Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan Coup Claims Under Scrutiny

A crackdown on an alleged plot against the interim government may be just another phase in the war of nerves between its ethnic Tajik and Pashtun factions.
By Mukhtar Rasooli
Defence and interior ministry officials claimed Thursday to have averted a plot to overthrow Afghanistan's interim administration with its crackdown on members of the Islamist Hezb-e-Islami party headed by former prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

But the sweep is being seen as more muscle-flexing by the Tajik dominated defence and interior ministries and a new attempt to cow majority Pashtun political forces ahead of June's Loya Jirga, convened to select a new government.

Most of the significant figures reported to have been arrested had taken up residence in a Kabul hotel specifically to facilitate cooperation with the government. Many had met at length with interim president Hamid Karzai on Tuesday, the eve of their internment.

Among them was Hekmatyr's deputy, Jumma Khan Hamdard, who went on record in March to say the Hezb-e-Islami in Afghanistan would cooperate with the interim authority. Also arrested were Bashir Khan Baghlany, a faction leader in the province of Baghlan, and Hekmatyar's one-time aide, Wahidullah Sabawon.

Sabawon was once the military chief of Hezb-e-Islami and served as defence minister in 1995 when Hekmatyar became prime minister under President Burhanuddin Rabbani. When the mainly Pashtun Taleban took over the country in 1996, Sabawon joined the mainly Tajik Northern Alliance resistance.

Observers believed the three had not given any indication that they overtly opposed the process begun in Bonn, and appeared willing to go along with its deliberations.

But Mohammed Naseer, the security director at the Kabul governor's office, told western and local media that the Hezb-e-Islami leaders had planned a coup d'etat against the interim government in effort to disrupt June's scheduled Loya Jirga.

Naseer said about 350 people had been detained during the week. A western official said twice as many had been arrested and 250 subsequently released. Ten were being held on suspicion of serious offences, including terrorism, the official said.

The Northern Alliance figures in charge of the interior and defence ministries are falling into a habit of arresting Pashtun figures they consider a threat.

Interim defence minister Mohd Qaseem Fahim had Nangarhar military commander Haj Zaman arrested for 15 days in early February on allegations that he had aided the escape of Osama bin Laden from his besieged Tora Bora mountain redoubt. The real reason, Zaman told IWPR later, was that Fahim wanted him ousted from his post - against Karzai's wishes - in favour of his chosen man.

Most of the Tajiks now dominating the interim administration belong to the Jamiat-e-Islami faction, the principal force in the Northern Alliance.

The Jamiat-e-Islami and Hezb-e-Islami fought against the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan but turned on each other in the years that followed, reducing large areas of Kabul to rubble. Hekmatyar has been in exile in Iran since 1996 but Tehran recently closed his party's offices there. His present whereabouts are not known.

Mukhtar Rasooli is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist based in northern Afghanistan.