Afghanistan’s Warlords Prepare Their Comeback

Lynne O’Donnell
Foreign Policy
June 14, 2022
The regional capos who broke Afghanistan once before are angling to contest control of the country with the current Taliban rulers.

Exiled warlords, power brokers, and ethnic leaders who fled Afghanistan last year ahead of the Taliban’s victory are threatening civil war unless the Islamists start negotiating to let them return home and reclaim their power and authority as an alternative to the nihilistic rule of the terrorists currently in charge.

The band that broke Afghanistan in the early 1990s and hobbled it for years after is, in other words, getting back together. Unlike their first time around in power—right after the Soviet pullout in 1989—this time the warlords might even seem appealing, so awful is the Taliban regime that took over in August of last year.

The back-to-the-future moment for the old guard came in May when 40 of the like-minded converged in the Turkish capital, Ankara, to meet with Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum and his hangers-on. Dostum, like some of his fellow warlords, used the wealth accumulated during the 20 years of the U.S.-backed Afghan republic to build his own patronage network, the coin of the realm in Afghanistan’s political landscape. At the time, Dostum and men like him supported the reconstruction effort funded by the United States and allies and encouraged education for women, including the dispatch of thousands of Afghan students abroad to study.

But the Ankara gathering had a bigger crowd. Among the group was Ahmad Wali Massoud, uncle of Ahmad Massoud, the head of the National Resistance Front and one of the few personalities of Afghan politics untainted by accusations of corruption or atrocities. His late father, Northern Alliance general Ahmad Shah Massoud, is renowned for keeping the Taliban from taking full control of the country before they were crushed in 2001.

In a statement, those in the group said they had formed a “High Council of National Resistance” to demand that the Taliban negotiate their return to Afghanistan and include them in government—or face the consequences. If the Taliban don’t talk, a spokesman for Dostum threatened, “Afghanistan will experience civil war once again.”

Afghans know what that means. With an average age of 19 years, the vast majority of the population of around 38 million knows only war. The warlords and their cohort are part of a perpetual cycle that has blighted Afghanistan for more than 40 years. People are exhausted and yearn for peace, but the depredations of the Taliban present a new phase of crisis. And now the warlords are back in the mix.

Those in the new resistance front are hardly saviors. Dostum, for instance, was accused in 2016 of ordering the abduction, rape, and torture of an opponent. That was par for the course: In 2001, he allegedly rounded up captured Taliban gunmen and sealed them in shipping containers to suffocate to death. When he was a deputy to former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani—an alliance built on his ability to deliver a million Uzbek votes—his gunmen regularly took over Kabul’s streets in a show of force.

Among the others in Ankara: Atta Muhammad Noor, who had his own army while he ruled a breadbasket province and, like Dostum, groomed his son as successor. Others present in Ankara included Hazara leaders, former mujahideen, former members of the Afghan republic, and a few other warlords. Women even took part, one advisor said, via Zoom.

Almost a year since the war ended following the withdrawal of U.S.-led military troops, the return to the political fray of ethnic leaders with private armies adds fuel to a combustible landscape and stokes fears that Afghanistan could again be engulfed in internecine battles for power, people, and territory.

Afghanistan’s mosaic is now dangerously fractured. Across the north, armed groups are fighting to dislodge the Taliban, giving the warlords and their allies confidence they’ll find popular support for a comeback as pressure grows on Western governments to end Afghanistan’s isolation.

Amid looming starvation for millions and economic implosion worsened by U.S. financial sanctions, the old guard has a number of factors on its side, not least the Taliban’s proven inability to function as a national government.

But amid the rumblings of civil war, some analysts warn that history is set to repeat with another atrocity like the 9/11 attacks as dozens of anti-West terrorist groups converge with Taliban protection.

The atomized landscape gives the new-old group of warlords breathing space to plot their return. A Dostum advisor, speaking on condition he not be identified, said the group wants the Taliban to widen the makeup of its government, currently composed of mostly Sunni Pashtuns and exclusively men. He said the council supports decentralization, a central national resistance platform and a step toward breaking the country into autonomous, ethnically dominated regions.

That’s not an impossible request, said anthropologist Omar Sharifi, who teaches at the American University of Afghanistan. The warlords have proved themselves able to adapt with time and circumstances, transitioning from jihad to democracy as necessary to maintain and build their power, influence, and wealth. The Taliban are so bad, Sharifi said, that they could make the warlords look over time like an attractive alternative.

The Taliban’s first turn in power grew out of the 1992-1996 civil war, when warlords tried to annihilate each other after the occupying Soviet army was defeated by U.S.-funded mujahideen in 1989; the Afghan government had collapsed three years after the Soviet withdrawal. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed in Kabul alone, and parts of the city still bear the pockmarks of the fighting.

The Taliban were greeted with cheers and tears when they took over, though the joy of an end to the war didn’t last long under their theocracy. Women were sequestered; music, dancing, and photography were banned; thieves’ hands were amputated and displayed in markets; and crimes such as adultery were punished with public executions.

The Taliban were themselves ousted in 2001 after the U.S. invasion, setting the stage for two decades of progress in education, economic growth, and women’s rights. But since the Taliban’s return to power last August, they have rolled back most of the advances made during the republic. They have brutalized women, the LGBTQ+ community, and certain minority groups, and they have hunted down rights advocates and former members of the Afghan military and security forces.

Yet the lack of a credible governing alternative—as well as a growing humanitarian crisis—is behind growing pressure on U.S. President Joe Biden to recognize the Taliban, the world’s biggest drug cartel, which count dozens of sanctioned terrorists in their upper ranks. Citing the need to relieve the humanitarian disaster—despite billions of dollars going to the United Nations to feed the growing numbers of hungry people—and safeguard U.S. interests, some commentators have suggested ending the Taliban’s isolation with engagement short of diplomatic recognition. So far, though, the Taliban remain pariahs at home and abroad.

Whether the warlords can step into the breach remains to be seen. The United States and the international coalition that fought for 20 years have no appetite for a return to conflict in Afghanistan. Neighboring countries don’t want to finance or arm resistance groups, relieved that conflict over the border has ended and hopeful they can settle into an albeit uneasy coexistence with the Taliban.

For New York-based researcher Ali Mohammad Ali, who advised the former Afghan government on security, the prospect of the warlords’ return is evidence of the failure of successive Afghan governments and their Western supporters to build sustainable institutions.

“The international community is incompetent and incoherent and has to get its act together because Afghanistan’s problems will not remain in Afghanistan,” he said. He underscored the lack of durable governing institutions built during the decades of Western stewardship, including a capable central bank and competent central government. Without the creation of such capacity, he said, the country again risks disintegrating and becoming a hotbed of terrorism.

“Otherwise you enable the emergence of not only warlords and Taliban oppression but groups like ISIS and al Qaeda that will fill the void by providing justice and services to the people. This is what happened in Iraq, and it will happen in Afghanistan if the current situation is normalized,” he said.

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

Afghanistan’s Warlords Prepare Their Comeback