It is noon in northern Afghanistan, Balkh province. The autumn sky is empty and bright. A tough 60-year-old farmer named Mamood sits for an interview in the shade of a tree. Surrounding us in all directions are fields of marijuana on the verge of harvest. The plants are tall, thick and fragrant, their dark green flowers glistening with potent oils.
Soon the crop will be cut, dried and beaten against linen in small rooms to extract the resin that makes hashish. It’s dirty work that falls primarily to women and children. The rooms fill with dust; asthma is a common occupational hazard. In a month the farmers will sow these same fields with opium poppy. After each crop come the marauding gunmen who collect “taxes” of 20 percent on the harvest.
“In the past few weeks they’ve taken money, some vehicles and kidnapped a girl,” says Mamood. “They work for the commanders. They take whatever they want and they will kill you if you try and stop them. When you hear ‘commander’ just think ‘thief’ or ‘murderer.’ That is all they are.”
Mamood is not talking about the Taliban or Al Qaeda but rather about Afghanistan’s mujahedeen warlords, or jangsalaran in Dari. These men are America’s allies, central players in the international effort to rebuild a state in the world’s third-poorest country.
These are the same men who killed 40,000-50,000 civilians during their factional fighting in Kabul between 1992 and 1994. Under their rule chaos reigned in much of the countryside: Militias raped, plundered and destroyed the economy. At times there were between ten and fourteen separate currencies circulating, each printed by a different commander. Whole villages fled; trade and agriculture broke down. As John Sifton of Human Rights Watch puts it, “What these guys did made Sarajevo look like kindergarten.”
Now, instead of being treated as part of the problem and hunted down, the jangsalaran are being folded into government and given new power and legitimacy by the UN and the US-backed government of Hamid Karzai. The “commanders” now use titles like “security chief,” “governor,” “minister” or even “presidential candidate.” International administrators justify the political inclusion of these mujahedeen commanders as “the price of peace.”
Indeed, a return to the open factional warfare of the early 1990s is unlikely. But neither is Afghanistan headed toward real peace and prosperity. Instead, this country of 20-25 million inhabitants is an embryonic narco-mafia state, where politics rely on paramilitary networks engaged in everything from poppy farming, heroin processing and vote rigging to extortion and the commercial smuggling of commodities like electronics and auto parts. And while the Western pundit class applauds the recent Afghan elections, the people here suffer renewed exploitation at the hands of America’s local partners.
Back under the tree in the marijuana fields, Mamood is joined by other farmers, who recount a litany of depredations.
“A few weeks ago I had two motorcycles stolen,” says Saja Hudin, who also lives and farms in this rural community two hours from Mazar-i-Sharif. “I had a guest and we were going to work some of my land near Kudbarq. Two gunmen stopped us. I thought they were security or I would have tried to escape. They took both motorcycles and all my money. I was holding 12,000 afghani for a cousin. One of the men wanted to kill us, the other stopped him. Now I am in debt.” Hudin says that one of the perpetrators was the nephew of a local commander, Shafi Dewana.