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The Globe and Mail (Canada)
November 5, 2001
A coalition of threats and extortion
ANALYSIS: The Northern Alliance governs with intimidation veiled by bureaucracy

JABAL SARAJ, AFGHANISTAN -- In front of the television cameras, the leaders of the Northern Alliance are glib and polished. Many speak fluent English and have Western-sounding titles: foreign minister, ambassador, president. They want you to think they are a normal government.

What they don't want you to know is that this is an administration with a fondness for extortion, threats and internal controls.

They use the apparatus of government to formalize their decisions. But the most important ones are made by the men with the guns.

The Northern Alliance, the coalition of anti-Taliban forces, is still recognized by the United Nations as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. It controls little territory but has ambitions of running the country, and now enjoys the backing of the world's sole superpower.

The history of the Northern Alliance -- including brutal rocket attacks on each other in the 1990s, when feuding warlords destroyed most of Kabul -- is well known.

What is less apparent is their style of governance, something that might be best described as thuggish incompetence. It is a combination of the extortion tactics of the Russian mafia and the clan fighting of a Central Asian tribe, with a veneer of bureaucracy to give it a modern sheen.

These instincts were obvious in their scramble for money when journalists arrived in the front-line town of Jabal Saraj to cover the U.S. military campaign. It triggered a naked cash grab, using intimidation methods backed by the weight of government.

By Afghan standards, the money at stake was huge. The journalists needed cars, and the drivers banded together to set a daily rate of $80 (U.S.) even for jalopies. But the citizens of Jabal Saraj were unhappy that some journalists were using out-of-town drivers.

This is a fragmented country where local clans are fiercely loyal to their own people. Soon the government had enacted a new law.

After 20 days with one driver, journalists must get a new one, to be appointed by the government. The new drivers would be locals.

One morning I discovered that I was prohibited from using the Land Cruiser that I shared with two other journalists. We were ordered to switch to another car. It was a rusting Soviet-made Volga that could barely negotiate the potholes in the local roads. The driver, however, was a local man.

We protested. But when we tried to drive away in our Land Cruiser, the local military commander stepped in. He shoved our driver, grabbed the keys and tried to drive off in our car. When we grabbed back the keys, he threatened to shoot us.

We went to the local office of the Northern Alliance's foreign ministry to lodge a protest. The bureaucrats were unsympathetic. A senior official, Haji Qahar, said the foreign ministry had issued the new regulation to force a sharing of the wealth with the unemployed drivers.

"This is the first time we've had 100 journalists here, and everyone here is trying to take advantage of that," he said. "The people in this area must use this opportunity."

Then he switched to a tougher line, leaving little doubt the dispute could be resolved by violence if we weren't careful. "This is a military area and everyone has weapons," he told us. "You will face problems. Drivers will take revenge."

To me, it seemed very much like an extortion racket. When we continued to argue, Haji Qahar made a proposal, but it sounded more like a threat.

We should write a statement, he said, in which we formally take responsibility for any unpleasant consequences that might befall ourselves or our driver. In case we didn't fully grasp what he meant, Haji Qahar's interpreter added his own warning. "There will be threats and attacks," he predicted.

We continued using the Land Cruiser for the rest of the day but soon realized the muscle had worked. Our driver pleaded with us to stop hiring him.

We gave up and switched cars.

That was typical of the administrative methods of the Northern Alliance. Unable to intimidate the foreign journalists, local officials bullied our Afghan staff, who were much more vulnerable to threats of prison or assault.

None of this should have been surprising. My experiences in Jabal Saraj over the previous few weeks had made it plain that this government was not exactly a model of democracy or freedom.

Journalists were required to stay in so-called guest houses, where they were monitored and controlled by minders from the alliance's foreign ministry. Every day, we needed a permission letter from the minder. If we failed to get a permission letter, the minders prohibited us from leaving the house. Some houses, including ours, were further controlled by armed guards and local military commanders.

To make sure our movements were fully monitored, we were also required to pick up another minder from the intelligence ministry if we wanted to visit front-line locations.

The only saving grace was the incompetence of our bureaucratic controllers. Their enforcement of the rules was arbitrary, depending on their mood. It was often possible to outwit or outargue them. If they achieve their dream of setting up a government in Kabul, the world can look forward to a regime of erratic autocracy.

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