U.S. General Meets Afghan Warlords
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HERAT, Afghanistan (AP) _ Greeted by an honor guard but kept waiting by his host, the commander of U.S. forces toured the fiefdom of one of the country’s strongest warlords Wednesday as part of a campaign to improve ties to the men who wield the real power in Afghanistan.
Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill conferred with Gov. Ismail Khan, the pro-Iranian master of one of Afghanistan’s richest provinces. The meeting took place in the governor’s hilltop summer house, complete with swimming pool and a dining room mural depicting U.S. jets attacking Herat in last year’s bombing campaign.
The meeting was McNeill’s latest with powerful regional leaders, whose cooperation is necessary if President Hamid Karzai is to extend his authority beyond Kabul and begin to stitch this country back together after 23 years of war.
That in turn would prevent a return of the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies and hasten the day that U.S. forces could leave Afghanistan.
In recent weeks, McNeill has visited the governor of Uruzgan province, Jan Mohammed Khan, and Kandahar Gov. Gul Agha Sherzai, a sharp critic of U.S. military operations that have resulted in civilian casualties.
McNeill is also expected to visit Paktia province, where clashes between rival warlords have complicated the search for Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in the strategic area along the Pakistani border.
Although reporters were kept away from the private talks, it appeared the message was that the United States was anxious for the regional warlords to cooperate with the Karzai government.
The visit to Ismail Khan was considered important because of his independent style and close ties to Iran, 75 miles to the west. Khan finally agreed in March to allow U.S. special forces and a civil affairs unit to be stationed in the city after months of keeping his distance from coalition war efforts.
Khan, a diminutive, silver-bearded figure whose small stature belies his power and influence, showed up 10 minutes late for the meeting. He explained he was busy with a delegation from Kabul trying to broker an end to fighting between his forces and ethnic Pashtun militiamen.
McNeill offered to help mediate the conflict, but Khan said that wasn’t necessary. ``There’s a group of Taliban,″ Khan said. ``They’re still in the mountains. They’re still hiding and they tried to create a problem.″
Most of the Taliban were Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group. Since Taliban rule collapsed last year, many Pashtuns claim ethnic Tajiks, such as Khan, unfairly brand all of them as Taliban.
Much of Khan’s power rests on his 30,000-strong militia, which is considered among the best-trained and equipped private armies in Afghanistan. Khan’s honor guard, bedecked in crisp new uniforms, welcomed McNeill at the city airport.
Last week, Karzai ordered all private militias disbanded, but it is far from clear when, or how, that will take place. U.S. and French soldiers are training a new national army to assume responsibility for security nationwide, but only one battalion of a few hundred men has completed the training.
After the meeting with McNeill, Khan said he supports the Karzai government, however, his words sounded more like those of an equal partner than a subordinate.
``We will send them money in the future if they need it,″ Khan told reporters, carefully avoiding eye contact with a pair of women journalists. ``We have sent them money in the past. And also during the near future, we plan to send some more money to the central government.″
Herat, whose wealth comes from trade with Iran, can afford to be generous. By comparison with the rest of the country, Herat appears thriving. Its roads are relatively clean. The city has service stations instead of roadside fill-up cans common elsewhere. Schools line the main street from the airport.
Khan made clear he believes his style of one-man rule is responsible for Herat’s prosperity.
``Herat is totally different from other provinces,″ Khan said. ``There are not too many commanders. There are not too many warlords. There’s been one person under one leadership over these past 23 years and there is no problem.″