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Afghan allies turn enemies
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - Almost two years since the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai's writ barely runs in the country. While in the Pashtun-dominated south his government remains under pressure from a resurgent Taliban, the situation in the north, though less reported by the media, is far from secure. In the northern provinces it is not the Taliban who are stirring trouble, but militias, which in some cases are nominally loyal to the government.

As for the situation in Kabul - where the government's authority supposedly holds sway - it is said to be worrying. According to the commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led International Assistance Security Force (ISAF), Lieutenant-General Gotz Gliemeroth, a "new species" of well-trained terrorists have infiltrated Kabul. Intelligence reports suggest that the terrorists are from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and come from the Russian republic of Chechnya.

Meanwhile, thousands of young men are said to be swelling the ranks of the Taliban. According to Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani specialist on Afghan affairs, around 2,500 Taliban fighters are waiting in Balochistan (Pakistan) to cross into Afghanistan before the onset of winter. The Taliban are said to have bought 900 motorcycles in the past three months in the Quetta region, and another 250 in Loralai. Taliban fighters on motorcycles roam Afghanistan's rural areas attacking aid agency vehicles and isolated police posts, Rashid writes. An upsurge in Taliban attacks has resulted in the death of at least 400 Afghan soldiers, aid workers and civilians and four American soldiers since August.

But even as the international media remain focused on the deteriorating security situation in the south, fierce fighting between rivals in the northern areas is emerging as another serious problem.

Early last month, troops loyal to General Abdul Rashid Dostum clashed with fighters close to General Ustad Atta Mohammad. The skirmishes took place around the town of Fayzabad, 60 kilometers west of Mazar-e-Sharif. About 50 people were killed.

Ironically, Dostum and Atta Mohammed are on the same side in the larger war in Afghanistan. Both are nominally loyal to the Karzai government, and control large forces that formally come under Defense Minister Mohammed Qasim Fahim.

Dostum is Deputy Defense Minister in the Karzai government and Karzai's special representative in the Mazar-e-Sharif area. Atta Mohammed, a regional commander in the same area, is close to Fahim. The two belong to the powerful Jamiat-e-Islami faction of the Northern Alliance.

Mazar-e-Sharif has for over a decade been Dostum's turf. Things started changing with the fall of the Taliban in late 2001 and the coming to power of a Tajik-dominated government, when Atta Mohammed's influence in this area began to spread rapidly. A battle for control of turf in Mazar-e-Sharif and surrounding areas became inevitable, and frequent clashes resulted. Last month's fighting is said to be the most serious since the fall of the Taliban. Under a truce agreement reached last month, the fighting corps of the two rivals are to be merged and integrated into the new Afghan national army.

A UN-sponsored Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program, which aims to disarm up to 100,000 private militiamen across Afghanistan, has recently become operational in several areas, including Mazar-e-Sharif. Besides disarming the militiamen, it aims to help them either return to civilian life or to integrate into the Afghan army.

However, there is considerable skepticism over how successful the DDR will be in its mission. Those who have armed militias wield power and are the most important political players in Afghanistan today. It is unlikely that they will agree to give up their weapons too easily.

For instance, Fahim controls a powerful militia. Few expect him to disarm it. In a recent interview, he claimed that the Tajik militiamen are not part of a private army but are loyal to the government and will form the core of a future Afghan national army. His statement has not convinced his rivals. Their suspicions have deepened as the Defense Ministry - which Fahim heads - is among those supervising the disarming program.

Incidentally, Fahim's militia fighters still occupy strategic points in and around the capital, Kabul. They still play a key role in the US-led operations against the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the southern provinces. This explains the US reluctance to act against militias like those controlled by the defense minister. The ISAF commander spoke of the need to remove heavy weaponry from Kabul, but did not identify any group or faction by name, but the order was seen as being directed towards Fahim's fighters.

The security situation outside Kabul has worsened over the past year. This is evident from the fact that the "no go" areas for aid workers are increasing, and half of Afghanistan's provinces are regarded as high risk for aid workers.

The continuing clout of the private militias is being blamed on the delay in deploying the ISAF outside Kabul to disarm the warlords. It was only some weeks ago that the UN Security Council mandated the expansion of ISAF outside Kabul. But so far no foreign government has sent its forces to hotspots like Mazar-e-Sharif or Herat, to the west of the country on the border with Iran.

Only the Germans have sent 450 troops. And that deployment is at Konduz, an "island of peace" by Afghanistan's standards. Despite its ethnically mixed population of Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, Konduz is largely free of the factional fighting visible in other parts of Afghanistan.

But the Germans might not find their stint at Konduz quite so incident-free. Konduz is one of the prime poppy growing areas in Afghanistan. And while fighting the narcotics trade is not part of the Germans' mandate, their role in Konduz is likely to help tackle the poppy cultivation. General Mohammad Daud, the Afghan military commander at Konduz, told the AFP news agency that the German troops would be asked to help fight local poppy farming. "We don't need them for security, we need them because of opium."

Analysts believe that the presence of the German troops at Konduz could help the UN and aid workers fight the poppy cultivation here. A UN report "Afghanistan Opium Survey 2003" that was released on October 29 points out that Afghanistan now produces three-fourths of the world's opium output. Opium production increased from 2002 to 2003 by 6 percent, and the area under opium-poppy cultivation increased by 8 percent - 28 of Afghanistan's 32 provinces now produce opium, the report says.

Two years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan is in the news for all the wrong reasons.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Nov 5, 2003

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(Oct 30, '03)

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(Oct 15, '03)

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