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Extra Police to Calm Mazar-e-Sharif

Central government has sent forces to police a worsening security situation blamed on infighting between northern warlords.
By Qais Faqiri

In the wake of a fresh bout of fighting in the northern Balkh province, the Afghan interior ministry has sent 300 policemen from Kabul to bolster security in the regional centre, Mazar-e-Sharif.


The police, who will be stationed in Mazar-e-Sharif for at least five months, will boost the numbers of men on patrol, as well as filling in for local police who are to undergo retraining at a new academy in Balkh province.


Since the fall of the Taleban regime in November 2001, the north has been dogged by a power struggle between two former Northern Alliance allies - General Abdul Rashid Dostum, currently security adviser to President Hamed Karzai, and General Atta Mohammad, commander of the Seventh Army Corps. The latter unit is not part of the new Western-trained Afghan army but is affiliated to the Jamiat-e-Islami party and to Defence Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim. Dostum - a longtime player who started out as a pro-Soviet commander in the Eighties - heads his own political movement, Junbesh-e-Milli.


Most of the factional fighting in and around Balkh province over the past 18 months has taken place outside Mazar-e-Sharif itself. But control of the city - the region's economic and political hub - is the ultimate goal for the rival commanders.


Police have blamed a wave of crime committed against civilians on soldiers from the two forces.


Local people have reacted with relief to news of the extra policing. "We always worry, even on the way to university, and we can never concentrate on studying," said Majoba Ferishta, a second-year student in the Balkh University medical faculty.


Hamida Hamdard, chairwoman of a local organisation that holds literacy courses for women, told IWPR that about 50 of her 300 members now regularly missed classes due to security problems, after trouble from soldiers based nearby.


"Armed men harass our students," she claimed. "They hit me on the shoulder with a stick a few days ago. I went to the mullah to complain, but he told me he didn't have the power to counter them."


The extra policing comes as a response to an upturn in violence in the region. Heavy fighting broke out west of Mazar-e-Sharif in the first week of October after two of Dostum's commanders were kidnapped. The attackers were arrested, but were released soon afterwards.


On October 9, a ceasefire was negotiated by Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali with backing from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, and the British ambassador in Kabul. The agreement signed by Dostum and Atta provided for a new commission including representatives from both Jamiat and Junbesh, as well as UNAMA and the British-led Provincial Reconstruction Team, PRT, to investigate the kidnapping and oversee the truce.


To help enforce the agreement, Jalali decided to bring in police from the national force. They will collaborate with local police headquarters, manning checkpoints and running patrols in potential flashpoint areas both inside and outside the city.


Zalmai Khan, an officer in the national police contingent sent to Mazar-e-Sharif, said his colleagues are well-trained, ethnically diverse and do not have links with any political party.


"We are ready to crush any kind of trouble and we will fight strenuously against anyone who tries to create unrest," said Rahman Gul Afghanyar, another police officer sent from Kabul. "I would just advise everyone to behave as brothers."


It is hoped that the presence of the force will allow problems with Mazar-e-Sharif's own police to be addressed.


According to General Majid Rozi, a military advisor to Dostum, the existing force in Mazar-e-Sharif is dominated by the Jamiat party. "I don't say all of them, but most of the current policemen are not neutral," he said. "We need to filter them so that we can establish a new force that is acceptable to all the parties, and to the people."


Mazar-e-Sharif police chief General Esah Eftekhari countered this by saying only low-level policemen are recruited from Jamiat's 7th corps, while the officers are professionals. He said security has improved since the ceasefire.


PRT spokesman Captain Tom Barker told IWPR that the Kabul force will provide time to put members of the local force through a new police academy that is due to start training in January. The school, set up by the PRT with British and US funding, will run 10-week courses in the basic techniques of civilian policing for 350 trainees at a time.


Police in the city say they welcome the help from Kabul as well as the training.


Sayed Khalil Rahman, 25, has been a policeman for around two years. Educated to seventh-grade level, he studied at a madrasa or religious school before joining the force.


"When I joined the police I didn't actually know anything about it," he told IWPR. "I was very much interested in receiving training to learn about the police, but there was nothing. Now that I’ve heard that the police in Mazar are going to be trained, I am very happy that I too will receive some training."


Rahman hopes he will get a salary raise after his training, since he says his current monthly wage of around 30 US dollars is barely enough to cover his expenses. "In order to improve the quality of police work, they should increase salaries so that police don't need to take bribes," he said.


Qais Faqiri and Farid Hakimi are independent journalists who recently completed IWPR training in Mazar-e-Sharif.


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