Afghan Interior Ministry Takes on Armed Factions

The interior ministry takes a bold step to curb the power of warring paramilitary groups, but the government may still be too weak to dismantle their political support.

Afghan Interior Ministry Takes on Armed Factions

The interior ministry takes a bold step to curb the power of warring paramilitary groups, but the government may still be too weak to dismantle their political support.

A clash between two armed factions in northern Afghanistan looks set to test the government’s resolve to take on armed militias and the politicians associated with them.

Police in the north-western province of Faryab reported that 14 people including four civilians died in a week of fighting in the Pashtun Kot district at the beginning of August. The clash involved close to 300 militia members aligned with rival commanders Abdul Rahman Shamal and Khalifa Saleh.

News reports are full of the conflict with the Taleban in the south of Afghanistan, but this northern confrontation involved combatants linked to figures who are supposed to share the government’s vision of stability and rule of law. Shamal has been linked to Junbesh-e-Melli-ye-Islami, the faction formerly led by General Abdul Rashid Dostum, while Saleh is said to be part of the Hizb-e-Azadi faction led by General Abdul Malik Pahlavan,

Abdul Malik used to be one of Dostum’s lieutenants in the Junbesh military, but fell out with him in the mid-Nineties after accusing him of having his brother killed. He then changed sides and helped the Taleban invade northern Afghanistan, forcing Dostum to flee the country.

When United States-led Coalition forces arrived in late 2001, Dostum became a key ally in the struggle to oust the Taleban. Since then, his and Abdul Malik’s factions have maintained an uneasy coexistence in the north. Dostum has served as deputy defence minister and currently holds the posts of adviser to President Hamed Karzai and chief-of-staff under the overall commander of Afghan armed forces.

The conflict underlines the obvious persistence of armed groups with political links, despite two major United Nations-backed efforts to disarm and demobilise first semi-formal military forces and then looser bands of illegal paramilitaries.

Now the interior ministry in Kabul, which controls the police who have struggled to cope in Faryab, has decided to do something about it.

Citing a constitutional provision that bans political parties with armed retinues, the ministry asked the justice ministry to outlaw Junbesh and Hizb-e-Azadi, both of which have official status as parties.

"These parties have military wings, so they must be dissolve because the presence of these armed wings in the provinces has created serious problems for the public," Interior Minister Zarar Ahmad Muqbel told the media in mid-August.

Leaders of the two parties rejected the allegations, saying the interior ministry did not possess documentation to prove that either of the men was affiliated to their respective parties.

Sayed Nurullah, the acting head of Junbesh since Dostum stepped back last year to take up his current posts, told IWPR his group had no armed forces of any kind.

"The National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan [Junbesh] is one of the powerful parties which fought against the Taleban, so it did have strong military units. It became the first party to disband its military wing in line with the [2001] Bonn agreement, and we handed over all our heavy and light weapons to the government through the DDR [Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration] and DIAG [Disarmament of Illegal Armed Groups] programmes,” he said.

“There are no armed men within the Junbish party.... There are local commanders present in many parts of the country, and they sometimes fight each other, so it isn’t fair to link that to a political party."

Contacted by IWPR early on when the clashes first broke out, General Abdul Malik said Saleh was a member of his party, but insisted he did not possess weapons. After several days during which the fighting intensified, Abdul Malik went back on that statement and said Saleh did not belong to Hizb-e-Azadi.

The general said the interior ministry was trying to shift the blame for the Faryab unrest away from itself.

"The interior ministry wants to blame the two parties for the incompetence of its own police in Faryab, who were unable to halt the fighting between two local commanders, and for its inability to ensure security and collect weapons across the country," he said.

Abdul Malik said his party could not logically have an armed following because if it did, the justice ministry would never have registered it.

He concluded by suggesting that the ministry should first try to capture the errant commanders and then find out if they had any political affiliations.

The interior ministry said it was trying to do just that, and asserted that it did have sufficient proof to implicate both parties.

"The reports we have received from Faryab are completely authentic and demonstrate that commander Abdul Rahman Shamal and Khalifa Saleh belong to the Junbesh and Hizbe-e-Azadi parties, respectively,” ministry spokesman Yousuf Stanizai told IWPR.

"The documents we have in our hands show that these commanders belong to Junbesh and Hizb-e-Azadi, that they have armed men, and that a week of fighting in Faryab left several people dead and was damaging to the local population. We will shortly be submitting all these documents to the justice ministry."

Saleh and 15 of his men were detained by the Afghan National Army immediately after the fighting, while police and army units are currently pursuing Shamal, who fled with his forces into the mountains nearby.

The justice ministry has so far responded with extreme caution to the suggestion it should take tough action against the two parties.

"When we were registering these two parties, the interior and defence ministries and the security agency reported to us that neither of them had a military wing,” Elyas Ghiasi, the justice ministry official in charge of registering political parties, told IWPR.

"The interior ministry has yet to send us reliable documents, but if we receive proof that a given party has a military force, we will begin the process of dissolving it."

Ghiasi explained that the procedure was that the justice ministry filed documents submitted by the security agencies in an application to the Supreme Court, which then rules that the offending party should be dissolved.

Whatever evidence the justice ministry is presented with, officials and ordinary Afghans in the north seem pretty convinced that Dostum and Abdul Malik and their respective factions remain major players.

“The government has no power in this province. The entire province is ruled by Dostum and Abdul Malik. These people extort money from local residents by torturing them. People cannot even marry off their daughters without getting permission from these commanders," said one local man who did not want to be named.

"The district chiefs obey these commanders rather than the government. We don’t know who to turn to."

The provincial governor of Faryab, Abdul Latif Ibrahimi, confirmed that militia commanders with ties to both Dostum and Abdul Malik were still active, adding, "If they were not armed, there would be no clashes in Faryab."

The NATO peacekeepers in northern Afghanistan, part of the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, appear to treat Dostum and Abdul Malik as the de facto powerbrokers in Faryab.

At a press conference in Mazar-e-Sharif, Brigadier-General Markus Kneip, the commander of ISAF forces in northern Afghanistan, said, "I held meetings with Dostum and Malik in order to halt the fighting in Faryab. These two Afghan generals helped us halt the fighting by exercising their power in this area.”

Kneip said further meetings would take place with representatives of both Dostum and Malik to press for the militias to disarm - without which, he predicted, there would be recurring violent incidents.

If senior Afghan officials are controlling or at least influencing illegal paramilitary groups that roam the countryside, why does the government in Kabul appear to turn a blind eye to it?

The United Nations-sponsored vetting process that preceded last year’s parliamentary election was supposed to have weeded out parties that were really political fronts for the old paramilitary factions. The interior ministry’s actions now suggest the process was flawed.

The problem extends to much of the country, with paramilitary groups - mostly rooted in the mujahedin war against the Soviets and claiming to represent a particular regional or ethnic group - still holding sway on the ground, and maintaining links with politicians at various levels.

The support these political-military factions lent to the Coalition and the Karzai government has made it hard to dispense with them altogether, despite the best efforts of the DDR and DIAG programmes to reduce their lethal capacity. Some members of Karzai’s cabinet and the parliament formed this year have links with the factions, making government an uneasy mix of compromise and pragmatism.

The war with the Taleban has kept attention on the unrest in the south of the country, compared with which the Faryab clashes seemed a mere spat.

However, Afghan political analysts interviewed by IWPR expressed cautious optimism that the Karzai administration is slowly beginning to attempt to curb the power of the armed factions.

"When these parties were being registered, the government was not in a position to deny them registration and it granted this right to the commanders as an incentive, in order to prevent inter-ethnic conflict, just as it appointed some of their people to ministries and provincial posts," said Kabul based analyst Mohammad Hassan Wolesmal. "Now the government wants to disband these parties, as it has removed warlords and some jihadi factions from the ministries."

But Wolesmal predicted that progress will be incremental, since the government is not yet strong enough to dislodge the factions.

In a reference to the General Dostum’s current advisory role and his power-base among the Uzbek community of northern Afghanistan, Wolesmal said, "Dostum himself is now sitting under Karzai’s beard. And a large number of this warlord’s followers are in parliament. So if this happens [Junbesh is dissolved], the Uzbek people will rise up.”

Qayoum Babak, a political analyst based in Mazar-e-Sharif, agreed that the Karzai administration was still testing the water, but was to weak to deal the final blow to the parties.

He said the interior ministry’s action against Junbesh and Hizb-e-Azadi signalled that "the government wants to test the power of these warlords to see how many followers they still have".

Babak noted, "After the interior minister filed his request, Junbesh - most of them Uzbek - staged demonstrations in northern Afghanistan. The government will fall silent once it realises it still needs a fair amount of time to push these warlords out of political life."

Junbesh leader Nurullah also hinted at the difficulties of neutralising factions that often exercise more influence in their regions than central government does. "We are a people's party and no one can disband us so easily," he warned.

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.

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