Simmering tensions between the supporters of two former warlords in northern Afghanistan raise the specter of a rekindled rivalry in the multi-ethnic region bordering Central Asia.
Supporters of General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Governor Atta Mohammad Noor participated in rival demonstrations in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif on March 22. Some of the protesters were reportedly armed.
The demonstrations followed outrage over the removal of several portraits of Dostum that had been prominently displayed on billboards overlooking busy intersections in Mazar-e Sharif.
The city is the provincial capital of Balkh, where Noor serves as acting governor. His domination of the key economic hub came at the expense of Dostum, who effectively ran a fiefdom comprising Balkh and several neighboring provinces in the 1990s.
Dostum's angry supporters held their demonstration after authorities in Mazar-e Sharif first tried to prevent them from marching, saying only residents of Balkh could protest in the province.
According to the law social, [political] and civil society organizations have the right to organize such activities," said Azizullah Kargar a senior leader of Dostum's Junbish-e Milli party. "These are civilized acts [protests]. God forbid we were not launching a rebellion, violence, or illegal actions."
Kargar said they wanted to protest the removal of Dostum's posters from various squares on the eve of Afghan new year's, March 20. Mazar-e Sharif hosts one of the biggest celebrations of Norouz -- the spring equinox that marks the beginning of the new year in Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asia.
Nobody knows exactly who took down the photos that sparked tensions between the supporters of the two leaders. Dostum's Junbish-e Milli attracts the backing of fellow Uzbeks who make up nearly 10 percent of Afghanistan's estimated 30 million people. His return to Balkh was challenged by Noor, a Tajik commander of Jamiat-e Islmai.
The two groups clashed in northern Afghanistan during the civil war between 1992 and 1996. Their hostilities resumed after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. But fighting stopped in 2003 when the United Nations demobilized some of their supporters and Noor won control over Balkh because of a political understanding.
Since then, the competition for power between the two has continued. The threat of the Taliban overrunning their strongholds briefly united them last year, but that alliance seems to have crumbled now.
Shahbaz Iraj, a media adviser to Dostum, had a stern warning for Noor's supporters.
"Don’t prevent peaceful protests in Mazar-e-Sharif, and try not to silence the voices," he wrote on his Facebook page. "When a stream of water is interrupted, it turns into a flood."
Noor's reaction, however, was more measured. He ordered Mazar's municipality to put Dostum's photos back.
"I believe that ripping off or removing of some images of General Dostum is the work of thugs and those who are trying to disrupt security," he wrote on his Facebook page. "We will not allow anyone under any circumstances to disrupt the peace and security of our city."
The episode attracted some sarcastic comments from Afghan elites. Without naming anyone, former Afghan spy chief Amrullah Salih offered this advice to the former warlords.
"People and movements that work for the welfare of the society find a place in the hearts of the people. They do not need to hang their pictures over public squares and doors," he said.