Government Curbs Northern Warlords

Feuding commanders' armies to merge as Kabul shows resolve.

Government Curbs Northern Warlords

Feuding commanders' armies to merge as Kabul shows resolve.

Wednesday, 16 November, 2005

Afghanistan's transitional government has taken decisive action to improve security in the north of the country, dismissing key officials in Balkh province and ordering two feuding military forces to merge.

In a major shake-up announced by interior minister Ali Ahmad Jalali on October 26, the governor and deputy governor of Balkh province were replaced and the chief of police in the administrative centre Mazar-e-Sharif was dismissed.

Jalali also announced that the two army corps run by rival commanders General Abdul Rashid Dostum and General Atta Mohammad are to be merged into a single force and integrated into the new Afghan national army.

Disarmament of heavy and light weapons is scheduled to begin in a few weeks in Mazar-e-Sharif, supervised by the national defence ministry, the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, and the British-led provincial reconstruction team, PRT.

Analysts in Mazar-e-Sharif say the changes are designed to strengthen the hand of President Hamed Karzai's government in the north of Afghanistan, ahead of crucial decisions on a new constitution and elections planned for next year. They say the decisions are important for symbolic as well as practical reasons

Interior minister Jalili was in determined mood, saying,"It's the third time I have come to Mazar in the past two weeks, but my decisions are final this time.

"We have brought in these changes so as to gain the satisfaction and confidence of the people. I am sure the decisions will be implemented, and that they will be for the benefit of the people of the north."

The changes come amid heightening tension in Mazar-e-Sharif, where there were fears that a ceasefire agreement between the forces of Dostum and Atta Mohammad could collapse.

Dostum, who leads the Junbesh-e-Milli movement and has been a key player in the north for more than a decade, has been battling against Atta Mohammad for control of Mazar-e-Sharif and surrounding territory since the fall of the Taleban regime nearly two years ago.

The two men control large forces - designated the Eighth and Seventh Corps, respectively - which formally come under Defence Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who like Atta Mohammad is part of the powerful Jamiat-e-Islami faction.

The turf war between the two groups has frustrated attempts by the transitional government to extend its authority to the northern provinces.

On October 9, the interior minister backed by UNAMA and the PRT brokered a truce after a fresh outbreak of fighting. To help the ceasefire hold, the government last week drafted in 300 extra police from Kabul to Mazar-e-Sharif - but there have been tensions between them and the city's own police, most of whom are loyal to Atta Mohammad. Police chief General Zarif blocked plans to extend the Kabul law enforcers control of city checkpoints.

All sides have signed up to the agreement. Dostum, currently a security adviser to Karzai, and his rival are said to be considering new posts in the government. Jalali said the other officials who have been replaced will be also be offered alternative jobs.

Atta Mohammad, who until now controlled most of Mazar-e-Sharif, is seen by local observers as the main loser in the agreement, since Balkh governor Eshaq Rahgozar was an ally, and he had the backing of the city police.

But in public, at least, he voiced support for the changes. "I'm ready to support the decisions adopted by the government. The new changes in posts are positive," he said at a press conference.

"I agree on the merger of the two military corps - the Seventh and the Eighth. I will even accept it if the government transforms our military corps down to a single division."

The outgoing governor of Balkh also appeared to recognise it was time for him to step down. "In the last two years I have not been able to implement the decisions of the central government because there were obstacles in my way," said Rahgozar.

General Dostum did not comment publicly on the restructuring of his military force or the reshuffle.

On the streets of Mazar-e-Sharif, people have been increasingly alarmed at the rising tension and outbreaks of violence, and have begun to despair of the government acting to bring the warlords to heel.

The government's action now gives them some hope that things will improve, so that they can get on with their lives in peace.

Dawood, a Mazar-e-Sharif resident, welcomed the news, saying, "I'm not only happy myself - all the city's residents are happy. We wish for the resolutions of the government to be implemented this time."

Local taxi driver Delawar said that if outsiders were brought in to fill the empty posts, they would be welcome because they not be compromised by local loyalties.

"For the last two years we have had corruption in local government offices," he said. "If the newly-appointed people are from Kabul or other provinces, they will do a better job."

The government's move to create some stability in northern Afghanistan by tackling powerful leaders is all the more remarkable because so far it has been achieved through negotiation rather than force.

"This is a time for the pen, not the gun," said interior minister Jalali.

Ahmad Nahim Qadiri is an IWPR reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.

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