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US supporting Afghan warlord

February 22, 2010

Kalagush—The United States is helping an Afghan warlord and former enemy to take control of a district bordering Pakistan, military officers and independent experts say.

The strategy to back Mullah Sadiq as effective ruler of Kamdesh district in eastern Nuristan province is part of a wider attempt to bring stability to the country so international forces can leave.

Sadiq is a former commander of the militant Hizb-e-Islami group, responsible for years of attacks on coalition and Afghan troops, as well as civilians.

US support for Sadiq — who has said he wants to ally with President Hamid Karzai’s government against the Taliban — is causing friction between US foreign policy staff in Afghanistan and the military.

Senior officers said Sadiq could swing Nuristani people behind Karzai and provide a prototype breakthrough in the battle against the Taliban insurgency.

But US state department officials and independent experts fear Sadiq wants a temporary alliance with US troops to defeat local Taliban factions before taking over the mountainous border province as a personal fiefdom.

Commander Russell McCormack, military head of Nuristan’s Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), said the US must work with Sadiq.

“He is influential, intelligent and he uses diplomacy and true Islam — rather than the barbaric form that the Taliban professes,” McCormack told AFP at Kalagush, the only US base in Nuristan.

“Sadiq had garnered huge public support by taking on the Taliban, and by offering a future via the central government which will bring schools, development, and life in the 21st century not in the 15th,” he said.

McCormack said Sadiq, who heads the Kamdesh ‘shura’ (council), represents one way of turning the tide in Afghanistan, where 120,000 US and NATO troops are battling a Taliban insurgency now in its ninth year.

The plan is part of a new counter-insurgency strategy to instil public confidence in Karzai’s government and bring an end to the war.

With the US withdrawal to begin in July 2011, Karzai last month launched a bid for “reconciliation” with mainstream insurgents.

The tactic is also being tested further south in Helmand province where 15,000 US, NATO and Afghan troops are on the offensive in Marjah, a region controlled for years by Taliban and drug traffickers.

While the Helmand assault is just one strand of President Barack Obama’s exit plan, one leading expert in Nuristani culture says optimism about a deal with Sadiq is just wishful thinking by increasingly desperate US leaders.

“They have put a former warlord back in power in Kamdesh, a guy who was our arch-enemy and who was on the run from us,” US academic Richard Strand, who has visited Nuristan regularly since 1967, told AFP by telephone from Arizona.

“We are claiming that we have turned this guy, and now he is back there trying to persuade the people to abandon the Taliban and al Qaeda and join the government. I have strong doubts over this plan.”

Support for Sadiq comes after militants killed eight US soldiers in Kamdesh in October, as the US was pulling back from east and central Nuristan.

Some US officials in Kabul fear the military is being played by Sadiq, who was a commander of the Hizb-e-Islami faction led by Afghanistan’s most powerful warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar — who said last month he is also open to talks.

“The military is very excited about Sadiq, and wants to get him and his supporters into the government camp,” a state department official who specialises in eastern Afghanistan said on condition of anonymity.

“But is it a breakthrough? Or simply a clever guy using whatever alliance he can to prevail over his enemy — the local Taliban — and who will then do anything he pleases?”

In return for co-operation, Sadiq has demanded the right to nominate police chiefs and local administrators, the official said.

“The military sees Mullah Sadiq as ‘the voice of the people’ but he is really the local warlord, and if he appointed senior police and administration staff then those people would be beholden to him.”

As part of the new policy, the US military now has no permanent presence in the east or centre of the province, instead concentrating on routes into Nuristan from towns to the south.—AFP

Pakistan Observer

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