Mazar Stand-off

Americans are reportedly trying to broker a deal between heavily armed rival warlords in the north of the country.

Mazar Stand-off

Americans are reportedly trying to broker a deal between heavily armed rival warlords in the north of the country.

While the central government in Kabul talks of ending warlordism, rival forces confront each other in Mazar-e-Sharif, the largest city in the north of the country.

Fighting periodically breaks out between the armed groups - and many people think only foreign intervention will calm things down.

“We are afraid war could break out again - western troops could prevent the situation deteriorating,” said Mohammad Arif, a resident of the ninth district of the city.

At the time of the Loya Jirga in June, UN officials and EU representative Klaus-Peter Klaiber raised the possibility of the ISAF, the international military contingent, extending its mandate from Kabul, where the 5,000-strong force is based, to Mazar.

ISAF soldiers themselves say they will go wherever their political masters send them, but the governments contributing to the force don’t appear willing to put their troops into a situation deemed more risky than the capital.

At the root of local tensions is a personal rivalry between General Abdel Rashid Dostum, assistant defence minister and leader of the mainly Uzbek political movement Junbesh-e-Melli, and Atta Mohammad, the military commander of the largely Tajik Jamiat-e-Islami party, which formed the backbone of the Northern Alliance.

There have been two bouts of serious fighting so far this year, once in January, when dozens of men were killed in fighting in and around the city, and again in May.

“General Dostum and Atta Mohammad don’t trust each other. Each of them is trying to harm the other,” said Abdul Latif, a carpet seller in the city.

The two sides, and representatives of the Hazara community, have begun UN-brokered talks on disarming their men. As of last week, 350 weapons had been handed in. But UN representative in northern Afghanistan Mervyn Patterson said he thought the programme had so far gathered only about 10 per cent of the arms in the region.

Mazar is seen as a key test of whether the Kabul government can impose law and order throughout the country. Some 180,000 refugees have returned to the region this year, but the bouts of fighting have caused international agencies to relocate and UNHCR has sought assurances from local commanders that returnees would be protected.

Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group but a minority in the north, have also been targeted, with thousands fleeing to majority Pashtun areas in the south, around Kandahar.

Atta believes that he and his men should control the area because of their history of resistance, first to the communist regimes of the Eighties and more recently against the Taleban. He calls many of the men with Dostum communists because they served as officers in the Afghan army under President Najibullah.

But Dostum has the backing of the transitional government. In addition to being a senior defence ministry official, Karzai recently appointed the general, who is effectively the prime political leader of Afghanistan’s 1.8 million Uzbeks, as his representative in the north.

Unlike factional fighting in other parts of Afghanistan, the struggle around Mazar has involved the manoeuvring of heavy weapons.

Atta’s men accuse Dostum of stationing tanks around the city, ostensibly for public celebrations. But the latter’s deputy for military affairs, Majeed Rozi, claimed Atta had done the same.

“Atta Mohammad brought 22 tanks from Konduz, which would also have made people nervous,” he told IWPR. “Dostum is assistant minister of defence, he can put tanks wherever he wants.”

The fighting has become so serious the Americans have got involved in trying to broker a peace agreement. The US commander in chief in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Dan McNeil, is said to have recently held talks with both Dostum and Atta.

The general was ostensibly in Mazar to review the humanitarian activities of a small force of American troops in the north but sources said the US views the tension around Mazar as particularly troubling, because it is between people who were allied against the Taleban and al-Qaeda forces.

Worryingly, western diplomats say Atta has recently been trying to recruit former rank and file Taleban soldiers into his forces. Over 3,000 former student militia soldiers are held prisoner all over the north of the country.

Each side manoeuvres for control of positions both around the city, and in outlying districts. Of the latter, Atta’s men control much of Faryab, Sar-e-Pul and Jowzjan provinces.

The struggle extends to control of the airwaves. The city’s one television station, nominally controlled by the central government, each evening plays videotapes sent by both groups of their leaders’ meetings and doings during

the day.

Many ordinary residents said they would like ISAF to come to Mazar, but there is no sign that the force - which has proved successful and popular in the capital - will be deployed there.

Samander Khan is an IWPR trainee journalist

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