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U.S. Tries to Keep Warlords Happy

October 19, 2002

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BAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) _ Khawani is a tough old fighter, with 19 bullet holes in his body to prove it, and carries himself with confidence as he comes to the Americans to ask for a job.

``Commander Khawani’s men guard the west side of our base,″ Army Maj. John Wiegand says as the veteran enters his office at Bagram Air Base, the U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan.

``Commander! What can I do for you?″

``Ah, that is the question,″ says Khawani, sitting down and crossing his legs. ``What can you do for me?″

Behind the scenes of Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S. military plays a delicate political game _ trying to distribute jobs and humanitarian projects while keeping dozens of important warlords happy.

President Hamid Karzai’s government has few funds and little influence outside Kabul, the capital. So in many areas, the U.S. army has stepped in to build roads, dig wells, rehabilitate bombed-out schools and hospitals, and dispense jobs.

The local commanders who rule Afghanistan have taken notice, and now there is fierce competition for the Army’s attention and money.

``They’re doing what leaders do _ they’re trying to bring home the bacon for their people,″ said Sgt. James Pratt, who has spent seven months overseeing projects across the country.

Perhaps no place has benefited more than Bagram, a once-deserted town that now has more than 600 people working on the base. Most, like Khawani, are former fighters loyal to Baba Jan, a local commander who lives in a compound a quarter-mile from the base gate.

That proximity to the U.S. military has made Baba Jan a powerful man, said Wiegand, who heads the Army’s civil affairs operation.

``Other Afghans tell us, `The United States made Baba Jan,‴ Wiegand said. ``When we go visit him, people say `The U.S. came to see Baba Jan.′ It gives him great stature.″

In recent months, the army has been approaching other leaders in Parwan and Kapisa provinces to seek workers. That has not gone over well with Baba Jan, Wiegand said.

Baba Jan’s fighters stopped a U.S. convoy headed out on one of the visits last month and pointed rocket propelled grenade launchers at the American soldiers.

``We were concerned that they did not have enough security,″ Baba Jan said Thursday.

The army says the convoy was accompanied by British special forces and armored Humvees carrying heavy machine guns, and had attack aircraft standing by overhead.

On Oct. 5, local fighters stopped a second convoy carrying Col. Scott Pritchett, the base commander, to a meeting with two governors to discuss hiring workers. Weapons were cocked on both sides, but there was no shooting. Baba Jan says it was a misunderstanding; the army is unconvinced.

``We’re doing some things with him, trying to relegate him,″ Wiegand said. ``Getting roadblocked damaged the relationship.″

The next 50 slots for workers will be given to 15 delegates from the Bagram area to divvy up, Wiegand said. The next 100 people to be hired will come from other parts of the region.

Jobs for Afghans on the base pay about $5 a day, and they are so coveted that some 400 people showed up at the gate Monday to apply for 80 positions. Many traveled from afar, and when they were turned away, the crowd became unruly.

``It was pretty tense,″ said one military police officer. ``We had to bring out a dog to get rid of them.″

On Thursday, the outside workers were the first thing on Baba Jan’s mind at a meeting with Wiegand. He said he was worried about a crush of commuters.

``They have divided up the work on base, but those people should be working in their own cities,″ he said.

At the same time they are trying to share the wealth, U.S. forces depend on the commanders nearest them to maintain security. Afghanistan is still a dangerous place, and U.S. outposts along the eastern border are attacked several times a week by rockets and gunfire.

U.S. forces use local Afghan militia fighters as guides and extra manpower on raids, and there are Afghan guards working with the American military police at every gate of the Bagram base.

Dealing with the local powers ``is done at a lot of levels,″ said Col. Roger King, spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. ``Every commander out in Podunk, Afghanistan, is trying to keep things level with the local shura (council).″

In Bagram, the fulcrum of this balancing act sits in Wiegand’s cluttered office, where boxes of crayons for schoolchildren vie for space with the weapons of visiting U.S. officers. All day, local commanders and businessman drop by asking about bids, projects and jobs.

During his visit, commander Khawani toys with a string of turquoise beads as Wiegand considers his request for a job.

``I’ll have to see what contracting has on line,″ Wiegand says.

Then he moves on: ``How is business? How is your gas station?″

It is a friendly question, but Khawani seems to get the message _ don’t get greedy. He just smiles and fingers the beads.

Asked what kind of job he is seeking, Khawani says he’ll take anything. Then turning to the translator, he adds: ``Baba Jan told me I could get a contract.″

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