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Balkh Power Struggle Leaves Locals Fearful

Residents of Balkh province braced for violence as two prominent figures square off over the elections.
By Ahmad Kawoosh
The unresolved presidential election appears to be worsening a dispute between the powerful governor of Balkh province and a local rival that observers fear will soon spiral out of control into open conflict.

On opposite sides of the political and ethnic divide, Atta Mohammad Noor, a Tajik who wields overwhelming power in Balkh, and Juma Khan Hamdard, an ethnic Pashtun commander from the north now serving as governor of Paktia, are trading accusations over the election and security.

Atta backed Dr Abdullah Abdullah in the August 20 presidential election; Hamdard supported President Hamed Karzai. While the long post-election uncertainty continues, the rivalry between the two is further destabilising a province already poised on the brink of chaos.

Early in September, Atta delivered a blistering speech in which he accused central government of sponsoring widespread electoral fraud in favour of Karzai. He also claimed that the interior ministry, through Hamdard, was distributing weapons to Balkh’s Pashtun districts, with a view to undermining Atta’s own authority.

Atta chose to speak on the eighth anniversary of the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary Tajik commander who was killed two days before 9/11. Abdullah was Massoud’s advisor and spokesman.

The interior ministry vehemently rejected Atta’s accusations.

“We have not distributed weapons,” said Zmarai Bashiri, spokesman for the ministry. “This is just a plot by Atta.”

In turn, Atta’s spokesman, Farhod Munir, alleged that it was Hamdard who was behind the deterioration of security in Balkh.

“This process is going on right now,” he told IWPR. “Juma Khan has distributed more than 100 heavy and light weapons to commanders in Balkh.”

Hamdard vehemently denies the charge, and in retaliation has brought up old accusations that Atta is behind a series of assassinations of Pashtun tribal leaders in the north.

“Juma Khan has never been associated with insecurity in Balkh,” said Ruhullah Samoon, Hamdard’s spokesperson. “And it is not Juma Khan who has been murdering Pashtun leaders.”

Residents of Balkh say that commanders for both men are receiving weapons, and the atmosphere is becoming so tense that it is reminiscent of the worst days of the civil war, when rival leaders staged bloody battles inside Mazar-e-Sharif.

Those close to Atta say he turned sharply against Kabul earlier this year when Karzai passed him over for vice-president, choosing instead a bitter rival, Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim.

The Balkh governor, who is closely associated with the Tajik-dominated Jamiat-e-Islami party, shifted his considerable support to Abdullah, Karzai’s main rival.

The president tried to rein in Atta, but the governor simply ignored him.

Now that Karzai is likely to finally be proclaimed the victor in the fiercely contested elections, Atta appears to be trying to shore up his position. This has been made all the more difficult by the reappearance of Hamdard.

Hamdard is now the governor of Paktia province, in eastern Afghanistan, but his political fortunes are firmly pinned to the north. The ethnic Pashtun commander earlier served as governor of Jowzjan, northwest of Balkh, where his tenure was marred by violent demonstrations against what the predominantly Uzbek population said were his Pashtun-centric policies.

Ethnicity and politics are an explosive brew in Afghanistan, and the people of Balkh are braced for trouble.

“This rivalry between Juma Khan and Atta will lead to ethnic conflict,” warned Shakir Nasim, a student at Balkh University. “They are trying to remain in power by starting a house-to-house fight, where brother will turn against brother.”

The enmity has reached such a point that it seems to have eclipsed the original reason for the dispute.

“If you listen to Karzai and Abdullah, they are much more conciliatory than these two guys (Atta and Hamdard),” said Ustad Satar, a teacher in Balkh. “This is what has people so worried. When Atta says he won’t accept the results, what he is saying is that he does not want to lose his power. If Karzai wins, Atta is gone, with all his trappings. He is trying to save what he has. And on the other hand, Juma Khan is desperately trying to replace him.”

Ramazan Bashar Dost, who came third in the presidential contest, said it was important for the dispute between the two men to be resolved because it risked destabilising the region.

“If these allegations of weapons distribution are true, then the perpetrators should be brought to justice,” he said. “But if they are just empty accusations, then the governor of Balkh should be dragged into court. Any comments that lead to the deterioration of the security situation, particularly if they have a political or personal motivation, must be prevented.”

The likely loser in all of this conflict is, as usual, the Afghan people. While two political factions struggle with each other, the insurgency is gaining ground by the day. Parts of two nearby provinces, Baghlan and Kunduz, are coming under control of the Taleban. Just one year ago, travel between Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz city was relatively safe, but few drivers will now take the four-hour car trip, given the level of fighting that occurs regularly along the road.

The tension has had a negative impact on the economic life of the region. Businessmen do not want to risk their capital in a war zone. Some are said to have withdrawn their investments. A series of kidnappings of local businessmen also have people worried.

“Atta’s harsh comments and the kidnappings have the business community upset,” said a money-changer in the Kefayat market of Balkh, who gave his name as Mahmoud.

If this keeps up, the north will soon begin to look like the south, say observers.

Amidst all these fears, the election still looms as a dark shadow. It took the Independent Electoral Commission almost a month to release even preliminary results, which showed Karzai with a clear win of 55 per cent to Abdullah’s 28 per cent. Final results are expected within two weeks, which may or may not aggravate an already delicate situation.

The international community wants to have the process both resolved as quickly as possible and see the elections bring some stability to the country. The United States, in particular, has been active in trying to bring the leading candidates together to forge a coalition government. But for the people of Balkh, struggling with their own bitter stand-off, a coalition seems a very distant prospect.

Ahmad Kawoosh is an IWPR-trained reporter based in Balkh.

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