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Worry-Free Warlord: Fugitive Afghan Militia Leader Is Hiding -- In Plain View

FILE: Afghan militia leader Nizamuddin Qaisari.
FILE: Afghan militia leader Nizamuddin Qaisari.

Considering he is a fugitive Afghan warlord, Nizamuddin Qaisari has done little to conceal himself.

The militia commander fled arrest in December following deadly clashes between his fighters and government forces in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.

Since that December 16 incident, which killed eight of his men and led to the arrests of dozens, Qaisari has been an outlaw. He is accused of extortion, murder, and torture.

Yet photos on social media show the ethnic Uzbek strongman in public, attending sports events and posing for pictures with locals and his loyal militia members in northern Afghanistan.

Qaisari's case has highlighted the struggle of the weak central government in Kabul -- which exerts little power outside the capital -- to rein in powerful and politically connected warlords who often act with impunity.

Warlords and their militias have been tolerated by Kabul for years -- even sometimes funded by the U.S. military -- as a stopgap measure for providing local protection while Kabul focuses its security resources on fighting the Taliban elsewhere.

But many militias have been accused by locals of human rights abuses, and President Ashraf Ghani has attempted -- though often meekly -- to crack down on unruly commanders.

Posing With Admirers

In his first public appearance since he fled arrest, Qaisari was photographed attending a game of buzkashi, an ancient sport that is a brutal version of equestrian polo played with the carcass of a dead goat instead of a ball.

Afghan journalist Mukhtar Wafayee tweeted several photos from that big gathering, saying they were taken in the city of Sheberghan, the provincial capital of Jawzjan Province, on January 31.

Other photos from the same event show Qaisari sitting in a large chair, surrounded by locals as people take pictures. In one photo, an Afghan Army soldier poses with the warlord.

Mysterious Release

Qaisari is an ally of fellow ethnic Uzbek warlord and Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, who fled to Turkey in 2017 after he was accused of involvement in the rape and torture of a political rival.

Dostum, who is accused of rights abuses that stem decades back, has denied the charges.

Abdul Rahid Dostum (file photo)
Abdul Rahid Dostum (file photo)

Dostum returned to Kabul in 2018, spending most of his time in his stronghold of Jawzjan Province. The Kabul government has been unable or unwilling to arrest him and put him on trial.

Authorities arrested Qaisari in July 2018, sparking violent protests in the city of Maimana, the provincial capital of Faryab Province, where he was a district police chief.

Protesters marched in the streets, setting fire to vehicles and parts of the governor's compound.

Qaisari resisted attempts to arrest him and clashes erupted between his militiamen and government forces. At least four of Qaisari's men were killed. He was eventually detained and transported to Kabul, where Ghani hailed his arrest as a major victory in the fight against militias.

But months later, Qaisari was mysteriously freed and was seen conducting interviews and staging rallies in northern Afghanistan. The government failed to explain his release. It is believed Qaisari was released as a result of an intelligence failure or as part of a preelection political maneuver.

In December, Afghan special forces surrounded Qaisari's residence in Mazar-e Sharif, where he resided with around 150 of his fighters. Qaisari again resisted arrest, sparking an hours-long battle in the heart of the country's fourth-largest city. Qaisari managed to slip to safety.

'Commander Sword'

The case of Qaisari and other abusive militia commanders has exposed the ethnic fault lines in the country.

Ghani is a Pashtun, the largest community in Afghanistan, and is viewed with suspicion by many within the country's ethnic Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara groups.

In November 2018, authorities released on bail a militia leader accused of human rights abuses following days of violent demonstrations because of his detention.

Abdul Ghani Alipur (file photo)
Abdul Ghani Alipur (file photo)

Abdul Ghani Alipur, the leader of a private militia in central Afghanistan, was arrested in Kabul weeks after an earlier attempt to arrest him in the central province of Ghor ended in a shoot-out in which at least 12 people were killed.

The release of Alipur, a member of the country's mainly Shi'ite Hazara minority, came after two days of violent demonstrations in which hundreds of Hazara protesters clashed with police in Kabul.

Alipur, known as Commander Sword, has said he was simply protecting Hazara from the Taliban, a group that is made up mainly of Pashtuns.

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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.