"I just want to help my people"

The liberated Jalalabad is run by three different warlords who have made peace their top priority -- for now.

Published November 26, 2001 9:30PM (EST)

Commander Haji Mohammed Zaman hates his new job as Jalalabad's military chief. Just ask him.

"I don't like the post, believe me," said Zaman, whose private army serves as Jalalabad's garrison, according to a power-sharing deal worked out among the three rival warlords who recently overtook this city. Less than a week on the job, Zaman is already frustrated with the day-to-day work, which mostly involves settling disputes among locals at the daily court he holds at his walled three-acre compound.

On a day when a reporter visited, Zaman sat on a red carpet spread over the sunny lawn of his courtyard, where roses, daisies and carnations were in bloom beneath rows of orange trees. At least 100 men in shawls, turbans or pakols (the ubiquitous oversized wooly berets) waited to see Zaman, who rested against an embroidered velvet pillow with a Russian Makarov pistol in a leather holster close at his side.

One man came to Zaman complaining that his car had been stolen. Zaman asked to see the car's papers, which the would-be plaintiff didn't have. He was told to find the papers and return the next day.

Then one of Zaman's lieutenants stepped forward to say a local baker was refusing to give bread to his troops. Zaman signed a scrap of paper. Show the baker this, Zaman said, and you'll get your bread.

Another aggrieved Jalalabad resident said his house had been taken over by squatters. Zaman said this was a "big problem" and that he needed to pray about it. Come back tomorrow, Zaman told the man, who went away before fully explaining the situation.

After several hours, Zaman finally sighed, "Enough, enough" and waved away dozens for the day.

"Everything here is a problem," Zaman said. "There is no law and also the people are hungry. There is no education. There is nothing."

But Jalalabad does have the beginnings of something uncommon elsewhere in Afghanistan -- a working peace. And Zaman, along with the two other warlords now sharing the job of ruling the city, plays a key role in maintaining calm in a city, like much of the country, with a history of political tumult and war.

Taliban forces abandoned Jalalabad last week, after more than a month of U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan allowed Northern Alliance rebel forces to push the Islamic militia from virtually all the areas in northern Afghanistan to their last remaining stronghold in Kandahar. The first to arrive in Jalalabad as the Taliban were retreating was Hazrat Ali, a rebel commander backed by the Northern Alliance, who swept into the dusty mountain city with some 6,000 fighters.

A day later, former provincial Governor Haji Abdul Qadir was on the scene with a force of his own, as was Zaman, Qadir's brother in exile during Taliban rule.

Both ethnic Pashtuns with large followings in the Jalalabad region, Qadir and Zaman fled Afghanistan for Pakistan as Taliban forces toppled city after city in Afghanistan during their rise to power in 1996. But Islamabad, backing the Taliban at the time, deported them both in 1997. Zaman, who made his name as a mujahedin commander during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, won asylum in France, where he enjoyed a comfortable banishment in Dijon before returning to the region in recent weeks.

Qadir, meanwhile, sought refuge briefly in Germany before joining Northern Alliance rebels clinging to a sliver of northern Afghanistan. In doing so, he bridged an ethnic gap between the Pashtuns and the primarily Uzbek and Tajik forces of the Northern Alliance. Qadir, a brother of executed Taliban opposition leader Abdul Haq, also remade an image of himself tarnished by his willingness to let Osama bin Laden settle near Jalalabad in 1996 and widespread rumors that he accepted a $10 million cash bribe from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to hand over Jalalabad to the Taliban. But that's all past, and it's now Qadir who, in title, is the man leading a liberated Jalalabad.

Qadir and Zaman began shoring up allies among Afghan refugees in Pakistan and underground oppositionists in Afghanistan shortly after Sept. 11, as the United States sounded a death knell for the Taliban. Last week, with onetime Taliban ally Ali moving into Jalalabad, they put ragtag armies of mostly mujahedin veterans on the march in a countermove on the city.

For days, it remained unclear who would take charge of Jalalabad as rival armies prowled the roads, packed in pickup trucks bristling with Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers.

Maulana Yunis Khalif, an elder cleric in Jalalabad who the Taliban officially left the city to, convened a local council to sort things out. Qadir emerged amid tense negotiations as the governor of the Nangarhar province to retake the seat he held from 1992 to 1996 during the doomed government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was president of Afghanistan at the time and now presides over a rebel-held Kabul.

With Zaman in charge of the city guards, Ali became the police chief, responsible for securing the roads into Jalalabad and the city's one airport.

Despite lingering tensions, the agreement has held, and an edgy calm has settled over Jalalabad, with Zaman, Ali and Qadir working to restore some sort of normalcy in the city while awaiting the outcome of ongoing U.N.-brokered negotiations on a central government.

The supposed hierarchy is, however, out of step with reality, as Ali remains the most powerful figure in Jalalabad. Ali's grip on the city is visible in the countless stickers emblazoned with the image of slain Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, which his troops have slapped on seemingly every other door and window in town. Bands of Ali's men guard everything of any importance in the city, including roughly 500 prisoners taken in Jalalabad when the city fell.

Among them is Shizad, an 18-year-old from Karachi who goes by one name, who said that Ali's men pulled him from a car at a checkpoint last week when he tried to flee Jalalabad during the Taliban retreat.

"We came to fight against America," Shizad said. Shizad never saw any action because the Taliban was already folding as he arrived in Afghanistan a few weeks ago, he said. Now he sits on a floor mat bed next to rotting vegetable peels in a locked room of the Jalalabad airport basement with six other prisoners who say they have no idea what will happen to them.

The base commanders say they're waiting for a decision from Ali, who usually questions his captives before unilaterally deciding their fate. But Ali's been too busy to talk to prisoners.

As Jalalabad's strongman, Ali has no use for trappings such as Zaman's pristine gardens or Qadir's erstwhile royal palace. Instead, he carries his seat of power with him as he speeds through Jalalabad in a cream-colored Toyota land cruiser with chrome trim, followed always by a pickup truck full of heavily armed men.

"What do you want?" Ali said sharply to me as he sat on a balcony at the dilapidated Spin Ghar Hotel, where he usually stops briefly once a day to make satellite telephone calls.

Around him stood a dozen armed bodyguards, aides and hangers-on shuffling idly through a litter of spent batteries, scraps of duct tape, cigarette butts, empty water bottles and chicken bones scattered under mismatched chairs and overturned cargo furniture.

When I asked whether, as has been reported, he smashed a radiophone in anger when Qadir was named governor, Ali dismissed the story as "propaganda."

"I took this place by my own force, not with Qadir or any others," said Ali, who wore a short-cropped reddish beard and an oversized green army jacket. "I don't want to be a governor. I just want to help my people bring peace."

Zaman and Qadir have voiced similar calls for peace, and all three men have pledged support for 87-year-old former Afghan monarch King Zahir Shah, touted by the United Nations as a unifying figurehead who could oversee a transitional government in Kabul.

"Jalalabad and Nangarhar is a symbol in all Afghanistan," said Nasrullah Arsalai, another one of Haq's seven remaining brothers, who has become the unofficial gubernatorial spokesman.

"We do have a big job," Arsalai said. "Now we are concentrated at the moment here in this region, eastern Afghanistan, bringing security, stability here. After that, we will concentrate on all Afghanistan."

But it is likely to be a long while, if ever, before the warlord triumvirate can begin work outside Jalalabad, which still looks and feels like a battle zone.

At Ali's airport, U.S. bombers and cruise missiles destroyed the radar, cratered the one runway, obliterated a helicopter on the tarmac and shattered the windows of the control tower and the tiny base mosque.

Zaman's fort, called Quleurdo, is in worse condition. When the Taliban occupied Quleurdo a month ago, American missiles turned barracks, tanks, armored personal carriers and artillery guns into fields of scorched rubble strewn over twisted metal wreckage.

Refugees from Kabul and other areas have settled on the arid plains at the entrance of the city facing the nearby Pakistani border. Bullet holes scar many of the city's mud-brick walls. Gangs of young men brandish heavy arms at checkpoints on all the main roads and intersections.

U.S. warplanes struck twice last week at caves in the barren mountains around the Jalalabad, shaking houses in the city for the first time since the opening days of the U.S. attacks in early October. Qadir and other Jalalabad leaders say some 1,500 fighters loyal to the Taliban and suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden are believed to be hiding on the outskirts of the city. (Ali thinks bin Laden himself may be in the nearby highlands, called Torabora.)

A day after the mountain air strikes, U.S. bombers dropped leaflets written in Dari and Pashto on Jalalabad itself, scattering dollar-size bin Laden "wanted" posters and anti-Taliban fliers that almost every resident has pocketed.

"We will give $25 million to a person who catches bin Laden or gives information about him," reads one leaflet with a picture on the right side of bin Laden wagging a finger. On the left side there's a picture of bin Laden clutching bars in a jail cell. In the middle there's an arrow connecting the two images over a stack of fanned-out $20 bills.

"Exile foreign terrorism," reads another flier showing red cross hairs on a group of masked gunman cheering with rifles against a desert backdrop.

Though reminders of war are everywhere, by day at least there's peace in Jalalabad, where a slow swirl of cars, trucks and scooter rickshaws moves through loose goats, stray dogs, donkey carts and camels in front of colorless concrete buildings lining crumbled streets.

"It's still not normal," said Ghafar, the installed Jalalabad mayor who also goes by one name. "People are afraid."

By Mark Kukis

Mark Kukis is writing a book on John Walker Lindh to be published in the spring of 2003 (Brassey's). He is a former White House correspondent for UPI, and has reported from Afghanistan for UPI and Salon.

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