The Mess in Afghanistan

Afghanistan's Bonn Agreement One Year Later: A Catalog of Missed Opportunities

by Human Rights Watch
a briefing paper, 12 pp., December 5, 2002

"We Want to Live as Humans": Repression of Women and Girls in Western Afghanistan

by Human Rights Watch
a report, 50 pp., December 2002

All Our Hopes Are Crushed: Violence and Repression in Western Afghanistan

by Human Rights Watch
a report, 52 pp., November 2002

"Killing You Is a Very Easy Thing for Us": Human Rights Abuses in Southeast Afghanistan

by Human Rights Watch
a report, 102 pp., July 2003

Afghanistan: Are We Losing the Peace?

by an Independent Task Force cosponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Asia Society
a report, 24 pp., June 2003

The Situation in Afghanistan and Its Implications for International Peace and Security

by Kofi Annan to the General Assembly of the United Nations
a report, 20 pp., December 3, 2003
Hamid Karzai
Hamid Karzai; drawing by David Levine


In late December 2001 Hamid Karzai set out for Kabul for the first time since the defeat of the Taliban. He had been fighting along with his fellow Kandahari tribesmen in the last battle against the Taliban over control of his home city. Earlier in December all the anti-Taliban Afghan factions, under the auspices of the United Nations, had signed an agreement at Bonn, which chose him as chairman of the new interim government of Afghanistan.

Karzai, a tribal chief from the Pashtun majority ethnic group, flew to Kabul in a US military aircraft, arriving in the evening. At the airport to receive him was the warlord General Mohammad Fahim, a Tajik from the Panjshir Valley (like his deceased leader Ahmed Shah Massoud), now defense minister and the head of the Shura-e-Nazar, or Northern Alliance, which had fought alongside US forces to defeat the Taliban and capture Kabul.

Fahim walked up to the plane accompanied by nearly one hundred bodyguards, loyalists, and ministers all bristling with weapons. Karzai got off the plane with just four companions. As the two men shook hands on the tarmac, Fahim looked confused. “Where are your men?” he asked. Karzai turned to him in his disarmingly gentle manner of speaking. “Why General,” he replied, “you are my men—all of you are Afghans and are my men—we are united now—surely that is why we fought the war and signed the Bonn agreement?”

Karzai told me this story one eve-ning late this past summer in Kabul. Perhaps more than any other story I have heard in twenty-three years of writing about the war in Afghanistan, it summarizes the kind of place Afghanistan has become, but also in which direction many of its people have wanted to take the country. General Fahim, more powerful than ever with his own army and sources of income, is essentially a man of the past who thinks of Afghanistan as defined by ethnicity and tribal rule and believes power can be exercised through the guns of his followers.

From March 2002 until September 2003, Fahim delayed implementing the reforms in the Ministry of Defense that would require him to replace his Tajik generals with a more ethnically balanced officer corps. Such a reform is a precondition for carrying out a $200 million UN-sponsored plan to pay off and disarm 100,000 militiamen loyal to the warlords. Fahim was clearly trying to block reforms until the US began to apply strong pressure on him to comply. Since September Fahim has begun to make the changes demanded by the UN, but they are as yet far from complete.

In contrast, Karzai, a well-educated and widely read man, has a vision of building a modern, democratic country that would no longer be a pariah state. He wants a cabinet that would bring together its ethnically diverse members, who have been at war with one another ever since 1989,…

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