JALALABAD, Afghanistan -- Gov. Gul Agha Shirzai, a semiliterate former warlord, has an autocratic style, a reputation for doling out government contracts to family and friends, and a personal fortune allegedly amassed via corruption and the opium trade.
U.S. Sees Former Warlords as Useful Partners
Many in Afghanistan think he might also be the country's best hope for stability.
As the head of one of the country's most peaceful provinces, Mr. Shirzai has ensured that roads get built, opium poppies are plowed under, and the Taliban are held at bay.
That record in Nangarhar province in the country's east has made him a serious presidential contender. It has also brought him praise from the U.S., along with a visit last summer from then-Sen. Barack Obama, who the governor likes to joke is a member of his Pashtun tribe, the Barakzais, because of his first name.
Gov. Shirzai's rising profile is part of a broader shift in America's war-fighting strategy in Afghanistan. When the U.S. led the Afghanistan invasion force in 2001, it courted warlords such as Mr. Shirzai to stabilize the country quickly. But after ousting the Taliban, the U.S. began to rely more on Western-style technocrats in the central government run by President Hamid Karzai. The year of the invasion, the U.S. installed Mr. Shirzai as governor of Kandahar province, his home turf in the south. Three years later, he was removed when his warlord-like ways -- such as allowing his personal gunmen to get into shootouts with the city's police force -- became an embarrassment.
Now, Mr. Shirzai and a handful of other former warlords are again being seen as useful partners as President Obama undertakes a massive overhaul of the war in Afghanistan. In addition to sending in 17,000 fresh troops, the administration is also finalizing a review of U.S. policy expected to be released early next week. The new plan will likely call for deploying hundreds of diplomats and other civilian officials, devoting more resources to local and provincial governments, and mounting a counter narcotics push in southern Afghanistan, say senior U.S. officials in Washington.
Former warlords with track records of providing for people in their provinces could be critical in the drive to undercut support for the Taliban, say U.S. and Afghan officials.
Opponents say these strongmen also have track records of violence, corruption and a disdain for the rule of law -- and thus raise questions about democracy's place in Afghanistan. With Mr. Karzai's administration virtually penned in Kabul, and the Taliban resurgent, there is growing debate among diplomats, Afghan officials and analysts over whether a central government can effectively secure the country. Some say a return to a looser federation of regions might ultimately be more viable, even if some of those regions are led by former warlords.
Review U.S. and coalition casualties in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials are "looking at who is able to bring security and eliminate poppy," says Haroun Mir, the co-director of Kabul's Center for Research and Policy Studies. "They're not looking for people with records in terms of human rights and democracy."
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul declined to comment on deliberations over Afghan policy or on the relationships with specific governors, including Mr. Shirzai. But a senior U.S. official in Afghanistan said the Americans have worked to improve local governance, and "the cadre of governors, overall, has steadily improved over the last year."
Atta Mohammed Noor, a former warlord and now the governor of Balkh province, has won praise from U.S. officials for moving against opium producers. There is also Ismail Khan, the former head of Herat province. He was removed from office by Mr. Karzai in 2004 amid accusations of human-rights abuses and ignoring the central government, allegations Mr. Khan denies. Since then, the Taliban have made inroads into Herat and crime is flourishing there, prompting Mr. Karzai to consider reinstating Mr. Khan as the province's governor, a senior Afghan official in Kabul says.
It is Mr. Shirzai -- last year named "Person of the Year" in a nationwide radio call-in show -- who has perhaps garnered the most notice at home and abroad. His story shows both the potential risks and rewards of allying with former warlords. Some American officials who praise Mr. Shirzai also say he acts more like a tribal chieftain than a statesman committed to building democratic institutions.
"As long as security is the No. 1 priority, you can say he's successful," says Lt. Col. William Fitch, a U.S. Army officer and professor who is helping with reconstruction in Nangarhar. "In terms of democracy, I don't think anyone can say for sure that we're going to make much more headway with him in place."
Mr. Shirzai, in an interview, says he listens to tribal elders and others before making decisions. He says if he unseats Mr. Karzai in this summer's planned presidential elections, he will use the same formula to solve Afghanistan's wider problems.
"I will go to all the tribal elders, the way I have done it in Nangarhar. And we will negotiate with the tribes who are supporting the Taliban," Mr. Shirzai says, sitting in his bedroom at the governor's mansion in the provincial capital, Jalalabad. "We don't have to rely only on fighting and bombing and jet planes. That we use only for those people who won't talk."
Mr. Karzai has so far remained silent on potential presidential challengers. As for Mr. Shirzai, "the president believes he is an effective governor," says Hamid Elmi, a spokesman for Mr. Karzai.
The 54-year-old Mr. Shirzai -- whom some U.S. officials jokingly refer to as "Jabba the Governor" because of his girth -- earned a reputation as a fearless, foul-mouthed and often cruel mujahedin commander in the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Born Shafeeq, he took the name "Gul Agha" -- "flower" in Pashtun -- when he joined the mujahedin. After his father was killed, he added "Shirzai," which means "son of a lion." He has three wives and 18 children. He smokes and tells dirty jokes. His favorite food is steak, a taste he picked up on visits to America.
His first stint as the governor of Kandahar, from 1992 to 1994, was marked by the fighting that followed the collapse of the Soviet-backed communist regime. It ended when the Taliban arrived and drove him out.
Seven years later he was back, this time with U.S. Special Forces that helped reinstall him. He lasted three years before Mr. Karzai, under pressure from U.S. officials, forced him out. By then, Mr. Shirzai had allegedly amassed a fortune, estimated at $300 million, through corrupt business dealings and the opium trade, Western officials say.
Mr. Shirzai denies allegations of any past or present corruption or involvement in the drug trade. He says he earns nothing beyond his government salary of about $36,000 a year.
Months after he was ousted as governor of Kandahar, Mr. Shirzai was named governor of Nangarhar, one of Afghanistan's most troublesome spots at the time. The Taliban were moving back in, and the province was a major opium producer. Few thought Mr. Shirzai, with no tribal connections to the province, would succeed.
Instead, Mr. Shirzai says his lack of tribal ties has helped. "No one comes to me and says, 'I did this for your father or your brother or your cousin.' I can treat everyone equally," he said in the interview.
U.S. and European officials and local businessmen allege that Mr. Shirzai takes a cut of much of the business done in the province. But roads get paved, schools and clinics get built and opium production has dwindled. His personal gunmen are gone, too.
Jalalabad, meanwhile, is considered safe enough for Westerners to stay in hotels and ride in taxis. Insurgent attacks in the province were down 17% last year over 2007, according to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's force in Afghanistan. The nearby provinces of Kunar and Paktika saw increases of 42% and 15%, respectively.
"How he does it, I'm not exactly sure," says Lt. Col. Steven Cabosky, a U.S. Air Force officer who works with the governor. He says Mr. Shirzai's success is in part accomplished "through force of personality," spreading money around, cajoling reluctant officials and bullying holdouts.
Khalid Pashtoon, an aide to Mr. Shirzai, says of his boss: "If someone is being lazy or incompetent, he'll slap his hands, or worse, and make sure he does his job."
That style was on display at a March 5 security meeting of the province's district sub-governors, police chiefs, tribal elders and U.S. military officers.
"I don't want small change," Mr. Shirzai told the attendees. "If you don't want to do a good job, if you don't want to do your job with bravery and courage, I will not have you for one minute."
The performance was "classic Shirzai," says Lt. Col. Cabosky, the U.S. Air Force officer. "This is a tribal society and he certainly is, in ways, a tribal leader, and that's important here," he says.
Mr. Shirzai says his government has spent millions of dollars on reconstruction projects. He says some of the money came from his own pocket, but most was drawn from a toll of $38 to $57 per ton of cargo levied by his administration on trucks passing into Afghanistan from Pakistan through Nangarhar.
Some businessmen in Jalalabad say Mr. Shirzai is benefiting from the reconstruction efforts in at least one way: They say companies owned by Mr. Shirzai, his family and his associates have been hired to do most of the work. One company named frequently is the Jamal Baba Construction Co., part owned by Mr. Shirzai's son, Jaan Agha. Mr. Agha couldn't be reached for comment.
Mr. Shirzai says his son has done only one project for the provincial government -- building a road in the Taliban-infested Tora Bora mountains -- that four other contractors had been unable to complete. "He lost money on it," Mr. Shirzai says.
"Every politician in Afghanistan is a thief, but our governor doesn't take all the money for himself. He is building our city," says Shafeeq Azizi, a 37-year-old shop owner in Jalalabad. "Why does it trouble me if he gets rich?"
Mr. Azizi was lounging with friends in one of the Jalalabad parks restored by Mr. Shirzai's administration. Across the street is a park Mr. Shirzai built for women. A few miles away stands Shirzai Stadium. There's a new mall, new stoplights and refurbished mosques in many neighborhoods.
Critics say the governor's strengths and weaknesses are often one and the same. "He wants something and he says, 'Build it.' There is no plan," said Haji Wahid, who owns a construction company. He says he sees no long-term vision behind Mr. Shirzai's rebuilding efforts.
Speaking with a handful of American military officers and officials after the March 5 security meeting, the governor said he was considering setting up village militias in districts of his province where the Taliban are strongest. The central government, with U.S. support, is setting up a similar pilot program in another part of the country.
But critics fear the creation of village militias could spawn a new generation of warlords. U.S. and Afghan officials have said they are going to carefully assess the program before deciding whether to expand it to other provinces.
Mr. Shirzai's talk of starting his own program alarmed some Americans at the meeting.
"Have you spoken to President Karzai?" asked a U.S. government official in attendance.
"We are still thinking about it. We haven't spoken to Kabul," the governor replied, speaking through a translator.
The American urged him to speak with the president: "We don't want to be creating our own little system that's not part of the larger system."
Mr. Shirzai nodded. But the following day, in an interview, he highlighted the militias as one of his key plans for the future, saying, "You must make the tribes responsible for securing their own villages."—Yochi J. Dreazen contributed to this article.
Write to Matthew Rosenberg at firstname.lastname@example.orgPrinted in The Wall Street Journal, page A1