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Return Of Militias To Afghan Front Lines Sparks Allegations Of Abuses

Abdul Rashid Dostum first vice president of Afghanistan during a military operation in Faryab province in August.
Abdul Rashid Dostum first vice president of Afghanistan during a military operation in Faryab province in August.

Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum recently returned to his roots.

One of the country's most notorious former warlords, the chameleonic 61-year-old ethnic Uzbek left Kabul in July and charged up north, rallying armed villagers, his old militiamen, and Afghan security forces to battle Taliban militants threatening to overrun his native homeland in northern Afghanistan.

On his return to the capital this week, reportedly following a narrow escape from a Taliban ambush, Dostum declared he had "cleared" swaths of territory from the grip of the Taliban and other antigovernment militants.

But locals in areas now under control of the militias complain of a range of abuses at the hands of the irregular forces, renewing fears that Kabul's handover of command to a man widely suspected of permitting or personally ordering wartime atrocities in the 1990s and 2000s could severely compromise the government effort.

Gross Abuses?

In Faryab, a multiethnic province in the northwest along the border with Turkmenistan, residents have accused militiamen fighting under Dostum's banner of rape, extortion, arbitrary arrests, and theft.

"After Dostum secured our area, the militias looted our homes and stole our motorcycles," says a resident of Faryab's Qaiser district who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. "Can't the Afghan vice president control his own forces?"

"They're thieves and are without any honor," says a resident of Pashtun Kot district who also spoke on condition of anonymity. "They entered our homes and took away our women."

Dostum has denied raising independent militias, saying those fighting under him are "uprising forces."

Sayed Abdul Hashemi, Faryab's provincial security chief, also denied that such militias were mobilized in Faryab. Hashemi said the claims were "Taliban propaganda" intended to derail the government's military campaign in the province.

The militias have entered a chaotic battlefield that has pitted the Taliban, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) militants, Islamic State fighters, and foreign gunmen against Afghan National Army soldiers and National Police as well as U.S.-trained, pro-government village militias known as Afghan Local Police.

Abdul Rashid Dostum -- back to his roots?
Abdul Rashid Dostum -- back to his roots?

But residents say the abuses are being committed specifically by Dostum's forces, which are made up mainly of ethnic Uzbeks and Turkmen.

"The police and army haven't stolen a penny from us or bothered us," says a resident of Maimana, the provincial capital, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The culprits are Dostum's former commanders and militiamen."

Fears Of Civil War

There are concerns that the return of the militias –- many with fluid loyalties and organized along ethnic lines -– could drag Afghanistan back into the chaos of the 1990s, when militias waged a devastating civil war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

Locals speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan say they have witnessed increasing fighting between local militia commanders for control of areas.

"The militias are just taking the role of the Taliban," says a farmer in Qaiser district, adding that militiamen stole his entire harvest and burned down his home. "Nothing has changed, it has just gotten worse."

The government has been reluctant to rearm militias for fear of sparking factional and ethnic fighting in the country. The irregular groups, frequently organized along ethnic lines, have been seen as a last resort.

There was intense wariness by Kabul to get Dostum directly involved in the conflict because of his protean past.

A onetime communist boss whose own 20,000-strong militia patrolled northern Afghanistan during the war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s and the civil war of the 1990s, Dostum's forces at the time are though to have resorted to rape, looting, and grisly executions -- including crushing criminals with tanks in public executions.

He has been accused by rights groups of involvement in the deliberate killing of up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners in shipping containers, either by shooting or suffocation. He has denied the allegation.

This latest two-month trip to the front lines was officially described as a morale-building tour, despite Dostum coordinating the war effort from his palace in his home province of Sar-e Pol.

But with the overstretched Afghan security forces struggling to hold territory, former warlords and strongmen like Dostum in the region have turned to militias to hold back the militants.

Government Forces Struggling

Afghan pro-government forces are largely fighting the Taliban alone for the first time now after the majority of foreign forces left the country last year.

The insurgents have been waging a fierce offensive in the country's previously relatively peaceful north, where they have threatened to overturn entire districts.

Since July, the Taliban -- estimated to number more than 3,000 in the north -- have captured hundreds of villages across the Faryab, Sar-e Pol, and Jowzjan provinces. The fighting has displaced some 30,000 civilians in Faryab alone, according to humanitarian aid agencies.

Dostum has claimed he "liberated" the region of militants. But reports suggest dozens of villages have already fallen back into Taliban hands in recent days.

"Nothing has changed in the last two months," says another resident of Maimana speaking on condition of anonymity. "The Taliban has been replaced by militias. The violence continues and our struggles are multiplying."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.