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Old Rivals Attempting Uneasy Cooperation In Northern Afghanistan

Abdul Rahid Dostum
Abdul Rahid Dostum

MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan -- For more than two decades, the bloody rivalry between General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Governor Atta Mohammad Noor has shaped the political landscape of Balkh Province, northern Afghanistan’s economic hub.

With the new leadership in Kabul poised to appoint new provincial governors, the two archrivals are struggling to coexist in a new political environment while exploiting fissures within Afghanistan's national unity government.

In the first few years following the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001, the forces of Dostum under the banner of his Junbish-e Milli party and Noor's forces under the banner of the Jamiat-e Islami faction fought each other to control areas in northern Afghanistan.

Their armed rivalry ended in 2003 when the United Nations and the Afghan government jointly began implementing the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) program. Dostum and Atta have competed for power ever since.

In last year's election, Noor, an ethnic Tajik, backed Abdullah Abdullah for the presidency and strongly opposed the eventual power-sharing agreement that resulted in Abdullah assuming the broadly undefined post of chief executive officer in the new government.

Atta Mohammad Noor
Atta Mohammad Noor

After the first round of last year's presidential election failed to produce an outright winner, heated verbal argument erupted between the old competitors. Dostum indirectly referred to Noor as a coward in a speech, and in retaliation Noor said Dostum was worse than the Taliban.

Following the victory of his running mate Ashraf Ghani in the presidential race, Dostum has secured the vice presidential post in the new government. While he remains popular among Uzbeks and other Turkic ethnicities, it is Noor who remains the province’s acting governor, a post he has held for more than a decade.

Though their coexistence in the current government makes for an uneasy alliance, the current arrangement is not unprecedented. For a short span beginning in 2012, relations between Dostum and Atta were cordial due to an alliance between Junbish-e Milli and Jamiat-e Islami under the banner of the National Front (Jabh-e Milli). By the 2014 presidential elections, the alliance had disintegrated.

The continuing friction between Noor and Dostum was on full display at a flag-raising ceremony during the Afghan new year or Norouz celebrations on March 21. The event was delayed for more than an hour after a last-minute dispute erupted between the two politicians.

When the festivities finally got under way, the men delivered contradicting speeches about Afghanistan’s ongoing peace talks with the Taliban and the ethnic and historical origins of Norouz.

The public spat is illustrative of the ongoing turf war between Junbish-e Milli and Jamiat-e Islami.

While both factions officially laid down their weapons 12 years ago, its members have regularly locked horns in bloody skirmishes since 2003 and continue to accuse each other of stockpiling arms.

"These hostilities exist in every province of the country, but in Balkh Province they are more pronounced because Balkh is the economic lifeline of the north," says Noor's spokesman, General Abdul Sabor Sabor, who heads his party's youth wing in northern Afghanistan. "Its control is vital to these factions."

But Turkistan University Dean Mohammad Arif Shamsi, a senior Junbish-e Milli official and a close friend of Dostum's, says Junbish is "thinking at the national level" and "has no need" to involve itself in clashes with other factions or amass illegal weapons.

"From Balkh, Junbish directs its overall political activities but is now stretched beyond the province," he added. "At the national level, it has filled the post of the vice president, so in Balkh it has a foothold and in the rest of the country it has power."

Filling Balkh’s gubernatorial post could prove troublesome for the Afghan unity government, whose fragilities have already been exposed by the drawn-out process of cabinet appointments. (To date, the post of defense minister remains unfilled.)

Balkh is an important card for both Ghani and Abdullah. Although most Balkh voters supported Noor's ally Abdullah in the April 2014 election, Dostum wields considerable influence among the province's Uzbek and Turkic communities. But Noor maintains a large following and patronage network due to serving as the region's governor since 2004.

Sabor stressed that Atta "is not keen on any post or governorship" but added any appointment should "ensure stability in the country."

"[Atta] has very credible information compared with the government system," he added. "That is why Balkh is ahead in security compared with other provinces, and these circumstances may not be available for him in other provinces. He knows this province like the back of his hand. He knows who is a thief and who is not."

On behalf of Dostum’s camp, Shamsi said Junbish would accept the unity government if it appoints "someone worthy of the governor's post."

In the opposite case, Shamsi added, "Junbish will render its reservations to the president's office."