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A Ski Run Near Kabul May Be a Path to Peace

A former Afghan mujahedin's bid to build an Alpine-style resort, enlisting his fighters as builders, is a rare case of disarmament.

By Julie M. Bowles
Times Staff Writer

August 10, 2004

QARGHA, Afghanistan — He was 19 when he took up the gun, firing potshots at the Soviet soldiers who came to swim near his village. Now, after 23 years of fighting, the mujahedin commander is perched once again above the dusty brown shores of Lake Qargha and plotting strategy. His new mission: building an Alpine resort.

Scores of his former comrades in arms toil at the waterside Moon Cafe, laying stone walkways and painting the dining room in cheery pastels. Others are refurbishing several nearby guesthouses.

By year's end, four model chalets, prefabricated in Switzerland and priced from $183,000, should be built and ready for inspection by well-heeled Kabulis looking for their own slice of Lucerne just six miles northwest of the Afghan capital.

And that's just the beginning, if the former commander, Ezatullah M. Rooz, has his way. His plans call for condos on the nearby — albeit war-ravaged — golf course, a shopping center, hotels and perhaps even a short ski run, kept white with snow machines.

"This is the only way to bring peace to Afghanistan," said the portly 44-year-old Rooz, flipping through a large red binder filled with spec sheets for the chalets and glossy German-language lumber brochures. "We cannot bring it with guns, or even the United Nations. Only with jobs."

After two decades of leading men into guerrilla warfare against the Soviets, rival mujahedin factions and finally the Taliban, the man known as Commander Mullah is going corporate. He's traded his bandolier for blueprints and his weapons for wheelbarrows, betting that capitalism is the key to power in the new Afghanistan.

But getting other militia leaders to consider a career change hasn't been easy. Nine months after the Afghan government launched an ambitious program to disarm and demobilize as many as 60,000 fighters and reintegrate them into the civilian population, only about 12,000 — mostly foot soldiers — have turned in weapons.

Commanders, reluctant to relinquish power, have discouraged their men from disarming and continue to lead clashes over land, narcotics and other issues in many provinces.

The lack of progress prompted President Hamid Karzai to decree that anyone failing to cooperate with the disarmament process would "face the severest of punishments." However, with only about 13,000 Afghan national army soldiers and 23,000 police officers on the job — some lacking weapons and adequate shoes — it is unclear how Karzai can make good on his threat.

Without a big stick to enforce its will, the government has tried carrots, but those too have been meager. Foot soldiers have been offered food rations, a few hundred dollars in cash and basic job training. Coming up with options for those higher up the ladder has been harder. Few commanders want to become farmers, tailors or de-miners.

Officials close to the process say it would be politically difficult to offer militia leaders, some of whom are accused of serious human rights violations, large cash incentives to start businesses. A number are already wealthy and are holding on to their militias as they maneuver for top government jobs or officer positions in the new army.

"We have been very successful reintegrating soldiers in cities," said Abdul Bashir, program officer for the disarmament effort in the Kabul region. "People are learning skills and earning money. But it was not designed for commanders and officers. Commanders are very rich. Whatever we offer them, it is nothing."

Rooz, then, who once commanded hundreds of men, is something of a pioneer.

After the fall of the Taliban, the leader of 340 Regiment traveled to Switzerland to visit his friend Zemary Hakimi, a self-described former hippie who immigrated there in 1972 after falling for a Swiss girl he met at Lake Qargha. The two men had become acquainted in the 1980s, when Hakimi helped bring injured mujahedin to Europe for medical care.

"It was his first time to Europe, and I remember how surprised he was by the cleanliness of the cities, traffic without horns and the fact that the president did not have bodyguards," said Hakimi, who has a restaurant and construction business. "But probably the biggest surprise was the concept of private business, rather than getting something from the government."

The two returned to Kabul and began drawing up their plans, using Hakimi's experience and Rooz's connections with the government and his influence with locals.

They secured a deal to lease public land around the lake for 20 years — for $2,000 a month, according to Hakimi — and make improvements in the area. They talked local landowners into permitting them to build homes on their property and forgo payment until the homes were sold. They recruited Swiss lumber firm Schillinger Holz Ltd. to produce prefabricated wood-framed houses, export them to Kabul and assemble them.

With those plans in motion, Rooz sent 146 of his militiamen to the disarmament program in January, and 28 more in May, U.N. records show. He trimmed his trademark long beard into a more executive-style look and began paying many of his former fighters about $90 a month, or nearly twice what the average government employee makes, to work on his construction crew.

"I advised my soldiers that it was time to think about the reconstruction of our country," he said.

Although he praised the ideals of the disarmament program, he faulted the international community for the weakness of the central government, an overreliance on expatriate technocrats and a reluctance to seriously engage commanders like him in developing a vision for a new Afghanistan.

"The U.N. has not fulfilled its promises," he said. "I brought our soldiers here, gave them jobs and accepted the costs for the sake of maintaining peace. If we do not keep them busy, there will not be peace."

Exactly how Rooz plans to finance his grand plan for Lake Qargha is unclear. He and Hakimi have enlisted a Swiss firm, Botta Management, to help recruit investors.

For now, Rooz says he makes money from food sales in the area. A more significant revenue stream may be the 20-cent "parking fee" that two dozen of his former fighters — rechristened security guards and outfitted with rifles and green jumpsuits — collect from the thousands of people who drive to Lake Qargha each Friday to picnic, swim and ride boats.

But that seems unlikely to cover the $100-million capital investment that Hakimi cited as the cost for the project. Officials close to the disarmament program, however, say he might be able to come up with a large chunk of cash. They note that a number of commanders on Rooz's level have made significant sums by selling arms to international dealers, collecting taxes from local businesses and imposing tolls on contraband and other goods transported through their districts.

Even with substantial funds, turning Qargha into an upscale resort won't be easy. The level of the man-made lake is about 50 feet lower than it once was, owing to years of drought and a rumored leak.

Although the nearby golf course recently reopened — its pro is one of Rooz's former fighters — the fairways are rocky and drab because the irrigation system components were looted long ago. An orange shipping container, its top bashed in by some kind of munition, serves as the pro shop.

Then there are the broader economic and security issues facing Afghanistan. Salaries are dismal, and rockets land regularly in the capital. Nevertheless, Hakimi and Rooz claim that 50 people, including top ministry officials, have expressed interest in buying property at Qargha. Nowadays in Kabul, they note, ritzy homes easily rent for $10,000 a month, and the capital is facing a severe housing shortage.

Some U.N. officials call Rooz a visionary. If the development succeeds, he may inspire other commanders to follow his lead.

But others worry that with his private security force, connections in the government, links to other wealthy commanders and financial power over local residents, Rooz may end up a more powerful strongman than when he commanded a small army.

"Ezatullah is giving up his gun but is keeping his power by other means," said Bashir, the disarmament officer. "People know if you have money, you can still have major influence."