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Afghanistan's Underbelly: The Exposed North

Abdul Rahid Dostum
Abdul Rahid Dostum

MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan -- The roar of gunfire has stopped, and the bullet-riddled homes have been rebuilt, but the horrors of civil war are seared into the memories of residents here.

"You can't see signs of the devastation anymore," says Abdul Hamid, who runs a grocery store in central Mazar-e Sharif. "But everyone here remembers those dark days."

The capital of Afghanistan's northern Balkh Province has undergone a huge transformation since then, and today is arguably the country's most modern and liberal city. Music blares from cafes and karaoke bars that line the streets. Women fill the parks and chatter over the muezzin's call for prayers that emanate from the city's grand mosque.

But it was not so long ago that Mazar-e Sharif was the setting for deadly street fighting between forces commanded by Atta Mohammad Noor and Abdul Rashid Dostum.

During a devastating civil war from 1992-96, Dostum and Noor were locked in a pitched battle for control of the north -- with Mazar-e Sharif a highly strategic prize. After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the two warlords went at it again until a power-sharing agreement three years later stopped the fighting. Under the deal, Noor was given control of Balkh Province, while Dostum was able to retain his significant influence in surrounding provinces.

INFOGRAPHIC: Afghanistan's New Northern Flash Points (CLICK HERE FOR SPECIAL REPORT)

Considering the former warlords' adversarial history, residents of Mazar-e Sharif can be excused for reacting with alarm upon hearing that northern Afghanistan's security largely depends on a Noor-Dostum alliance.

Risky Strategy

Desperate to thwart a major Taliban offensive to take all of northern Afghanistan, Kabul has set on a strategy that hinges on the two powerful former warlords working together.

In announcing their "coalition" in June, they spoke as politicians -- Dostum as first vice president of the country, Noor as the governor of Balkh Province. But their reputations as strongmen and the prospect that they could mobilize their old militias give cause for angst.

They couldn't be farther apart, politically. Noor is an ethnic Tajik and former mujahedin commander in the Islamist Jamiat-e Islami political party. The ethnic-Uzbek Dostum is a communist-era general and former militia commander who leads the Junbish party. The two parties, both of which were backed by heavily armed forces, were deadly rivals as they vied for control of Kabul and the country's north after the collapse of the communist regime in the 1990s.

Now Noor is an entrenched regional leader with a strong-arm reputation who can call on his former militia members for support if needed, while Dostum is a player in Kabul with a strong-arm reputation who has the backing of the president and Afghanistan's security forces.

Abdul Hamid at his food store in central Mazar-e Sharif
Abdul Hamid at his food store in central Mazar-e Sharif

For his part, Noor gave assurances in an interview with RFE/RL on June 23 that he and Dostum had set aside their differences and intended to inflict a "powerful blow" to militants. But the strategy hatched in Kabul to address security in the increasingly unstable north is fraught with danger.

This is because, if the alliance were to break down, the ensuing fallout could exacerbate deep ethnic and factional divisions, give rebirth to the warlords' old militias and possibly rekindle the civil strife seen in the 1990s.

Iron-Fist Rule

Noor has accumulated enormous power in Balkh, where he has ruled as governor for 12 years. He has his share of critics, who in hushed voices accuse him of monopolizing power and ruling like a dictator.

But many Balkh residents support him for establishing law and order in the province, among the last oases of stability in the north. Some even affectionately call him the "Savior Of The North."

"His monopoly on power is the price we have to pay for the security we have," says a resident of the capital who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Security is more important for us than food."

"If anyone tries to remove him we will rise up," says Asadullah, a butcher. "We will start an uprising."

"He has given us what we want above all else," says Hamidullah, an ethnic Uzbek shopkeeper. "The whole north would crumble if it wasn't for him."

Upon taking office last year, President Ashraf Ghani made a concerted effort to sideline warlords that were seen as being too close to the presidential administration. Just months ago, Ghani was reportedly putting intense pressure on Noor to resign.

But that was before the Taliban launched a spring offensive focusing on the northern provinces and the emergence of stark divisions in Kabul on how to deal with the threat.

Realizing that Balkh was once again the key to the north, Kabul began to see Noor as indispensable to its northern security strategy.

Tactical Allies

The timing for a Noor-Dostum alliance couldn't be better.

Noor has expressed a keen interest in being more involved with decisions made in Kabul. He has blamed the "weak" central government for the deteriorating security situation in the north and has blasted presidential nominees for defense posts.

Making nice with Dostum both wipes Noor's slate clean in the eyes of Kabul and puts him in position to build influence in the Afghan capital.

Dostum played a crucial part in Ghani’s election victory -- securing the bulk of the ethnic Uzbek and Turkmen electoral blocs. And on paper he is one of the most powerful members of the government. But in reality his role has been largely ceremonial and his star has fallen of late.

A market in Mazar-e Sharif
A market in Mazar-e Sharif

He has complained about being marginalized by the president and has become frustrated by the indifference to his decades of fighting experience and leadership.

An alliance with Noor gives Dostum, who hails from the northern Jowzjan Province, both a bigger role in Kabul and an opportunity to reestablish his former powerbase in northern Afghanistan.

Both also possess the wherewithal to influence broad segment of the population up north -- Noor as head of the primarily Tajik Jamiat-e Islami party, and Dostum as leader of the Uzbek/Turkmen-dominated Junbish party.

Recognizing the importance of getting the two groups on the same page, the government recently sent a delegation to Faryab Province to encourage civilians to unite against the Taliban and foreign militants on the offensive in the north.

"The coward enemy adopts various plots to split our people under the pretext of the Junbish and Jamiat-e Islami parties, and to start war between the brother tribes," Mawalawi Asadullah Jamali, the head of the provincial peace council, said on June 15. "Now, as a lesson from bitter experiences, it is time for these groups to wake up."

Rearming Militias

Skeptics of the strategy question where Noor and Dostum will get their muscle.

Both have said that under their new relationship they will jointly command local forces across the north, but there are fears that they will turn to militia fighters for help.

In an interview with RFE/RL in June, Noor gave assurances that he had not and would not arm militias. But there is mounting evidence that it is taking place in his backyard.

"The government has been supplying us with weapons," a commander of a newly formed militia in eastern Balkh tells RFE/RL on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. "We get a salary of 10,000 afghanis ($160) every month to defend our village."

The commander said his fighters had received Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades from the provincial government.

"The soldiers are scared to leave their posts," he says. "The provincial government is arming us and telling us it's our responsibility to protect ourselves."

The commander also indicated that some of the newly formed militias in Balkh have been trained by the Interior Ministry and absorbed into the Afghan Local Police. But he says many militias are acting independently, raising the question of whether they can be controlled.

Noor rejects all these claims as "baseless propaganda."

Fearful Anticipation

One Pashtun tribal leader in southern Balkh, who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, said that during the day militias fight the Taliban but during the night they "prey on villagers."

"In Balkh, there are three different kinds of Taliban: the militias who are the Taliban, the governor's Taliban, and [spiritual leader] Mullah Mohammad Omar's Taliban."

The tribal elder said militiamen were exhorting taxes from them, burning their crops, making arbitrary arrests, and even killing and raping villagers.

"The region is being flooded with weapons," says the tribal leader. "Nobody knows which are the soldiers, police, militias, or militants. Everybody is fighting and killing each other."

The violence has forced thousands of people from Balkh and other provinces to flee to the relative safety of Mazar-e Sharif.

But away from the provincial capital, in the far-flung districts and villages of Balkh, few dare to leave their houses.

"We can't leave our homes because the Taliban are bombarding our villages," says a Pashtun tribal leader in Balkh's east -- where an unholy army of pro-government militias, independent armed groups, and the Afghan Army is already fighting the Taliban. "During the night, it's the turn of the militias. There's no respite."

As another tribal elder sees it, all the ingredients are there for another civil war.

"You can arm everyone and think everything will be fine," he says. "What happens when they kick the Taliban out? They will turn on themselves just like they have previously."

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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.