Saturday, February 9, 2008

Is an Afghan civil war on the horizon?

This week, Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum (see photo) made headlines when he (or just his henchmen) invaded the home of his Kabul neighbor and former ally Akbar Bay, himself an ethnic Turkmen. Dostum, who is from Jowzjan province in the north of Afghanistan, has been living in Kabul and holds the position of Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief of the Afghan armed forces. (The commander-in-chief is President Karzai, who gave Dostum the largely ceremonial position apparently under the principle of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer.)

Dostum's men beat up and abducted Bay and brought him back to Dostum's house, where security forces soon arrived to see Dostum, allegedly drunk, taunting them from atop his fortress. Bay was released and proceeded to tell the authorities of how Dostum broke into his house along with some 60 armed men and accompanied by two members of the Afghan parliament, Hashem Ortaq and Alem Sayee. The police then laid seige to Dostum's home through the night.
... But as the police attempted to make arrests, protests broke out throughout the northern provinces where Dostum has his power-base. In Jowzjan, Sar-e-Pul, Faryab, Balkh, and Samangan, hundreds of men poured into the streets to condemn the police action.

In Jowzjan’s capital, Shiberghan, where Dostum has his headquarters, his supporters burned down the office of Akbar Bay’s organisation.

Akbar Bay is a former Dostum ally who broke with the general and his Junbesh-e-Milli-ye-Islami (National Islamic Movement) party last year to form his own party, the Shura-ye-Turktabaran-e-Afghanistan, or Turkic Council of Afghanistan. ...

Dostum’s political party, Junbesh-e-Milli, encouraged the protests. Sayed Noorullah, the party’s leader - Dostum has officially distanced himself from direct involvement in Junbesh - held a press conference in Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, to voice outrage at the treatment of the general.

“Those who attacked Dostum’s house want to destabilise the situation in the north,” he thundered. “Dostum is not alone: all the Uzbek and Turkmen tribes are with him. This siege is not within the remit of the interior ministry. Dostum stands above the interior ministry.” ... (link to IWPR article)
The comment about Dostum being above the interior ministry is echoed by the Attorney General of Afghanistan, Abdul Jabar Sabet. (See an earlier blog post here on Sabet, who lived for a time in Montreal.)
... Sabit suggests that Dostum is such a powerful commander in northern Afghanistan that, in the current security environment, he might be above prosecution. "Anyone who commits a criminal act must be brought to justice," Sabit says. "But in reality, I must admit that there will be some difficulties. In this war situation, in many cases, it is difficult for us to implement the law."

Sabit says that "because of the war there is no law, and you cannot implement the law in the south of the country or in many districts -- even in those places where the rule of law does exist, sometimes we cannot enforce the law over some people." ... (link)

Some worry that Dostum could jump ship from the Karzai regime. If he and his forces did begin to resist Karzai's rule, that could spark a civil war. This isn't the first time such fears have surfaced over Dostum. Nearly four years ago, forces loyal to Dostum invaded and occupied the capital of Faryab province, next door to Dostum's home in Jowzjan. This show of force followed closely a similar conflict in the western province of Herat, where the Tajik warlord Ismail Khan defeated government troops. The Guardian warned of civil war.

In a case if deja-vu, The Guardian this week again notes the specter of civil war:
A fresh British force with extra firepower is to be sent to Afghanistan as the US intensifies pressure on other European allies in an increasingly urgent attempt to prevent the country from collapsing into civil war. ...
The Guardian piece continues with more ominous signals, including the undermining of the Karzai regime:
Attacks from improvised explosive devices and mines have increased by 69% over the past year, according to Nato .

The IISS yesterday said Britain and its Nato allies were in danger of undermining Karzai, who faces elections next year, by cutting their own side-deals with local leaders. It cited the appointment of a former Taliban commander as the mayor of Musa Qala on the recommendation of the British. The US and Afghan governments have criticised UK plans to train and arm community defence forces and attempts to persuade Taliban fighters to change sides. ... (link)

So how real is the threat from Dostum? Afghan political analyst Fazel Rahman Oria sums it up this way: “Dostum is putting pressure on the government. He wants to show people that the government is subject to him. And, indeed, this is true". (See IWPR article, same as above.)

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