Northern Afghanistan Faces New Security Threat

Former warlords apparently exploiting Kabul’s preoccupation with violence-plagued south to stake claim on their old fiefdoms.

Northern Afghanistan Faces New Security Threat

Former warlords apparently exploiting Kabul’s preoccupation with violence-plagued south to stake claim on their old fiefdoms.

While the bulk of the government’s - and the world’s - attention is focused on the insurgency-ridden south, Afghanistan’s northern provinces are becoming increasingly troubled.

Over the past few months, incidents of violence are becoming a regular occurrence in a region previously thought to be relatively stable. A protest in Jowzjan turned bloody, with ten people killed and many more wounded. A member of parliament was attacked in Samangan. And persistent rumours are circulating that weapons are being distributed in Sar-e-Pul.

“According to our information, some former commanders in Sar-e-Pul province have recommenced their activity,” said Colonel Mir Ali Nadem, who heads the DIAG (Disarmament of Illegal Armed Groups) programme in Sar-e-Pul. “Our intelligence shows that weapons have been distributed to some parties and individuals.”

Although these groups have not yet taken overt action against the government, added Nadem, the distribution of weapons is a serious threat to security. It also compromises the DIAG process, which, over the past two years, has managed to collect a mere 30,000 weapons. While no one has exact figures for how many guns, grenades and other types of military hardware existed in Afghanistan before the DIAG programme was launched in June 2005, the estimates run into the millions.

Illegal or “irresponsible” armed groups, as they are termed by officials, have left a dark legacy in the country. After the fall of the communist-backed Najibullah regime in 1992, the country disintegrated into armed camps belonging to various commanders who governed their fiefdoms with an iron hand. It was, in large part, revulsion at their despotic and corrupt rule that gave rise to the Taleban, who promised to rid the country of the “warlords” and bring some measure of security to the people.

After the Taleban were defeated by the US-led invasion in 2001, these commanders, still heavily armed, made a bid to regain their old power and influence. In many areas they took over, they forced local men to contribute money to their war chests, and even required that they get permission to marry off their daughters.

The government, generously backed by the United Nations, started a major disarmament effort. The first phase was DDR (Disarmament, Demobilisation, Reintegration), which was directed at officers and soldiers of formal military organs. In all, close to 60,000 pieces of heavy and light weaponry were collected, and 63,000 individuals disarmed, according to UN statistics.

Phase two of DIAG has nominally disbanded 1,800 illegal armed groups and disarmed 120,000 individuals, but experts acknowledge privately that the DIAG process has been far from a rousing success. While security has improved somewhat, many weapons still remain in private hands, and strongmen continue to command the loyalty of thousands of followers.

In the northern province of Jowzjan, which borders Sar-e-Pul, supporters of Abdul Rashid Dostum, the flamboyant general who retains enormous popularity and influence among his fellow Uzbeks in the north, launched protests against the controversial governor of Jowzjan, Juma Khan Hamdard in late May. The demonstration tuned violent, leaving at least ten protesters dead and 40 or more injured.

Dostum supporters also launched armed clashes in Faryab province, in April and May, forcing the central government to send troops to quell the disturbance.

Provincial authorities have accused Dostum’s political faction, Junbesh-e-Milli, of rearming its supporters in the north.

“There is plenty of evidence, including documents, showing that thousands of weapons are being distributed in Shiberghan [the capital of Jowzjan] and neighbouring villages. General Dostum is giving these weapons to local militias,” said Rohullah Samoon, spokesperson for Jowzjan’s governor. “We have not yet taken any action to collect those weapons, because the situation is still fragile, and we have to move carefully.”

Junbesh authorities vehemently deny that they are rearming militias in the north.

“This is a political plot against us,” said Kinja Kargar, deputy leader of the political faction. “Junbesh is a political association, not a military organisation. We have surrendered all of our weapons through DDR and DIAG, and we are trying to gain political influence through the democratic process.

“The Junbesh party does not have even one armed man. I say this clearly. Those who are armed do not belong to Junbesh, and these accusations are just not right.”

But the very clear impression persists that Dostum as well as other former warlords are taking advantage of the central government’s preoccupation with the violence-plagued south to stake a claim on their old fiefdoms.

In May, Ahmad Khan, a member of parliament, was attacked in Samangan, which borders Sar-e-Pul. While he escaped unharmed, his driver and bodyguard were killed.

“There are many weapons still with illegal groups,” said Zmarai Bashiri, spokesman for the ministry of the interior. “The attack on the MP in Samangan, the bloody protests in Jowzjan, and the violent clashes in Faryab are all proof of this. I have also heard that weapons are being distributed in Sare-e-Pul. But we do not as yet have any proof.”

Mohammad Nabi Asir, a political analyst in northern Afghanistan, sees the current situation as a logical development, given the state of affairs in the rest of the country.

“The government is under pressure in the south, and most of its forces are there,” he told IWPR. “Commanders in the north think that the government cannot cope, and they are trying to take advantage of the situation. Those groups that had power in the past will do anything to regain it. They are addicted to power.”

Farid Hakimi, a political analyst in Mazar-e-Sharif, sees external forces behind the present situation.

“Those countries that have been supporting groups in Afghanistan for the past 30 years want to continue their involvement,” he said. “Those weapons that are said to be distributed by warlords are coming from their masters in these countries.”

While Hakimi would not specify which countries he had in mind, “foreign interference” is usually shorthand for Pakistan, whose porous border with Afghanistan has allowed guns, extremists and drugs to move freely in and out of the region. Also coming in for its share of the blame is Iran, which has been accused of furnishing weapons to the Taleban, a charge it categorically denies.

“These countries want to pressure the Karzai government, and through it, the United States,” said Hakimi.

While the source of the weapons may not be clear, their presence is unmistakable, according to local residents.

“There are a lot of armed people around now who were not here before,” said a resident of the Darzab district of Faryab province, who did not want to give his name. “Most of them are carrying Kalashnikovs, and these Kalashnikovs are all brand new.

“We are afraid that the country is becoming a land of gunlords. We ask the government ‘for God’s sake please listen to the people. And don’t let these men destroy the country again’.”

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR reporter in Afghanistan.

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