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Meet Gul Agha, the UN’s Warlord of the Year

Gul Afgha knows how to handle the United Nations. He smiles, he praises, he loves the UN, and he is immensely grateful for the advice of Under Secretary General and Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, the diminutive Ugandan Olara Utunnu. Every time Mr Utunnu talks about democracy and peace and the need for children to receive proper schooling, the governor of Kandahar beams with delight. In one corner of his office, the chief of police sits, a massive, high-peaked Soviet-style cap on his head, a tsarist leather strap across his military blouse. In the other, the thin, rather weedy-looking director of education reclines nervously on a sofa, his hands fidgeting constantly with his tie.

Mr Utunnu wants to know about the governor’s “vision”. And there was just the slightest narrowing of Gul Agha’s eyes when this was translated into Pashtu as “puhaa”. Warlords don’t have a lot of visions but the whiskery Mr Agha, clad in the kind of overtight Marxist brown tunic and trousers that the PLO used to wear, quickly got the idea.

“When I became governor of this city,” he told Mr Utunnu, “the doors of education opened.” Why, Mr Agha had even spent his own money in opening a special computer school for students, an academy to which he did not invite us but upon which he intended to lavish further personal funds.

“This has not happened anywhere else in the country–not even in Kabul, only in Kandahar.” At which point, the fearful director of education took the floor, standing with hands clasped in front of him while delivering a homily on the generosity of the governor of Kandahar, his foresight, his wisdom and, of course, his vision. It was all of six minutes before Mr Utunnu could thank the director so profusely that he was forced to sit down.

No, Mr Agha assured the Special Representative of the Secretary General, there were no underage soldiers or policemen in Kandahar. “We have invested a lot in our police and intelligence forces–we are continuing our efforts to combat terrorism along with the coalition forces.”

The problem is that Mr Agha, like almost every other governor in Afghanistan, is a bit of a rogue. Taxes do not all go to central government. His own militia are better paid than government soldiers. But his claim that his schoolteachers were paid twice the average salary of those in Kabul was untrue. They are paid half the salary of Kabul teachers. His references to “our President, the esteemed Mr Karzai” may have satisfied Mr Utunnu (a boy with a treble voice later serenaded the UN’s expert on kid soldiers with paeans to both Mr Karzai and Mr Agha), but it’s no secret in Kabul that the governor is a loose cannon.

A couple of weeks ago, uneasy at the US air force’s propensity for bombing wedding parties, he summoned regional leaders to a meeting at which he wished to demand prior knowledge of American operations in the Kandahar region. Most of his fellow barons–perhaps paid even more by Washington than Mr Agha is–declined to attend. So instead we got a lecture on Mr Agha’s love of constitutional law and human rights. And Mr Utunnu then received one of the more imperishable quotations to come from Afghanistan since 11 September: “President Bush of America,” the governor announced, “has really appreciated Islamic law …”

Harsher than the increasingly mellow Druze warrior Walid Jumblatt, infinitely more polite than the Serb mass murderer Ratko Mladic, was the governor of Kandahar trying to win the UN’s warlord of the year award? When he offered to show us his prison, there could be no doubt of it. There were, perhaps, a few children in the prison, we were told, but they were merely accompanying their imprisoned mothers. As for child prisoners, think not of it.

So Mr Utunnu and his cortege drove through the fog of diesel smoke and sand to Kandahar’s central prison, a rickety barracks with a heavy machine-gun mounted on a tripod over the front gate. “Unspeakable things happened here under the Taliban,” one of the governor’s minions muttered to me as we entered. I could believe it. In fact, I could believe anything in this prison. The stone floor had been newly scrubbed and the inmates sat in their bright little cells, red and golden carpets on the floor, flowers and pot plants in the window to keep out the sun.

“I’ve been here for three months,” a smiling youth told me. “I stole 20 million Afghanis (lbs290) and I may be here for three years.” He had not yet been charged. In fact, virtually no one in the cells appeared to have been charged.

It was all a bit like Potem-kin’s villages. And sure enough, when I walked behind the prison guards, I turned a corner to be overcome by a giant, overflowing midden, a common latrine with a single beam of glistening wood for prisoners to sit upon and a floor slippery with shit.

A few dozen metres further, I came to a courtyard in which the prisoners had piled their bedding: rotten, stained mattresses and plastic sheeting and soiled clothes. These, no doubt, were the real furnishings of the tiny brick cells. So who owned the red and golden carpets? “And now the women’s prison,” trumpeted the police chief in the tsarist uniform. Mr Utunnu strode inside–to find just four sad young girls sitting on the floor of a cell. The first two were wives–or rather widows–of the same husband they had allegedly just killed.

The third had run off with a boy she loved, in preference to the old man to whom her dead father had allegedly betrothed her at birth. The offence of the fourth was unclear. Just what constitutional law the third young woman had transgressed was never vouchsafed but I was assured that her boyfriend would be sentenced to five years for “taking her away from home”.

Again, a short walk round the other cells revealed a rather different story. Many of them were packed with hundreds of sacks of US-donated wheat and rice and processed peas. Many others were stacked floor to ceiling with hundreds of Kalashnikov rifles, light and heavy machine-guns, boxes of ammunition and shells.

I asked the Tsarist policeman for an explanation. “This is really a police compound,” he said. “We let these four women stay here because it is more comfortable. What you saw were our stores.” So where, I wondered, was the real women’s prison? Where were the children who were supposedly staying with their mothers? Mr Utunnu was unfazed. An intelligent, sharp, if slightly short-tempered, man, he was an opposition leader in Uganda who — had he not made a judicious exit from his country a few years ago — might have ended up in an institution just like this one. But he declared himself reasonably satisfied. He had talked to the prisoners. They had made no complaints.

He was not in a position, he said, to know if the carpets on the cell floors were usually there. He had wished to visit the prison and his request had been granted.

So, ladies and gentleman, let’s give a big hand to Gul Agha, governor of Kandahar, friend of President Bush, devotee of child education and, most assuredly, winner of the UN’s warlord of the year award.

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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