Leaving the safety of Maryland, Afghan man takes on the warlords

As the interior minister, Jalali struggles to ensure stability, stop corruption

April 10, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - His job is best described by the movie High Noon.

In that tale, a retiring lawman in the American West ignored the advice of his fearful friends by choosing to return to town to confront an outlaw just released from jail and his gang.

Ali Ahmad Jalali, former Howard County soccer dad, returned to Afghanistan to become interior minister, the person battling the country's warlords.

"This is the wild west," Jalali says in his office, where a portrait of President Hamid Karzai is on prominent display. "You have to be very tough, like the new sheriff in town."

This week, Jalali found himself in a confrontation with one of the country's most notorious warriors, Abdul Rashid Dostum, who holds no formal military position but commands thousands of militia fighters and controls much of northern Afghanistan.

Forces loyal to Dostum overran the city of Maymana, in remote Fariab Province. Jalali said Dostum was trying to drive out officials loyal to the central government. Dostum called it a popular uprising.

The government dispatched 750 soldiers, who have occupied part of the city in a tense standoff with Dostum's militia. At a meeting in his office, Jalali asked subordinates how many police the government could send to Fariab Province and how fast they could get there.

Several hundred were ready to fly in, said Gen. Faisal Bigzad, chief of Afghanistan's police reserves. But they would need sleeping bags, vehicles, fuel and replacements for their aging weapons. Many hadn't been paid their $16-a-month salaries for months.

Jalali, wearing a crisp blue suit and red tie, betrayed no emotion as he listened except to begin fingering his cranberry-colored worry beads just a little bit faster.

He insisted that he wasn't concerned. The Kabul government already confronted Dostum last fall, when the warlord clashed with a rival militia leader in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. "We brokered a cease-fire," Jalali said. "And all heavy weapons were handed over to the government. The process succeeded very well."

`Paper tigers'

He claimed that most of the warlords are "paper tigers" yet his own security arrangements betray considerable concern. Access to his office is controlled by a video camera, two metal detectors and a squad of police. He rides around Kabul in an armored Mercedes sedan, escorted by a phalanx of armed guards.

Dostum and his brethren rose to power during the Soviet era, when they commanded guerrilla forces equipped and financed by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United States to overthrow Afghanistan's Soviet-backed government. When the central government collapsed, tens of thousands of Afghans died as the warlords squabbled over power.

Their savage civil war led to the rise of the Taliban, who swore to hang all the warlords. Today, the Taliban are mostly gone. The warlords remain.

They still run much of Afghanistan, earning huge sums of money, mostly through theft, extortion and heroin production. Their corrupt rule has fueled renewed sympathy for the Taliban and al-Qaida, threatening to unravel the country's efforts to build a stable future.

Some progress

While the United States hunts al-Qaida, the Karzai government has made curbing the power of the warlords its top priority. Jalali claims that significant progress has been made.

In little more than a year in office, Jalali has fired 22 of 32 provincial governors, replaced as many chiefs of police and sacked scores of district-level officials. He has ordered the arrest of top-ranking government officials accused of drug dealing and faced down warlords in tense standoffs.

Last year, the city of Gardez in Paktia province, not far from the Pakistan border, was practically a criminal enterprise, controlled by the local military commander and chief of police. Residents said police supplemented their salaries by robbing homes and hijacking cars. Jalali said officials were implicated in drug dealing.

When the interior minister tried to replace the police chief, the chief vowed to stay in office. So the minister sent the new chief from Kabul, backed up by scores of armed officers.

The governor, fearing bloodshed, pleaded for the interior ministry to back off. Jalali responded by firing him as well. The old police chief was arrested and thrown in jail. "Now Paktia is a model province, in terms of administration," he said. U.S. military and international aid officials in Gardez agree.

These reforms, Jalali concedes, would have been impossible without the presence of about 20,000 foreign troops. "Without that international presence, the Afghan government would collapse," he said.

But another interior minister might not have pursued reforms as aggressively.

Many Afghans regard Jalali as the central government's dynamic tough guy, in contrast to the more conciliatory, reflective - some say hesitant - president.

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