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Originally published Wednesday, November 29, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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In Afghanistan, yesterday's warlords are today's bureaucrats

For an hour, Ismail Khan, the minister of energy and water, listened as his employees complained about their department's dismal image:...

Los Angeles Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — For an hour, Ismail Khan, the minister of energy and water, listened as his employees complained about their department's dismal image: People called them lazy, corrupt and inefficient. Customers accused them of demanding bribes.

Khan sat on a stage in the meeting hall and glowered.

"Baseless lies!" he spat out.

That was the end of it.

Khan runs his ministry the way he once ruled over western Afghanistan as supreme warlord from his headquarters in Herat. His word is law.

But Khan the warlord, still wearing his white robes and black-and-white headdress, is now also Khan the public servant. He works in an office adorned with old maps of Kabul's power grid. And he is accountable to the public for his failures on what even his critics acknowledge is an impossible mission.

Afghans expected progress after U.S. forces, aided by Northern Alliance warlords such as Khan, toppled the Taliban five years ago.

But electric service is still unreliable, despite millions of dollars in aid and U.S. promises of a modern Afghanistan. Khan's ministry is barely able to provide two hours of electricity per day to Kabul, and none for 90 percent of the rest of this ruined nation.

Warlords powerful

Khan himself represents one of the grand experiments of the post-Taliban era: the transformation of warlords into public servants.

Five years ago, President Hamid Karzai declared that Afghanistan's "era of warlordism is over."

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With U.S. help, he strong-armed Khan and other major warlords into jobs as ministers and governors, asking them to deliver services for Afghanistan's first democratically elected government.

Despite Karzai's declaration, the warlords remain one of the most powerful forces in the country. Scores are entrenched in the provinces, fielding private armies, profiting from the opium trade and co-opting police officials. Those like Khan who have come to Kabul know they easily could reconstitute their militias. In the meantime, they are untouchable.

U.N. officials and foreign donors say one of the biggest obstacles to disarming militias is Karim Khalili, a former warlord who is the leader of the persecuted Hazara minority.

Khalili is also Karzai's vice president — and the government's director for a U.N. program, the Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups, a project designed to rid the country of warlords and illegal militias.

Ill-gotten gains

There are more than 2,000 such groups across Afghanistan, U.N. officials say, with between 180,000 and 200,000 men under arms. Most are paid with profits from opium, which also helps warlords finance the gaudy new mansions that are springing up in Kabul.

In addition to drug money, warlords enrich themselves and pay their armies through illegal taxes, bribes, extortion, kickbacks and "fees" imposed at checkpoints. They dispense favors to petitioners, and, in many cases, maintain a patina of legitimacy in their dual roles as governors, police chiefs or district commissioners.

Khalili and Khan formally disbanded their militias and turned over heavy weapons under U.N. supervision when they entered the government. But Khalili recently helped block the disarmament program into Bamian province, his political stronghold, according to U.N. officials and diplomats.

Karzai cannot move against the militias because his police and military have little authority outside Kabul.

U.N. stymied

A recent U.N. attempt to disarm illegal militias in five provinces, including Herat, failed dismally. Only a few old weapons were collected. Local government officials and police refused to help.

Khalili, like Khan, says he is committed to public service but is hamstrung by the legacy of more than two decades of war and by the Taliban's resurgence in the south and east.

"I agree that people are mistrustful of the government," said Khalili, 56. "The expectations of the people are high, but the fight against terrorism means the government has not been able to do much for them so far."

Khalili acknowledged the limits of his new role as public servant.

In Bamian, he said, "I was able to take fast action." But now, as a top national government official, he says his authority has limits.

"Unfortunately," he said, "I cannot implement decisions as easily as before."

For two years, Ajab Khan has trudged down the darkened hallways of offices at the Ministry of Energy and Water, papers in hand, seeking permission to hook up electricity to his home.

After spending the equivalent of $320 from his meager government salary, Khan, who is no relation to the energy minister, is livid. The money went for rishwat — bribes. He still has no electricity. He hasn't for 13 years, since electric lines in his west Kabul neighborhood were destroyed by civil war.

Standing outside a ministry office with dozens of angry men who had lined up for official signatures, Khan tenderly withdrew a piece of paper, its worn folds secured with tape. Each official signature on it came at a cost: $4 for low-level employees, $10 for mid-level officials and $20 for deputy ministers.

"The first thing they ask is not: 'How can I help you?' It's: 'How much will you pay?' " Khan said.

But his problem, he said, is also America's.

"The Americans promised us a modern country, but now everyone is disappointed in them," Khan said. "All the American money has gone to the top people in the government, and to the warlords. There's nothing for the people."

Still powerless

The steady roar of private generators reverberates throughout Kabul as homes and businesses provide their own power. But impoverished sections comprising 30 percent to 40 percent of Kabul have no power at all.

Shortages could get worse when the U.S. Agency for International Development cuts off payments for diesel fuel to run the ministry's power plants. The agency has paid $130 million the past two years, but the final payment covers fuel purchases only through November.

U.S. officials said the payments were meant to give the ministry time to provide its own fuel. Now the ministry is on its own. The problem will be compounded in winter when the rivers dry up because hydroelectric generators provide nearly half the electricity Kabul gets.

Energy Minister Khan said the Finance Ministry has promised him $34 million. He hopes international donors will pick up the rest.

Growing demand

When the Taliban fell in December 2001, Kabul had a population of about 500,000. Today, with the return of Afghan exiles from Pakistan and Iran, the city's population is an estimated 4 million. Thousands of new homes and businesses have shot up, sending electricity demand skyrocketing.

USAID, which is providing $750 million over five years for energy development, is leading a $468 million project to build power lines to electricity-rich Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. If completed on schedule in two years, the new lines could help meet the demand across Afghanistan.

Until then, local entrepreneurs and warlords are building small-scale local projects. And Ismail Khan is responsible for delivering the government's trickle of power. It is a miserable job, but Khan seems to confront it the same way he confronted the Soviets and the Taliban, with bluster and supreme self-confidence.

"Our problems are great, but we will not lose courage, even with our limited resources," Khan said, concluding his speech to his employees.

The workers clapped perfunctorily.

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