After two decades of civil war and three years of drought, the most desperate are reduced to eating grass to survive the harsh winter that has set upon towns and villages.

A flu epidemic could kill as many as 15,000 people, and serious health problems are common. The other day, a World Health Organization representative, Lori Hieber-Girardet, told a group of Pakistani journalists about a pregnant Afghani who had no access to a doctor or midwife. “When she found she was unable to give birth, she had to travel for three days through mountains, with the head of her dead baby stuck in her uterus, to reach a clinic,” she said.

The great distances make it hard for aid agencies to reach people in need. “Even when it is not snowing, it takes four days in a jeep to reach the center of Ghor province, then another two days to reach outlying villages,” one official told us.

Even more serious is the general lawlessness terrorizing the country. One in three people in Afghanistan carries an automatic weapon of some kind to enforce the law of the jungle. The work of many relief agencies has been halted over concerns for their workers’ safety. After the Taliban rout, the country has been turned into private fiefdoms overseen by warlords, who are answerable only to their own thirst for more money and power.

As one political analyst commented sarcastically about the country‘s interim leader: “Hamid Karzai is Lord of Kabul only as he has never been lord of any part of Afghanistan before the Taliban’s coming into power back in the mid-1990s. Everyone else has got back his lost empire that they held before the Taliban‘s coming to Kabul.”

For most of the 1990s, Ismail Khan waslord of southwest Afghanistan; now, he is back in these parts, establishing rule over Herat, Farah, Nimruz, Ghowr and Badghis provinces. He is ruling like a sovereign with the help of Iran, which President Bush has asked not to meddle in Afghanistan’s internal matters. Iran is about 80 miles away from Herat and has a long history of cultural and political ties to the region. Khan is now in charge, just like he was from 1989 until 1995, when the Taliban threw him out.

Four eastern provinces are under the control of the so-called eastern shura (tribal council), headed by alleged drug lord Hajji Qadeer. In the northeast, including Kunduz, Takhar, Badakhshan and Baghlan provinces, commander Muhammad Daud is in control. The northwest is controlled by General Abdull Rasheed Dostum, who had been notorious for switching loyalties throughout his military career.

In Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement, another notorious warlord is back. Gul Agha Shirazi is a reputed drug smuggler whose estate was returned to him with the help of the United States. The last time he was in charge of Kandahar, the city fell to chaos and anarchy. His rule is still remembered as the darkest period of the civil-war epoch of the 1990s.

The warlords are running their territories without worrying about the central authority in Kabul. They command bands of thugs who are promised cash for their allegiance. These bands are easily tempted to engage in a looting sprees as they are not paid regularly, and they are not questioned for any of their transgressions.

All roads and highways are controlled by these goons who demand money from passing vehicles. Caravans of aid are looted by the henchmen of warlords to feed their private militia. Aid agencies are asked to pay extortion for their safety. Today, few aid agencies are prepared to go into smaller towns and remote villages to distribute food. Only major cities are getting their food distribution.

Western journalists are a favorite prey of these gangs. After the Taliban‘s fall last year, four western journalists lost their lives in one such highway robbery on a road to Kabul.

In Kabul, despite the fact that its security is managed by an international peacekeeping force, crime is rampant. Within one week, 49 people were killed by criminals. The abductions and lootings of aid workers in different parts of Afghanistan no longer surprise people. It is a sad fact of postwar life that the present state of lawlessness has effectively halted getting aid to most of the country.

One journalist recently wrote that the first step to a peaceful and stable Afghanistan is to disarm the population and retire warlords, without exception. “Long experience has shown that warlords do not become statesmen,” he concluded.

Despite a near end of war in Afghanistan, hundreds of families enter Pakistan daily in search of food, shelter and security. One political observer said the turmoil in Afghanistan will continue to cause unrest. “More than drought or famine or anything else, insecurity is the most destabilizing fact.” He said the prevailing lawlessness and rule of warlords could lead to the emergence of a political movement like the Taliban. “Now we have the freedom to listen to music, and nobody bothers us about wearing beards, but music does not put food on the table. We prefer extremism to instability.”

In the mid-’90s, after the Russians retreated from Afghanistan, the Taliban rose from obscurity to positions of power when moderate warlords failed to bring peace and order. Earlier this month, Afghanistan‘s interim leader, Karzai, appealed for the national army to help reduce the influence of private militias in Afghan affairs. But this dream has a long way to go. In Afghanistan, more than any other part of the world, history keeps repeating itself, with more misery and chaos every time.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.