often the ones engaged in looting. Other Afghan civilians point to abuses of power, including arbitrary arrests, intimidation, and whippings in the streets.

Detentions and whippings also occurred under the Taliban, who enforced strict adherence to their harsh interpretation of Islamic law. But the erosion of public order is almost enough to make some Afghans nostalgic.

"The Taliban were good, and I miss them," says Ajmal, a young shopkeeper. "These people [warlords] have given a bad example before, when they took over from the Soviets. Now, once again, they will do the same thing. I know people who have had things stolen. Society is already falling apart."

In a clear indication of his sympathies, Ajmal is getting his hair trimmed - but not his beard - at a barbershop. Under Taliban rule, beard trimming was a crime.

On the streets of Jalalabad, there are few signs of the mass arrests, beatings, and rapes that occurred under the previous warlord regime. But for the common businessman, pillage and lawlessness are becoming all too common.

In the first days of the new government here in the eastern province of Nangarhar, militiamen rode around in United Nations trucks and slept in the offices of nonprofit organizations such as the Mine Control Program of Afghanistan. Most UN offices have since been returned to the control of Afghan nationals who work for the UN, but few vehicles have been returned.

In addition, many shopkeepers complain of being robbed at gunpoint by the new militia soldiers - many of them in their teens.

Plans to disarm

For their part, the warlords who now rule Jalalabad and Nangarhar say they are doing their best to disarm everyone - including their own militias - and restore peace. Their more-ambitious efforts include a gun-registration program, with the government requiring anyone carrying a weapon - including soldiers - to apply for a license.

It will be no easy feat. In a nation beset by more than two decades of conflict, more Afghan homes have Kalashnikovs than electricity.

"We are trying our best to bring peace, so that no one should feel the need to have a gun," says Haji Zaman Ghamsharik, minister for military operations of Nangarhar Province, who announced the gun-registration plan. "Today, we are starting to control the suburbs, and anyone who has a stolen vehicle from the aid groups or the UN, we will collect them and bring them back to the city."

Mr. Ghamsharik, who spent the past five years of Taliban rule in Dijon, France, knows that many Afghans don't trust their new rulers because of past experience. But he says that he and his fellow warlords have learned from the lessons of the past.

"The things that we did that were good, we will repeat; and the things that were useless, we will not do that again," Ghamsharik says, sitting in a garden with a bubbling fountain - and several hundred armed supporters.

'We want peacekeepers'

But many citizens say they want more than the assurances of warlords.

"People are happy that the Taliban are gone, but they are not happy if the current situation continues," says Hanif, a tea merchant. "We want UN peacekeepers to come. If the same conditions continue, maybe the people will start an uprising against the government."

At a clinic in downtown Jalalabad, Dr. Muhammad, an obstetrician, says he takes his small ultrasound machine home with him each night, because of "security problems."

"During the Taliban times, there were no security problems. But with these people, we are not sure," says Dr. Muhammad, who does not want to give his family name. "We have no problem with the new government, but these people who came here, they collected all the thieves of Peshawar [Pakistan] and brought them here as soldiers."

His wife, Riaza, says she still wears a burqa - the traditional all-covering veil required by the Taliban - because she doesn't trust the new rulers or their soldiers.

"Sometimes they stop families on the road and say, 'Your wife is nice,' " she says. "We don't feel safe."

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