For an hour, the minister of energy and water listened in silence as his employees complained about their department's dismal image: People called them lazy, corrupt and inefficient. Customers accused them of demanding bribes for the smallest services.
Ismail Khan sat on a stage in a dank meeting hall and glowered beneath his wild white beard. His eyes were narrow slits beneath his fierce black eyebrows. At last he spoke.
"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 is now also Khan the public servant. In his gleaming white robes and black-and-white headdress, he still looks like a strutting pasha. However, he works in an office adorned with ancient maps of Kabul's power grid. And he is accountable to the public for failures in what even his critics acknowledge is an impossible mission.
Afghans expected a great leap of progress after U.S. forces, aided by Northern Alliance warlords such as Khan, toppled the Taliban regime five years ago. But electrical service is as unreliable as ever, despite millions of dollars in aid and U.S. promises of a modern, developed Afghanistan. Khan's ministry is barely able to provide two hours of electricity per day to Kabul, the capital, and 90% of the rest of this ruined nation gets none. His own ministry's offices are without power several times a day.
Khan 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."
With U.S. help, he strong-armed Khan and other major warlords into relinquishing their roles and maneuvered them into jobs as ministers and governors, asking them to deliver services for Afghanistan's first democratically elected government.
But despite Karzai's declaration, the warlords are among the most powerful forces in the country. Scores of them are as entrenched as ever in the provinces, fielding private armies, profiting from the opium trade and co-opting police officials. Those who have come to Kabul know they could easily reconstitute their militias. In the meantime, they are untouchable.
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