Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Northern General Pledges Obedience

General Dostum tells high-level United Nations mission he will hand over his militia to central government.
By Ahmad Nahim

One of the leading commanders in northern Afghanistan, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, has told a high ranking United Nations delegation that he will play by the new rules imposed by the government in Kabul, under which he is to hand over control of his armed forces.


Dostum was speaking on November 5 as ambassadors from the 15 member states of the United Nations Security Council stopped off in Mazar-e-Sharif on a tour of Afghanistan. They used the visit to urge local leaders to abide by a series of measures announced in late October to wrest control of private militias from powerful local leaders in the north, and sack provincial officials allied to them.


The general pledged to comply with the decision to merge the military units he controls with a rival militia led by another powerful figure, Atta Mohammad.


Dostum's Eighth Corps and Atta Mohammad's Seventh have engaged in periodic territorial clashes in recent months. Interior minister Ali Ahmad Jalali - with support from the United Nations office in Afghanistan and the British-led Provincial Reconstruction Team, PRT, in Mazar-e-Sharif - engineered a truce the latest outbreak of fighting in October, and followed it up with a set of terms which he indicated were non-negotiable. The plan is to create a single, much-reduced force, place a neutral figure appointed by the government in charge of it, and incorporate it into the new Afghan National Army.


"I am ready to merge the two military corps, the Seventh and the Eighth," said Dostum. "I will accept it if a commander comes from Kabul and is in charge of them, because before these decisions were adopted, I had proposed the same thing."


Dostum was referring to his appointment as security and defence adviser to President Hamed Karzai in May this year, when he was tasked with restructuring military units including Atta Mohammad's - a job he was poorly placed to do since the two forces were still at loggerheads.


But although he accepted the changes, Dostum complained, "I do ask that the government consult us before making decisions."


When the measures were first announced, they received public endorsement from Atta Mohammad but Dostum was unavailable for comment, though there was no indication he would oppose them.


The real question is whether they will produce fundamental changes in the way power is held in northern Afghanistan. Some observers are sceptical that Dostum and Atta Mohammad will be neutralised so easily, since unraveling the links between political power, military force and commercial interests is such a huge task.


One early test will be whether Atta Mohammad and Dostum obey the stipulation that they relocate from the north to Kabul, where they are to be given new posts. The former has agreed to the move, and according to Jalali, so has the latter.


After talks in Mazar-e-Sharif, the German ambassador to the UN, Gunter Pleuger, who headed the mission, told a news conference that the two men had pledged to support UN-led efforts to promote security.


"The factional clashes should stop in Afghanistan, because fighting is an action which may have been needed in the past but not now," said Pleuger. "The regional leaders should give their full backing to the decisions adopted by the central government."


Dr Pleuger also called for tax revenues collected in the provinces to be sent to the central government in Kabul. Retention of locally-collected revenues by regional leaders and commanders continues to be a problem, especially in border areas like Balkh province where customs duties are a big earner. The money is a major contribution to keeping local power brokers in place while simultaneously starving Kabul of funds.


The visiting ambassadors also raised the issue of opium production, and how to clamp down on it. This too has a major impact on stability in the provinces as the local warlord economy is kept afloat by informal taxes on producers, even when these leaders are not directly involved in the narcotics trade themselves.


Afghanistan is the world's biggest producer of opium poppies, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC, estimates that this year's production of raw opium - the basis for heroin - will be the second-highest seen in the last decade. More areas are under cultivation than last year, as farmers switch from wheat, barley and vegetables to grow the more lucrative crop.


"Our farmers are preparing to plant narcotics right now," said Habibullah Habib, brought in as governor of Balkh province as part of the government's shake-up. "The [UN delegation's] arrival is a timely and a positive step to stop them doing this. But the government should provide some financial assistance for our farmers."


Balkh and neighbouring provinces of north-west Afghanistan are relatively insignificant opium producers by Afghan standards, but are following the national trend with a sharp rise in cultivation - UNODC figures show that Balkh province alone saw a 400 per cent annual increase in the area under poppies this year.


A spokesman for the PRT in Mazar-e-Sharif, Captain Tom Barker, told IWPR that the UN delegation's visit "brought a very powerful message - that in the future, Afghanistan will not be sliding backwards, but improving".


Ahmad Nahim is an IWPR contributor in Mazar-e-Sharif.