Robert Fisk: Ladies and gentlemen, let's have a big hand for Gul Agha - the UN's warlord of the year

Robert Fisk

09 August 2002

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


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 cortège 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 (£290) 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


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


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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