Mon, May 13, 2002 - Page 17 News List

Warlords fleece Afghani government

FEUDAL LAND Authorities are finding it impossible to raise revenue to rebuild infrastructure as independent factions pillage funds from the nation's customs duties


Children play on a merry-go-round in a park in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday. The interim government is also going in circles as money collected from customs duties evaporates before it can reach the capital.


Afghanistan's warlords are pocketing huge sums of money in the form of customs duties which should be filling the interim authority's coffers in Kabul, officials say.

Between US$6 million and US$7 million in customs duties are paid each month at Afghanistan's borders with Pakistan, Iran and Uzbekistan but only a trickle reaches the capital, they say.

"Per month we get around US$200,000 in customs duties, when we should have approximately US$6 million or US$7 million per month for all Afghanistan," said Customs Department director general Safi Shah Mahmood.

"I have problems with the provinces of Herat, Nangarhar, Kandahar and Balkh, just about everywhere in fact in the six border posts."

The interim cabinet under chairman Hamid Karzai, appointed with UN backing in December after the fall of the Taliban, has been trying in vain to assert its authority in the countryside.

But warlords continue to rule their regions like personal fiefdoms, raising private militias and taking taxes meant for the central government.

This at a time when the interim authority is pleading for billions of dollars of international aid to rebuild the country after more than 20 years of war.

"Earlier we had more customs from Pakistan. Now 60 percent of the customs are collected in the west, at the Iranian border. A lot of goods are coming from Iran and a lot are transiting through Iran from Dubai," Mahmood said.

He accused Ismail Khan, a hero of the mujahedin war against the Soviets and the self-styled "Emir of Herat" near the Iranian border, of ignoring Kabul's authority and refusing to cooperate with the fledgling national government.

"Ismail Khan is keeping all the money for himself. I sent him a letter telling him 'please send the physical money to Kabul' -- I never got any answer. The minister of finance also sent him a letter," Mahmood said.

He said there were similar problems with Abdul Rashid Dostam, the deputy defence minister who controls most trade across the northern border with Uzbekistan, as well as Gul Agha and Haji Qadir who control key trade routes from Pakistan.

Mahmood said he was able to calculate the total customs income from the copies of the receipts he received, but he rarely saw the cash.

"The only place where there is no problem is the international airport," said the former mujahedin fighter who left a life in exile in Australia to contribute to the post-Taliban reconstruction of his homeland.

He served in several customs posts during the 1970s, but fled to Pakistan before the Soviets invaded in 1979.

Mahmood returned after the Soviet withdrawal in 1992 and worked for a few months as customs director under the mujahedin government, but left for Australia when heavy fighting broke out between rival factions.

Now he believes that if he could just get the provincial strongmen to pay the government its dues, 70 percent of the national operational budget would be secured.

Mahmood said the situation might improve after June, when a Loya Jirga, or traditional assembly of provincial tribal elders, will convene to choose a two-year transitional government ahead of general elections.

But for the moment, he said the interim cabinet was "too occupied with security," amid persistent outbreaks of fighting between the warlords and the ongoing threat of attack from Taliban or al-Qaeda remnants.

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