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A Reader Writes by Brian McNeece: Today's warlord, tomorrow's statesman?

January 21, 2002

Since last year's terrorist attacks, one word has become much more common in the language of international politics: warlord.

Journalists have adopted this word to describe the players in Afghanistan more casually than I expected, as if we all knew what a warlord was. Other words were available: leader, chief, commander, general, ruler, king, tyrant. Why weren't any of those words used?

I suppose that "leader" is too bland, too neutral. Given that the ethnic groupings of Afghanistan are called "tribes," the word "chief" might offer itself for their leaders. Obviously, the word "warlord" suggests the tribal leader's business is not often visited by peace.

The words "commander" and "general" suggest an organization and a hierarchy, which apparently the warlords' armies don't have. To be a ruler or a king, you need a defined place to rule over and some stability over time. It must be that the Afghan warlords' zone of influence is too nebulous for rulers and kings. You call the guy in charge a tyrant when it's clear that his subjects don't like him.


Journalists have decided that's not the case with this batch of warlords.

When I think of the word "warlord," I think of Attila the Hun butchering his way across Europe, or the nameless thousands of dirty men who headed columns of barbarians that overran civilized Rome. Or Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes laying waste to China.

So the term "warlord" comes from ancient times when no limits were given to their barbarity.

As time passed in the feudal Middle Ages, we dropped the "war" part and just called them "lords," and so our collective memory attaches words such as "noblemen" to the leaders of the castles and fiefs of Europe. It was the occasional outbreak of peace that led historians to drop the "war" part of their titles.

When I think of modern warlords, I'm pulled to the idea of gangs. The Bloods and the Crips are the most famous of the L.A. gangs.

In Afghanistan, we have the ethnic groups of Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaris subdivided into warring factions whose members switch sides with the ebb and flow of the battle. Perhaps a warlord is a gang leader with tanks and surface-to-air missiles.

Clearly, journalists chose the term "warlord" because of that little key word: war. Waging war figures highly in the job description of a warlord, so it wouldn't be likely that a warlord from El Centro would have a nice lunch in Los Algodones with his warlord buddy in Yuma.

What do we make, then, of Afghanistan's warlords, many of whom, as I write, are now being folded into a new Afghan government? Can a warlord really be a politician? Does a warlord have a political platform based on a well-developed ideology? Big question.

Being a warlord is not a business for the weak of heart. It's the career choice for ambitious men of action who proclaim themselves in charge and take up arms and armies to stay in charge. The only rulebook for the warlord is Sun Tzu's much celebrated "The Art of War."

Will a warlord have any politics? Maybe yes, maybe no. There's no telling. One warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, was famous for tying his captives to the tracks of his tanks. Another, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (twice Afghanistan's prime minister between warlording gigs), made his mark by throwing acid in the faces of women who did not wear their burkas. On the other hand, warlord Ismail Khan encouraged women to be educated and prevented the looting of antiquities from the country.

One of my friends characterized the international political scene this way: "There are really only about 20 true countries in the world, true nation-states where a constitution really means something and rule of law is not an unhappy illusion. The rest of the 150 odd countries of the world are just giant feudal ranches."

A former warlord just got elected president of Kosovo. He traded in his camouflage khakis for a pinstriped shirt, a red tie, and a good haircut, and so now he's legit. He makes speeches and doesn't yell. His wife gets to hang out near him and wear nice dresses instead of taking care of the kids in a safe house.

The language we use helps form the way we perceive. Just because a man puts on a suit and puts away his fatigues, he doesn't necessarily change his personality. A warlord with a new suit of clothes doesn't automatically become a senator or a foreign minister any more than a leader of a drug cartel is a diplomat.

But there's always hope. Perhaps Afghan's warlords are Islam's robber barons, ready to transform themselves into sober statesmen and philanthropists as soon as a real constitution is in place. Perhaps their means to power has been channeled by the circumstances of their births in a primitive society and not some unalterable bloodthirsty


To get the answer, keep reading the stories about Afghanistan when they move from page one to page 23. Only time will tell.

>> BRIAN McNEECE, an El Centro resident, teaches English at Imperial Valley College.

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