Ethnic Strife Mars Assembly Preparations

Tensions between Pashtuns and their ethnic rivals are running high in the eastern provinces as the Loya Jirga approaches.

Ethnic Strife Mars Assembly Preparations

Tensions between Pashtuns and their ethnic rivals are running high in the eastern provinces as the Loya Jirga approaches.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

These are dangerous days for the newly appointed Loya Jirga delegates from the eastern province of Nangrahar.

International observers and local community leaders believe they face intimidation and even violence as they wait to move up to Kabul from Nangrahar's refugee-swollen capital, Jalalabad.

The fears were raised at the end of the final May 27-30 Loya Jirga elections, when the names of newly appointed to the grand assembly were released. The crucial, much anticipated gathering on June 10 is to agree on a transitional government for the country ahead of elections in 18 months.

British troops pursuing suspected al-Qaeda forces in the region have been called in to advise on security matters for the delegates from Nangrahar and the neighbouring provinces of Laghman, Kunar and Nouristan. The delegates are having to stay in Jalalabad rather than return to their remote districts before the opening of the Loya Jirga in Kabul.

The province's governor, Haji Abdul Qadeer, with UN support, convened a special three-day seminar for all those attending the gathering. A private UN memo said the aim was to allow the delegates to "discuss and reflect on important national issues" and keep "any undue pressure and security risks" at bay.

Ethnic Pashtuns are a majority in Nangrahar, which was formerly a Taleban stronghold, and they have clashed with the incoming allies of the Northern Alliance.

The alliance's strategy is to pile pressure on Pashtun political representatives, who they see as challenging their grip on the key government ministries and covert supporters of the defeated Taleban.

The former Pashtun provincial garrison commander, Haji Mohammad Zaman Ghamshareek, has accused the Northern Alliance commander and defence minister, Mohammad Fahim, of backing his challenger, the incoming provincial security commander Haji Hazrat Ali, an ethnic Nouristani and a Northern Alliance leader.

Early in February, Fahim detained Zaman for 15 days while the former's deputy accused the latter of helping Osama Bin Laden escape from the US forces who were attacking his mountain redoubt in the nearby Tora Bora range. Zaman denied the charge, and was only freed after Qadeer's intervention.

There were also several firefights between the two sides after a particularly ill-disciplined April 23 raid by Ali's men on the famous

Shinwar opium market, part of a major province-wide drive against the drugs trade.

Nangrahar's Shinwari tribal community controlled the local opium industry and led the opposition to the Northern Alliance crackdown on the trade, which Zaman says sustains thousands of desperate Pashtun farmers in the province.

An April 8, bomb attack against Fahim that killed four and wounded some 70 bystanders in Jalalabad was blamed on opponents of the crackdown. The opium traders, meanwhile, accuse the interim authority and prominent Northern Alliance figures of looting and ethnic discrimination.

"We know that they (the interim authority) only use the campaign against opium as an excuse to loot our shops and steal our money," said one Shinwar trader, Malak Mira Jan.

"The Northern Alliance want to see non-Pashtuns in charge of the eastern provinces. They want to keep on harassing the Pashtuns."

There have been widespread reports of attempted bribery to secure votes. However, the overall consensus is that the Loya Jirga process in Nangrahar and its surrounding provinces, despite some violence in all three areas, was reasonably satisfactory.

Only after Karzai succumbed to Fahim's pressure and replaced Zaman and Ali took firmer command of his troops did a semblance of peace return to Jalalabad.

Qadeer, who also serves as interim minister for urban reconstruction, now fully backs Ali's control of the city, which is underpinned by a unit of 15,000 Northern Alliance troops.

He said the raids on the opium market were part of government policy that "were a good thing", though he said he did not condone looting.

Referring to the clashes between the incoming alliance forces and the Nangrahar Pashtuns, he said, "I am trying to reconcile them but both the factions are well-armed and in the city. Sometimes they don't obey me. In a month or so everything will be fine, following the Loya Jirga and the creation of the new government."

Walid Baidar is a psuedoynm for a journalist based in Jalalabad.

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